AI and the purpose of school

At the Senior School assembly on 16 June, Dr Golsby-Smith talked about AI, not by way of a warning to students, but in regard to the purpose of school and gaining an education.

PLC Sydney asking the question: How do we use AI well?

At the beginning of this year, while most of us were getting ready to come back to school, I was walking in the summer sun - remember that? - about three blocks from here. As I crossed the road on my walk, I happened to join up with a crowd of teenagers, I would say about Year 9 or 10. And I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying. They were talking about AI and school. “It will write your essay for you”. “It will write it so well, your teacher can’t possibly pick it up”. “It can write an essay in minutes”. And so on. Their excitement was falling all over each other, one excited exclamation after another. They were talking about the technological revolution about to hit us here at school. ChatGPT; or Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer. It is a large language system that can “write”, if you give it instructions.

Now. What am I going to say next? It sounds as if I should say something about how shocking this is, about how terrible it is to cheat. I could wag my finger here. I could talk to you about what cheating is. I could also talk to you about women of integrity and purpose and how PLC Sydney women don’t cheat.

But I am not going to do that today. I am going to tell you that I WAS concerned about what these young people had to say. Instead of being concerned about cheating, I am going to talk about a different problem with you. I think that what these young people had misunderstood is not just the purpose of exams - although they had certainly done that. What these young people misunderstood was the purpose of school. They had misunderstood what knowledge is, and what we are trying to do here with you every day.

One of the mistakes that these young people were making, in my view, is that they had assumed that the thing we are doing in schools is to move towards assessment tasks, at all times. If assessment IS the purpose of schools, then yeah, I could see the temptation of ChatGPT to help you along. And you might be forgiven for thinking like them, I think, given the media coverage and the airtime that the HSC is given from time to time. But what if assessment is NOT the purpose of what you are doing here, today?

What ARE us teachers doing with you every day in these classrooms? The other day, I received an email from an old student, called Nami. I had taught her in Standard English. She is now a successful bilingual marketer, writing English social media content for Japanese corporates, and also spends time translating for Japanese artists and musicians. She wrote to me to tell me THREE things that school taught her, which she didn’t realise she was doing at school until it was done.

  1. LOVE. It will not surprise those of you who hear me talk often enough that this was a theme. Nami told me she learned to LOVE her subjects, and wanted to tell me so.
  2. WORK: Nami told me she learned to work hard, learning that this work would get you somewhere. To value both the rhythm of hard work but also enjoy its benefits.
  3. SHAPING THE WORLD: Nami said here, that she learned to make the world a better place, to think always of the ways in which her work would impact others, and in her words, “a chain of positive impacts”.

Nami is right about this. School is about love. It is about growing your brain, learning to love, and learning to shape the world around you. And assessments, are a part of this.

What does this have to do with AI?

If we can’t keep our eyes on what we are doing here at school - LOVE, WORK, AND SHAPING THE WORLD - then we will not know how to use AI well. If we can remember what we are doing here, then we will know how to use AI.

One of the most important things to remember about ChatGPT and other AI products like it is this: AI does nothing, is nothing, produces nothing, unless you ask it something. It is you who gives AI life. It is you who gives AI direction. It is you who makes AI in your own reflection. The big mistake that these young people I overheard in January were making is that they assumed and exclaimed over the power ChatGPT had, and yet they could not see that it was THEM that had the power to decide what it was that ChatGPT would do. It was THEM that decided, even, to give it power by talking about it.

AI does nothing, is nothing, produces nothing, unless you ask it something. It is you who gives AI life. It is you who gives AI direction.

Dr Sarah Golsby-Smith

Last week, Ms Halkidis and I met with the SRC to talk to them about AI. We wanted to know what your experience is, and how we can support you and work with you to do this well. And so, at the beginning of next term, we have asked the SRC to have a conversation with you about ChatGPT and other open AI products that you might be using. We want to start a conversation with you, and I need you to be honest and open and smart - like the wonderful PLC Sydney girls I know you to be - about your ideas.

But to have a good conversation, we need to know what we are talking about. Remember these things: school is not about assessments. It is about YOU. It is about you learning to love, learning to work hard, and learning to shape the world.

If we can agree on those things, then I think we can work together to use AI, instead of AI using us.

Dr Sarah Golsby-Smith

Head of Learning and Teaching at PLC Sydney

Sarah has also taught in both government and independent schools, as well as across co-ed and both single sex schools i.e. girls schools and boys schools.