One Day, AI Will Make Teaching Obsolete. As Educators, We Have a Different Role to Play.
This past spring, I overheard one of my fifth graders boast that he would start using ChatGPT to do his homework. I chuckled because I knew him well enough that he wouldn’t follow through. Frankly, I would have been thrilled that he did any homework, even with assistance. I’d already read many stories about ChatGPT in the news, and initially, I wasn’t concerned that the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) would impact my teaching. I assumed we’d work around it, or better yet, incorporate it in meaningful ways.
However, after listening to a TED Talk featuring Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, demonstrating the use of AI tutors in his school, I realized that my days of teaching traditional math content and language arts skills are numbered. It won’t be long before there’s an AI that can teach students how to compare fractions better than I can, or one that can listen to students read and identify the specific decoding skills or vocabulary they need to improve their comprehension. That should scare me, but it doesn’t.
The reality is, as much as I love teaching my content, I don’t have the capacity to do the individualized planning to support every child’s learning. There isn’t time in the day to give them immediate feedback on their work or sit with each student and guide them through it. Could Khanmigo do it? Perhaps.
I could worry about losing my job, but I also see an upside. The arrival of AI gives us an opportunity to talk about what teachers do that goes beyond learning content and practicing skills. Specifically, we can focus on our roles as human and social engineers, helping to develop young people and creating the world of the future in collaboration with them.
What Matters in My Classroom
Embracing the identity of every student is central to what I do as a teacher. Allowing them to be who they are and helping them to blossom into who they want to be happens when academic goals aren’t the only important thing. This can be as simple as when I cheered on the Ghanaian national soccer team during the World Cup to connect with a student whose father immigrated from there or provided time and space for a student fascinated by seashells to draw and categorize her collection, fostering a lifelong passion for science and nature that’s allowed her to study marine biology abroad. By teaching students how to find their voice and explore their passions, we’re setting them up for a future in which their identities are valued and they feel empowered to pursue their dreams.
It also means knowing and understanding that kids experiencing life changes, traumatic events or mental health struggles need space to express their feelings and the safety of knowing they can escape their challenges for a little while. Imagine if the purpose of my job was to deeply know and support each child in my care, instead of it being something I’m supposed to squeeze in between academic goals? The AI could focus on how they are doing in math and I could focus on who they are becoming as people.
At an end-of-the-year picnic, I ran into a former student on the playground who returned to visit friends. She seemed like a different kid who was more positive and open than I knew her to be. She told me that she felt like she learned to care more about others in my class and believes she’s a better person now because of her experience. One routine that made a difference for her was our weekly appreciation circles where students share something positive they saw another student doing during the week. She learned to pay attention to others and practiced kindness, empathy and gratitude. The community we built during that year influenced the value she placed on others. We need human connection to develop, and schools are integral to growing those abilities in every child. I could pour even more energy into helping kids learn how to build community if AI helped them build their academic skills.
Last year, I had two students come back to visit me. During their visit, we reminisced over the map-making project about explorers that we did when they were in my fifth grade class. The district set the curriculum, but the medium of creating maps to share what they learned was a decision I made based on my observations of the students in the class. My class loved to doodle, so I decided that if they were going to be drawing all the time, they should do it for a purpose. We researched explorers, took trips to practice mapping and investigated a local collection of historical maps. My former students didn’t remember the specific facts they included, but they remembered doing draft after draft of their maps – they persevered, grew their skills and had fun along the way.
My classroom is centered on rich content and integrated projects that allow students to collaborate, be creative and experience growth. I have a scope and sequence to follow, but I adapt my teaching to the students in front of me each year and what they need. As exhausting as it is, I rarely teach the same unit in the same way; I’m constantly re-examining it through my students’ eyes and what they need. This requires an understanding of the students in the class, something we can’t ask AI for. This past year, when we studied the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas and the genocide that followed, I considered the experience of a student in my class, who is Taíno, the first peoples of the Caribbean who encountered Columbus. It made no sense to continue reading textbooks and articles saying the Taíno were gone when that was plainly false. Instead, we talked about how those stories came to be and whose interests they served. She felt seen, and the whole class understood how history can be incomplete and why the stories we tell matter.
This is another way that human teachers are essential. By constantly adapting our curriculum, we have the ability to critically examine the culture we’re sharing and work to change the beliefs and messages schools transmit. I wouldn’t rely on AI to unearth new understandings and find hidden stories. Large language models that drive AI are built on the past and the beliefs and biases that have shaped us are baked into the texts that those models use to learn. Robot teachers are more likely to recycle and reinforce the status quo than change it. Our ability to critique the past and evolve from it is why human teachers are vital.
Becoming a Different Kind of Social Engineer
I know there are myriad concerns about bringing AI into our schools. Those concerns are another reason we must recognize teachers’ role in shaping society. In the absence of ethics and values to drive the deployment of AI, its arrival in schools is a risk. We know that technology may negatively impact children’s mental health and social relationships, and AI could make this worse. Teachers are on the front lines of helping students navigate new technologies and the messages that bombard them. My class discussions regularly include conversations about pop culture, videos, song lyrics and memes to try and unpack and process the ideas they spread. The stream is so constant that teachers need to be there to help kids make sense of it all.
I believe AI has the potential to help students grow their academic knowledge and skills and give teachers time to do more of the human development and social engineering that is an essential, if not under-recognized, part of our work. If social engineering sounds controversial, it shouldn’t be – at least not in the context that we are most familiar with the term. Schools and educators have always played a role in shaping society, and while technology and media have too, educators are publicly accountable. Doing the work of developing people and community should happen out in the open, through the public and democratic forum of schools and the guidance of human teachers.
Sitting on the sidelines and claiming that we only teach content isn’t going to be enough in the future. If my only function is teaching academic skills, I should worry about becoming obsolete. We need to claim responsibility for developing young people, building community and shaping the world our students will live in.
My student who wanted to use ChatGPT for his homework struggled academically in my class. I wasn’t successful in teaching him much content, but I was one of the few adults in the building he trusted. He knew I believed in him and wanted him to be his best self. I gave him experiences that stretched and helped him build community with others. It was hard but necessary work, and I wish I could have done more to help him grow socially and academically.
AI gives us an opportunity to reinvent the role of teachers to focus more on the human development and social engineering we constantly do. I’m shaping society and creating the future every day in my classroom. We can’t ask a computer to teach kids how to be human, but if AI can allow me to make sure that my students flourish as people, then I can get on board.