Why the NYC Department of Education is Wrong on ChatGPT

A system-wide ban feels like fear instead of curiosity, defense over offense, convention over adaptation.

The most recent iteration of ChatGPT was released on November 30, 2022. ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence bot that was trained on an enormous pool of information to engage in simple conversations with users.

Within a week, the AI bot had acquired over one million clients. And as K-12 schools began winding down for the calendar year, ChatGPT was making headlines around the world.

You’ve likely heard the buzz already, but in case you have yet to try it, ChatGPT is to Google what Google is to a set of encyclopedias.

Google is a master curator and locator of information, but ChatGPT has the ability to quickly aggregate and mobilize that information on a level the world has never seen.

If you haven’t seen ChatGPT at work, watch it perform these school-related tasks [9:48]:

  1. Design a lesson plan for an 8th grade civics class
  2. Compare the evolution of protagonists from two different novels
  3. Describe how the water cycle affects Vancouver, BC
  4. Calculate triangle side lengths using the Pythagorean Theorem
  5. Write a campaign speech for middle school president
  6. Suggest solutions for anxiety and loneliness
  7. Write a love poem for a special friend (and then make it spicier)
  8. Write a short story with specific character names

ChatGPT is just the latest manifestation of the growth in AI we’ve seen in recent years. And we know it’s only going to get better.

Enter the NYC Department of Education

Schools across North America were only a few bright days into the new year when the news came down from the NYC Department of Education, the largest school system in the United States: ChatGPT would be banned in all of their schools.

I can understand the fears and concerns about how this technology will impact K-12 education. I think we all can.

Like I said to my wife this week, this technology has permanently changed the way that I read and think about student writing. How can it not?

But I think a blanket ban is the wrong response.

Here’s why.

4 Reasons Why a System-Wide Ban on ChatGPT is the Wrong Call

Let’s start at the most basic, practical level.

1. A ban on a particular website is practically impossible.

NYC can only blacklist websites on school wifi networks, so students will still be able to access ChatGPT when they’re at home, off-campus, or using any device with access to a data network. Since students can obviously still use ChatGPT for homework, a school wifi ban doesn’t mean too much.

One has to wonder if a ban is actually more counter-productive to its own aims by simply raising the profile of the forbidden fruit in question.

2. Whack-a-mole isn’t sustainable.

ChatGPT has certainly grabbed the headlines, but there are plenty of other similar tools out there. And more are appearing all the time.

Quillbot.com is an AI paraphrasing tool that appears to render classic plagiarism checkers useless. TinyWow.com offers a whole suite of free AI writing tools.

Premium (paid) AI writing services such as Jasper.aiShakespeare.ai, and Rytr.me all claim to be able to deliver spectacular results to marketers.

The point: if the district strategy is to ban these tools as they appear, there will be another new tool to ban every month. That doesn’t feel like a strategy that will age well over the years to come.

3. Like wifi, Google, and YouTube before it, ChatGPT is just another step forward for learning tools.

It wasn’t long ago that schools were banning YouTube on their wifi networks rather than leveraging the world’s largest library of video resources to support learning. They opted for the safety of zero exposure rather than do the work of teaching best practices and applying skills of discrimination.

Even before the arrival of YouTube, many schools wrestled with the question of having a wifi network at all. As silly as these questions seem today, they were important conversations at the time.

Of course, Google itself has become a much smarter search engine over the years, prone to serving up large-font answers to closed questions (“How far is the sun from Earth?”) before listing any search results.

Because of this Google Effect, schools and educators have been moving away for some time now from a focus on strictly “Googleable” information to a more nuanced approach to critical thinking.

For example, instead of asking students to memorize the names of all 45 presidents (content which is very Googleable), we ask them to critique the legacies of particular presidents based on currently relevant policy issues.

Content is still important for students to learn. We know that a mass of knowledge forms a necessary foundation in order for students to learn more, make distinctions, draw conclusions, and establish new theories about their world.

But the power of Google has put downward pressure on the importance of content memorization — of that, there can be little doubt.

Like YouTube and Google before it, ChatGPT is just the latest application that will change the way we think about teaching, learning, and assessment.

These powerful technologies are here to stay. Let’s embrace them.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

4. The biggest reason: a ban sends all the wrong signals about learning and mindset.

In December of 2022, ChatGPT forced the world to reckon with an AI tool that could complete complex tasks in seconds. There’s no doubt that things will never be quite the same.

Who will be the most excited to play with this tool? Our young learners.

Students of all ages will share our child-like fascination with the possibilities. And well they should: this is clearly a technology that will only grow in significance throughout their lifetimes.

Sadly, I fear that a school ban sends all the wrong signals about technology and the nature of learning. It feels like fear instead of curiosity, defense over offense, convention over adaptation.

It looks like head-in-the-sand, I-hope-this-goes-away kind of thinking. And that’s not the approach of a lifelong learner.

I’m not suggesting that every teacher should give their students unfettered access to these tools. There will be times to close computers and show evidence of learning and critical thinking using pencils and paper, just as there are in classrooms today.

But there should be other times to play. To experiment. To learn together — teachers and students, sitting side by side, engaging, thinking, and talking about what it will look like to leverage ChatGPT and similar tools in constructive, powerful ways.

Closing thoughts

Whenever I come up against a difficult decision in our schools, I run it through this tried-and-true filter:

  1. What is best for our kids?
  2. What is best for learning?

Banning the latest technology from our schools just doesn’t feel like a great answer to either of those questions.

Listen, there’s no doubt that the path ahead will be challenging, and these tools will require new approaches.

But growth doesn’t happen in the comfort zone. Let’s lean into uncomfortable spaces and do what we do best: learn.

Together, let’s shape the nature of thinking and work in 2023.

