The end of the high school essay
There’s not a lot of evidence that getting good at writing book reports or regurgitated essays under typical high school conditions leads people to success or happiness later in life.
When typing became commonplace, handwriting was suddenly no longer a useful clue about the background or sophistication of the writer. Some lamented this, others decided it opened the door for a whole new opportunity for humans to make an impact, regardless of whether they went to a prep school or not.
New York City schools are trying to ban GPT3 because it’s so good at writing superficial essays that it undermines the command structure of the essay as a sorting tool. An easy thing to assign (and a hard thing to grade) just became an easy task to hack.
High school essays had a huge range of problems, and banning the greatest essay device since Danny Dunn and his Homework Machine is not the answer. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to find a better way forward.
The first challenge of the essay was the asymmetrical difficulty in giving useful feedback. 30 essays, 5 minutes each, do the math. It doesn’t scale, and five minutes isn’t even close to enough time to honor the two hours you asked a student to put into the work.
As a result, the superficial inspection system led to the second challenge: Students get more points for good typing and clear sentence structure than they did for actually thinking deeply, questioning the status quo or changing their minds. If you grew up in a household with verbally agile family members, you probably did way better on essays than your peers, but not due to much effort on your own.
The third challenge was the lack of clarity about why we were even bothering to have kids write essays. Clearly there wasn’t an essay shortage. Ostensibly, it was either to prove that they read what they were supposed to read, or that they were able to create cogent and persuasive arguments and analysis. Essays were a signal that you could read and you could think.
They were actually a signal that you could do just enough work to persuade an overwhelmed teacher that you were compliant.
So, now that a simple chat interface can write a better-than-mediocre essay on just about any topic for just about any high school student, what should be done?
The answer is simple but difficult: Switch to the Sal Khan model. Lectures at home, classes are for homework.
When we’re on our own, our job is to watch the best lecture on the topic, on YouTube or at Khan Academy. And in the magic of the live classroom, we do our homework together.
In a school that’s privileged enough to have decent class sizes and devices in the classroom, challenge the students to actually discuss what they’ve read or learned. In real-time, teach them to not only create arguments but to get confident enough to refute them. Not only can the teacher ask a student questions, but groups of students can ask each other questions. Sure, they can use GPT or other tools to formulate where they begin, but the actual work is in figuring out something better than that.
At first, this is harder work for the teacher, but in fact, it’s what teachers actually signed up to do when they become teachers.
This is far less cohesive and controllable than the industrial model of straight rows and boring lectures. It will be a difficult transition indeed. But it’s simple to think about: If we want to train people to take initiative, to question the arguments of others, to do the reading and to create, perhaps the best way to do that is to have them do that.
We’ll never again need to hire someone to write a pretty good press release, a pretty good medical report or a pretty good investor deck. Those are instant, free and the base level of mediocre. The opportunity going forward remains the same: Bringing insight and guts to interesting problems. [More.]