Published in the Republica on July 26, 2023 08:30
To truly improve teaching, it is time to take the expert out of training, center professional development back in the classroom, and unleash the power of the practitioner-as-expert–letting such a cycle of expertise replace traditional teacher training.
A lot more teacher training is taking place in Nepal today than, say, ten years ago. In schools and universities, training programs range from informal one-hour sessions run by teachers to formal multi-day ones organized by institutions. They also range from free and virtual gatherings to lavish retreats at fancy places. Unfortunately, this great development remains characterized mostly by lecture–with hands-on practice being an exception.
There is a reason why teacher training remains entrenched in the old habit of delivering lectures. Both trainers and trainees continue to believe that an expert is needed to “deliver” content, that the key objective of training is to increase knowledge, rather than for trainees to learn by doing, sharing, and experiencing.
In reality, there is little to no practical value of content in training. We might as well train farmers how to improve crop yields by taking them to fancy hotels in the city and give them lectures on how to do it. Even simulated activities and discussions are inadequate. Imagine an agricultural expert taking a group of farmers to a sandbank to show them how to use modern farm equipment. Such an expert can teach how to use the tools, but he won’t really show how to grow a crop.
We need a radical shift in how training is done. Training should not only involve participants in doing things and sharing experience, solving problems and creating materials–not lectures or even discussions. It should also happen right in their classroom, as I will describe. A little bit of content may be needed to set up the context, clarify instructions, or during follow up discussion. But if content takes more than a quarter of a program’s time, it is no longer training.
Skipping the expert
One easy and effective way to make training more like training is to get rid of the expert and use a facilitator instead. The less the facilitator has to say the better. The more she makes time and creates opportunities for participants the better. In fact, when the facilitator tells participants that she is not an expert, and that the participants are the experts–in that they are the ones teaching–the training becomes far more effective. In fact, training becomes even more effective when one of the participating practitioners serves as facilitator. All that the facilitator needs is skills for managing the process and fostering collaboration. In exchange for losing the quantity and depth/breadth of knowledge when losing the external expert, such training can gain far deeper grounding in practice and far deeper commitment and accountability among participants. This shift to expertless training does require courage.
The current discourse about artificial intelligence not only reflects a narrow view of education. It also represents romanticization of, or alarmism about, new technologies, while insulting students as dishonest by default.
“It has saved me 50 hours on a coding project,” whispered one of my students to me in class recently. He was using the artificial intelligence tool named ChatGPT for a web project. His classmates were writing feedback on his reading response for the day, testing a rubric they had collectively generated for how to effectively summarize and respond to an academic text.
The class also observed ChatGPT’s version of the rubric and agreed that there is some value in “giving it a look in the learning process.” But they had decided that their own brain muscles must be developed by grappling with the process of reading and summarizing, synthesizing and analyzing, and learning to take intellectual positions, often across an emotionally felt experience. Our brain muscles couldn’t be developed, the class concluded, by simply looking at content gathered by a bot from the internet, however good that was. When the class finished writing, they shared their often brutal assessment of the volunteer writer’s response to the reading. The class learned by practicing, not asking for an answer.
Beyond the classroom, however, the discourse about artificial intelligence tools “doing writing” has not yet become as nuanced as among my college students. “The college essay is dead,” declared Stephen Marche of the Atlantic recently. This argument is based on a serious but common misunderstanding of a means of education as an end. The essay embodies a complex process and experience that teach many useful skills. It is not a simple product.
But that misunderstanding is just the tip of an iceberg. The current discourse about artificial intelligence not only reflects a shrunken view of education. It also represents a constant romanticization of, or alarmism about, new technologies influencing education. And most saddening for educators like me, it shows a disregard toward students as dishonest by default.
Broaden the view of education
If we focus on writing as a process and vehicle for learning, it is fine to kill the essay as a mere product. It is great if bot-generated texts serve certain purposes. Past generations used templates for letters and memos, not to mention forms to fill. New generations will adapt to more content they didn’t write.
What bots should not replace is the need for us to grow and use our own minds and conscience, to judge when we can or should use a bot and how and why. Teachers must teach students how to use language based on contextual, nuanced, and sensitive understanding of the world. Students must learn to think for themselves, with and without using bots.