ChatGPT will fundamentally change how we teach writing; that’s a good thing Trendynewsbro

Credit: Alison Yin / for EdSource (2014)

A student works in the library at Skyline High School in Oakland.

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT has forced educators to confront foundational questions about what we teach and why. One of the most important questions is: in the age of AI, what types of writing will students still need to master to be successful in life?

To answer this, we must scrutinize the high-stakes, standardized writing assessments like the ACT/SAT and AP exams. Because of the outsized influence they have traditionally had on students’ access to college, many teachers align their writing instruction to mimic them, reducing the art of writing to generic, five-paragraph essays.

The fact that ChatGPT can churn out a standardized essay in seconds calls into question whether it is actually the best assessment of writing or critical thought. For example, a writing prompt from the ACT college entrance exam asks students to write an essay on the relative risks and benefits of artificial intelligence. It provides students with 2-3 sentence summaries of three contrasting perspectives and asks students to write a “unified, coherent essay” and to “develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples.” (The AP English & Composition exam and SAT use similar structures.)

This task contains several problems. Assessments like these ask students to quickly compose an authoritative argument about a topic on which they have little knowledge, essentially asking students to feign expertise. Students have not been taught about the topics; yet they must plan and write within forty minutes. Thus, what is being assessed is not only writing, but also background knowledge, reading comprehension and time management skills. Some might argue that those elements can never be assessed in isolation from writing, and that is precisely the point. In order to fairly assess writing, we need to provide students with adequate time to research and think deeply about their topic, plan their essay and revise. This task is a poor approximation of the authentic writing students do outside of school, and a poor approximation for the extended writing assignments they will encounter in college or in the workplace, where they will have opportunities to research, plan, receive feedback, and revise. Yet, we still rely on them to make decisions that have profound impacts on students’ opportunities.

But, the ACT writing prompt is precisely the type of writing that ChatGPT does well. One journalist used ChatGPT to write a passing AP English essay, and others have tried experiments with similar results on other standardized writing assessments. ChatGPT essentially works by using enormous data sets to predict the next word in a sequence given the preceding words. By design, it is very good at producing writing that conforms to standard forms and conventions.

So, if computers make this type of writing obsolete, what kind of writing should students do instead? Think about the types of writing that are difficult to outsource to machines.

An example is writing about current events. At present, ChatGPT is trained on data that stops at 2021; its “knowledge” of the world after that is limited. Teachers could shift their writing assignments accordingly. Rather than asking students to write about historical events in isolation, social studies teachers could challenge them to draw connections between past and current events. English teachers could incorporate more contemporary literature or ask students to place “canonical” literature in conversation with contemporary issues. The pace of technological advancement suggests ChatGPT will soon “catch up;” yet, its limitations in this area offer possibilities for teachers to make writing more relevant for students.

Teachers could also encourage students to do more personal and creative writing. ChatGPT is trained on nearly 600 GB of data, mostly from the internet. Because of this, its writing is inherently impersonal. It is often generic, better at mimicking the style of others than producing an original voice. Providing students with more opportunities for personal and creative writing positions them as experts and helps them develop their unique voice.

Most importantly, teachers should continue using writing as a mode of learning. Writing serves many purposes beyond transmitting information. One of the most important is that it is a form of learning. The process of researching, planning, drafting, and revising helps writers consolidate ideas and clarify thought. This requires educators to reorient much of what they have learned in their teacher training or as students themselves. It requires a shift away from formal writing as an assessment of knowledge and towards informal writing as a mode of learning.

Finally, as important as what type of writing teachers assign is how they teach writing. Instead of reverting back to timed, paper-and-pencil essays, teachers should see this moment as an opportunity to do the things we wish we had time to do anyway: allocate class time for planning, supervised drafting and revision, and timely feedback throughout the process.

ChatGPT and AI pose real and consequential risks for educators and students. But they also present a window of opportunity to accelerate needed re-imagining of what we teach and why. Teachers, administrators, and policymakers should recognize this opportunity and begin the difficult work of change.


Christopher Mah is a PhD student at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. His research focuses on literacy, technology and teacher education.

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