As the advanced placement language and composition teacher at a public high school, I, like most teachers, am aware of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence (AI) computer program threatening to disrupt composition as we know it. Currently, ChatGPT is in the early stages and, as such, the essays or texts it produces lack of sophistication, tone, a unique perspective. But it has the potential to improve.
A student recently asked me, “Who will ever need to learn to write if a computer can?” I thought for a moment and told him that I’d have to write an essay to answer that one. Honestly, I am not wholly concerned and, actually, relatively intrigued.
Technology and all it brings to a society and humanity will always have some long-lasting impacts, some positive, some not so much. AI is a technology. Technological developments have always advanced our society, allowing individuals the ability to do something faster, more efficiently, more safely or more intentionally.
As such, AI should not be viewed as inherently bad, wrong, immoral or harmful. In fact, as we cautiously welcome the fact that computer-generated text really is here, we should not be fearful but see it for what it is: a tool.
Indisputably, a big change is upon us. Much discussion corroborates the idea that recent developments of AI will drastically alter education as we know it. Education typically shifts as society does, and I expect that how writing is taught will undergo a transformation, just as it did when computers first entered the classroom.
However, these advancements will not change what we teach to writers. Just as students still need to learn basic addition and the multiplication tables even though we have calculators, students will still need to learn the basics of writing: the grammar, the syntax and the structure of an essay. In both situations, the exercise of learning these basics helps a student’s brain develop and grow, and the information learned allows for the manipulation of — or recognizing the manipulation of — words.
Words and the established writing conventions allow members of a society to communicate with others competently and effectively. What we teach will not drastically change, yet what may need to be made more explicit is the why.
Why would, or should, one write if a machine can do it better, faster and easier? This perception holds that technology can effectively replace writing. I beg to differ. AI creates a product. Writing an essay, however, is so much more than a product; it is a process.
In fact, the noun “essay” has a secondary meaning: “a try or attempt.” It is only through the process of writing that students learn. They learn what they think. They learn how they think. They learn why they think. They learn to challenge themselves. They learn what interests them. They learn what interests others. They learn they are interested in something. This is something AI will never learn.
The process of writing allows us to not only learn but think, feel, dream, inspire. That same process allows us to create something unique, to present an old thought in a new form, to communicate in a way so that another will understand.
A product created by a machine can never replace the process of thought nor the reward that process brings. The product itself is shaped by the process. This is the why.
Linda Hora is an advanced placement language and composition teacher at Miramonte High School in Orinda. She holds a master’s degree in composition and has taught high school students in the Bay Area for almost 20 years.