Dancing, Coding, and Changing Identities with Small Wins

You have to become the type of person you want to be, and that starts with proving your new identity to yourself. — James Clear in Atomic Habits

It was December 28, 2012, and I had just finished co-MCing a wedding reception for my cousin Rachel and her new husband, Dan.

The first dances were complete, and the dance floor was now open to everyone. The music was live, the crowd was jumping.

But I wasn’t out there grooving. Instead, I was grabbing a drink and meekly joining the group of dads and uncles standing at the back of the room.

Why wasn’t I out there dancing? I had lots of reasons.

I was single. Everyone else on the dance floor seemed to have a partner. I didn’t feel great about finding my way into the public love-fest only to dance alone.

I felt older than most. I mean, looking out at that dance floor, the median age appeared to be 25ish. I was a bald and ancient 33 years old. Obviously a poor fit for that scene.

Plus, my dancing skills were subpar at best. I had limited experience with dancing and wasn’t comfortable busting my lame-o moves in front of all those critical eyes.

I mean, the last thing I needed was to completely embarrass myself in front of witnesses. There were some cute girls in that crowd. No need to sabotage dating opportunities before they had a chance to materialize.

And so there I stood, sipping a beverage, talking to dads and uncles and observing the dance floor from a respectable distance.

Playing it safe. Avoiding the struggle.

Pushed to My First Win

Enter Hannah, my wonderful sister-in-law. She was having no part of my spectating. Across the room she came, on a mission to get me out to the dance floor.

It took a little convincing, but it worked. With Hannah’s urging — she wasn’t really asking — I followed her out to the dance floor.

Smiles greeted me as soon as I appeared, and I instantly started to relax. I threw down some simple moves, gingerly and self-consciously at first, and then slowly started ramping it up as the minutes and songs crept by.

Before long, I was in the thick of things, laughing and having the time of my life as I danced it up with family, cousins, and friends.

That’s me on the left … dancing my way to a changed identity!

A Small Win Paved the Way for a Change in Identity

In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about what it takes to change your habits. It starts, he argues, by gradually changing your identity.

In my case, a part of me wanted to be the guy who dances at weddings. But I couldn’t get there. My fears and hesitations held me back. Instead, I lived an identity of a guy who didn’t dance at weddings.

What it takes to change that identity, Clear says, is a series of small wins. It starts with one appearance on the dance floor. Then another. Then another. Over time, I would change — not what I did or how I behaved — but who I was.

And that’s what I did. It helped, of course, that in 2014 I started dating a beautiful and amazing woman who comes absolutely alive with joy on the dance floor.

Over time, I became the guy who always dances at weddings. And birthday parties. And concerts. And other random get-togethers or celebrations. I get out there.

My moves still aren’t awesome. As my sister-in-law Elaine likes to remind me, my moves are still “classic white guy.”

But I’m okay with that, because I’ve broken the barrier. With a series of small wins, I’ve changed who I am.

I’m now the guy who dances at parties.

Identity Struggles in Our Learners: I’m Not a Coder

Sometimes I see this kind of identity struggle in my students.

I see it when we spend time on coding, for example. This year, I’ve been leading my 8th graders through an introductory Khan Academy course on Javascript. The course is beautifully laid out, with video tutorials, step-by-step instructions, and lots of room for open-ended solutions.

The WHY of Coding: Building a Growth Mindset

At the outset of our coding unit, I spend a good deal of time talking about our WHY. This course is about far more than Javascript, I explain. It’s about building the habitudes and transferable life skills that students will need wherever they enter the 21st century economy.

Computational thinking is about identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions. It’s about building the mental skills of confidence, persistence, tolerance for ambiguity, and the ability to deal with open-ended problems.

I’ve taught this unit for a few years now, and in my experience most students tend to embrace the challenges of the module and engage with the problems wholeheartedly.

But without fail, the struggle of identity rears its ugly head for some students after just one or two coding sessions.

“I’m not good at this, Mr. Cavey!”

“I can’t do this!”

“This sucks!”

This isn’t the majority of students, by any means. But predictably, there are one or two or three who quickly decide that coding isn’t for them.

I’m not a coder, they believe.

Sure, a part of them would like to be whiz through the module and become a Javascript expert. But the work just feels too hard. Answers and solutions aren’t coming easily. And the fears start to set in.

I might never be able to figure this out, they think. I’ll look ridiculous. And that will confirm my worst fears about who I am.

And so the choice to quit becomes increasingly attractive. If they can get away with it, these identity strugglers will try to check out completely: go off-task, surf the web, do anything but bear down and really engage with the task at hand.

Helping Our Learners Earn Small Wins

It is here that we must shine as educators. As Hannah encouraged me and urged me onto the dance floor, we must push our students into the productive struggle. Help them get some wins, however small. Show them that they are capable. Show them the power of YET.

For some learners, they’ve embraced narratives and identities of failure for so long that it takes quite a few wins to help them believe again. To help them see that a different destiny is possible.

To take them from I’m not a coder to maybe I CAN do this. Maybe I CAN solve problems. Maybe I CAN find solutions. Wait a minute … I AM a coder!

If I can help my students get there, that’s an incredible win. Because that’s a mindset shift, a change in identity. And once they’ve tasted the thrill of victory, they may never look back.

It won’t always be possible. I think we do fellow educators a disservice when we argue that we must inspire every discouraged learner and motivate every single student. Because try as we might, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. We can’t control every variable, and that doesn’t make us failures.

But we can try. We can encourage. We can model risk-taking. And we can help our learners earn those small but critical wins.

In so doing, we can restore hope. We can alter narratives. We can change identities.

Thanks, Hannah, for pushing me out to the dance floor. You helped me earn my first win on the way to a changed identity.

And for our discouraged learners, that’s my goal too. Help them get that first win.