opinion AI can be really dumb. But it's still a good tutor.

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I understand why parents are unhappy with the proliferation of computers in school, as my opinion colleague Jessica Gross has documented in a recent series of newsletters. “One way or another,” he wrote in one piece, “we have allowed the tentacles of Big Tech into every aspect of our children's education, with little oversight and no real evidence that they tools or programs that improve educational outcomes.”

I am optimistic, however, that artificial intelligence will turn (some) haters into fans. AI can customize lessons based on each student's ability, learning style and even outside interests. For example, imagine teaching ratio by showing a Yankees fan how to update Aaron Judge's batting average. AI can also give teachers and parents the detailed information they need to support their young charges more effectively.

As I wrote last month, there is a danger that AI will replace human labor and eventually make us all redundant. How much better for us to have AI teach us, develop our strengths so that AI becomes a complement to, rather than a substitute for, human labor.

There is no guarantee that this good vision will indeed come to pass. The worst AI could just turn into a more sophisticated drill machine or an electronic babysitter. My bottom line for this is the same as Grose's, which is that the use of devices and apps in school “should be driven by educational institutions, not tech companies.”

I've never taught, so I checked this newsletter with my two nieces, who are both science teachers. One teaches at a middle school in Connecticut, the other at a high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. More on those in a minute.

I admit that AI is probably more of a headache than a blessing for teachers right now. Generative AI – which can write a perfectly grammatical essay on any topic in seconds – is perfect for cheating. This shouldn't be much of a problem in the long run, though, because the AI ​​is really good at detecting AI-generated content (it takes a thief to catch a thief.)

Another problem with AI in education is that it sometimes gives wrong answers. When a Wall Street Journal reporter tested Khan Academy's AI-powered tutor Khanmigo earlier this year, the software miscalculated subtraction problems such as 343 minus 17.

Or take this inexplicable answer from ChatGPT when asked how a man and a goat with a boat could cross a river:

The man first takes the goat across the river, leaving the boat on the original side. Then, the man returns alone with the boat. He releases the goat on the other side and steers the boat back to the original side. Finally he carries the cabbage across the river.

This funny paragraph shows how big language models are really nothing more than automation on steroids. He had apparently swallowed many puzzles involving boats, goats and cabbages.

That's okay, though. AI can be useful without replicating human intelligence, just as a wrench or hammer or screwdriver can be useful without replicating human characteristics.

“It's not that AI is going to answer questions,” Jonathan Grier, who founded the education tech company Imagine Learning in 2011, told me. “What it's going to do is change the process by which teachers teach, children learn and parents support.”

Emma Bratton, director of digital learning at North Carolina State University's Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, told me that the lesson of the past two decades in ed tech is to focus on teacher augmentation, not replacement. which were previously unfathomable.”

This goes back to Groce's idea that ed tech needs to be tailored to the needs of teachers. Often this was not the case. “A lot of times ed tech is put into classrooms through sensationalism, word of mouth, 'Hey, let's try this,'” said Steven Ross, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University's School of Education. I

When I wrote about Khan Academy's Khanmigo a year ago, I had no idea that it would have math problems. This week I spoke with the company's chief learning officer, Kristen DeSerbo, about this and other challenges. He said the company has taken four steps to correct the math. One is that when the software detects that math is being done, it sends the problem to the calculator to get the answer. (How human is he.)

He also said that Khan Academy tries to remind students that Khanamigo may be their friend, but it is not human. And not just because it might occasionally go wrong. “As a society we need to wrestle with what it means if people start building relationships with technology,” he said. “Sounds like a slippery slope.”

I'll end with some thoughts from my wonderful nieces. Abigail in Los Angeles isn't quite into tech. “I would love to teach in a low-tech school that bans smartphones in the classroom,” she told me via email.

Still, he finds a number of uses for AI. To develop a list of new problems of stoichiometry practice, “he wrote. She also finds it useful to “rephrase scientific articles to help students with disabilities” and to help Advanced Placement students “brainstorm topics and research questions.”

Amy in Connecticut told how, while teaching a unit on plate tectonics involving Mount Everest, she found an article about it in the Times that was above her students' reading level. “ChatGPT helped me make it an accessible text,” he wrote. Chet GPT also helped her find her seventh graders, complete with rhyming prompts. “It turned something that would have been tedious into a task that only took a few minutes.”

My nieces have learned how AI can help, not just hinder. If they can do it, so can others.

Taking the system into isolation, keeping the gains up will certainly help. However, I like to look at things from a macro perspective. Federal deficits are eroding national savings and investment. I wonder if the reduction in benefits paid at the top will reduce spending in this group. If it doesn't – and I suspect it will have little effect – it will only have the effect of shifting savings from households to government (in the form of a smaller deficit).

Charles Stendhal
Glen Ridge, NJ

I am very surprised that you and others who address this issue do not consider that taxing only $168,600 in annual earnings is a gift to those who receive very high salaries. Instead of taking advantage of the wealthy, let them pay their full freight for Social Security.

Virginia Orenstein
Lakewood Ranch, Fla

Peter here: Dozens of readers said this. Applying a payroll tax to all income would be a big tax hike for high-income families.

“But the age of chivalry is over. The work of mystics, economists and calculators has succeeded. And the glory of Europe is gone forever.

-Edmund Burke, “Reflections of the Revolution on France” (1790)

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