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Banning AI in Schools is the Wrong Move

By Rebecca Strauss and Will Lidwell

All over the world, educational institutions from universities in France and India to large K-12 school districts in Australia and the U.S. (including New York City, Baltimore, and Los Angeles) are blocking access to ChatGPT, the viral new AI-powered chatbot that generates astonishingly complex writing about an enormous range of subjects and which has spurred a tsunami of educator-penned essays bemoaning the death of student prose. In announcing the New York City ban, the spokesperson cited “negative impacts on student learning and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content,” arguing that “it does not build critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success.” And last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District similarly blocked the site in order “to protect academic honesty while a risk/benefit assessment is conducted,” says a spokesperson for the district.

These are the same arguments that were made when schools tried to ban access to calculators in the 1970s, computers in the 1980s, and the Internet in the 1990s — and for the very same reasons. In retrospect, of course, those arguments look quaint. The calculator eliminated tedium and inefficiency, empowering students to engage in higher-order mathematical thinking. The advent of the Word processor liberated writing instruction from the mechanics of cursive, grammar, and spelling so that students were able to unleash their creativity and imagination on the page. Early computer games like The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego brought history to life. And by opening up the archive of human knowledge, the Internet transformed how students conduct research, access information, and understand and interpret the world.

Depriving students of the opportunity to engage with such world-changing technology — whether the calculator, computer, Internet, or ChatGPT — is tantamount to educational negligence. It’s also futile: what could be more intriguing, attractive, or compelling to a student than a tool their school has banned? Another all-too-familiar round of hand-wringing, avoidance, and outright bans is simply the wrong move. Rather, educators must adapt curricula and instructional strategies to integrate, harness, and leverage the power of AI to enhance, not hinder, students’ critical thinking.

For example, Avenues Online — the virtual campus of our own organization, Avenues The World School — has integrated Savvy, a chatbot that uses the same AI language model as ChatGPT. Students can direct-message Savvy just as they would their teacher to seek support on everything from why World War I began to when to use the quadratic formula. By utilizing Savvy as a first-stop resource for these kinds of more generic questions, student-teacher interactions become more personalized, more engaging, and — above all — more focused on learning. But Savvy isn’t just an interactive chatbot. It’s also integrated into the design of the curriculum. For example, students might be asked to quiz Savvy on the parts of a cell until they find a question that actually stumps the chatbot. In so doing, they hone their own knowledge, use critical thinking and reasoning skills to identify holes in Savvy’s knowledge, and help Savvy learn new knowledge that can benefit future students. Savvy can also be utilized in more open-ended assignments. For example, students might interpret a poem by Langston Hughes, ask Savvy to do the same, and then compare their own response to the bot’s in order to consider multiple points of view on the poem’s meaning. Savvy even supports students’ wellbeing and social-emotional development: students can work with the bot to develop personalized study strategies or seek help in coping with sensitive issues that they might be hesitant to open up about with an adult, such as bullying or anxiety.

Despite what the school district bans might seem to signal, AI tools like Savvy and ChatGPT are not the enemy of education. In fact, they might be best understood in terms that Steve Jobs famously used to describe the computer: as a “bicycle for the mind.” By amplifying human ability to spectacular magnitudes, these tools can work to increase students’ cognitive flexibility, creativity, and critical thinking, unlocking wholly new ways of learning and thinking. If a computer is a bicycle for the mind, AI is a rocket ship.