Archive for the ‘Writing and ChatGPT’ Category


Artificial intelligence has finally arrived in a big way in the form of its latest edtech innovation, OpenAI’s ChatGPT.  The intelligent chatbot which surfaced in November 2022 can spin well written essays and even solve mathematical equations in seconds. It could well be what is known as a ‘game changer’ in education, particularly in the higher grades, colleges and universities.

Teachers everywhere are awakening to a new reality: assignments requiring regurgitation are fast becoming obsolete and classroom practitioners will have to up-their-game to stay one step ahead of the robots. That’s a tall order for school systems accustomed to moving at a glacial pace. It’s also a lot to expect of teachers in the wake of the pandemic education setback.

The initial wave of reaction to ChatGBT hit like a tsunami and most of it sounded apocalyptic. San Francisco high school teacher Daniel Herman’s feature article in The Atlantic, “The End of High School English” (December 9, 2022) predicted the worst.  Teenagers, he wrote, have “always found ways around hard work of actual learning,” from Cliff’s Notes in the 1950s, to “No Fear Shakespeare” in the 1990s to You Tube videos and analysis in recent years. For most, writing an essay, at home or in school was the moment of reckoning. You were “on your own with a blank page, staring down a blinking cursor, the essay awaiting to be written.”


The arrival of ChatGPT, a tech marvel that can generate sophisticated written answers to virtually any prompt, customized to various writing styles, will likely further erode school writing programs. It will also, in some cases, signal the end of writing assignments altogether, eliminating writing as a critical skill, a recognized metric for intelligence, and a teachable skill.

One of North America’s leading authorities on literacy and cognitive science, Natalie Wexler, responded to such dire predictions with a short essay in Forbes (December 21, 2022) in defense of continuing to teach writing at all levels. While ChatBGT may be able to produce good essays, she claimed, that did not make writing obsolete.

Millions of students, at all levels, including PSE, continue to struggle with their writing. In the United States, Wexler reminded us, only 27 per cent of Grade 8 and Grade 12 students performed at the proficient level or above in recent national assessments.  In other words, most students lack proficiency in expressing themselves in writing.

Surveying Canadian student writing assessment scores, based upon incomplete data from province-to-province, indicates that our students only perform marginally better.  One April 2019 York University study of Ontario undergraduate university students found that some 41 per cent of 2,230 students self-reported that they were “at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills” and some 16 per cent indicated that they were totally lacking in the required skills, particularly in writing, test taking, and academic study skills.

Writing involves far more than acquiring a skill. Here Natalie Wexler explains why: “When done well, [writing] isn’t just a matter of displaying what you already know—although it’s crucial to have some pre-existing knowledge of the topic you’re writing about. The process of writing itself can and should deepen that knowledge and possibly spark new insights. So when students use ChatGPT, they’re not just cheating whatever institution is giving them credit for work they haven’t done. They’re also cheating themselves.”


Writing also has significant related benefits. When students write about something they are studying – in any subject – it provides ‘retrieval practice’ and improves their retention of the material. Building their store of knowledge in their long-term memories makes it, in turn, easier to acquire more knowledge. “Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro,” Marilyn Jaeger Adams reminded us. “The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension…”

Explicit writing instruction, beginning with the sentence, also helps students understand the texts they have been asked to read. “The syntax of written language is more complex than that of spoken language, with constructions like subordinate clauses and the passive voice,” writes Natalie Wexler. “Many students don’t just become familiar with that syntax through reading. But when they learn to use those complex constructions in their writing, they’re in a much better position to understand them when they encounter them in text.”

An initial alarm about ChatGPT was sounded in December 2022 by South Carolina college professor Darren Hick who caught one of his students cheating by using the chatbot to write an essay for his philosophy class.  The essay on David Hume and the paradox of horror was found to be machine generated and Hick imposed a sanction for plagiarism. It was a test case for what is sure to  follow from the Winter Term of 2023 onward.  Reacting to reports of such cases, New York City public schools, America’s largest school system, decided to “block” access to ChatGPT in all of its schools.

The incursion of Chat GPT will likely have disastrous consequences if teachers are now deterred from teaching or assigning writing in their classes. Coming out of the pandemic, we now have a serious literacy crisis, varying in severity from province-to-province, here in Canada. With so much emphasis on correcting reading deficits, student writing does not get the attention it deserves. The last thing we need is a technological innovation that makes it easier for students to progress without actually mastering writing.

Will classroom teachers be up to combating the invasion of the writing bot? Will school systems attempt to block access to the technological marvel? Will we look for technological patches like TurnItIn.com, reprogrammed to detect, identify and counteract plagiarism, the outward expression of breaches in academic integrity? In the initial phase, will it come down to a battle between rival bots?

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