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  • Writer's pictureDonald Macintyre

What does the rise of AI mean for the teaching of writing?

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

The American historian David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, said, “Writing is thinking.”

Almost overnight, the rise of ChatGPT and other AI programs has transformed the way we access, create, and communicate information. We’re trying to discern where this is headed – to a brighter future, or the end of humanity as we know it? For educators, the big question is: what does the rise of AI mean for the teaching of writing? That’s a question that should concern us all.

If students can tap AI programs that turn out a well-crafted essay at the click of a mouse, how will they ever learn to write? Closely connected to this worry is another, more fundamental one: if students don’t learn to write, how will they learn to think critically? Writing isn’t just a means of communication; it’s closely linked to the ability to evaluate, analyze, and reason. The American historian David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, said, “To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

In the classroom, teachers use writing to teach critical thinking. While a few of us can speak in fully formed essays (I’m not one of them!), mere mortals need to get thoughts down (on paper or screen) and then sort the jumble into some kind of logical order. We write to express our thoughts, reflect on them and refine them. In a way, to see what we are really thinking. As McCullough put it, “Writing is thinking.”

We’re already awash in information, thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of social media. More than ever, young people need the intellectual tools to navigate this vast sea of information, and disinformation. AI programmes like ChatGTP are powerful new tools to access and bring order to the chaos. But they don’t always get it right, not infrequently inventing “facts” out of whole cloth. Worse, AI can be used to create new sources of disinformation – better deep fakes, more convincing phony news articles – on a massive scale.

So, educators need to push students to exercise the mental muscles that turn thoughts into ordered prose. When you have to gather, analyze, and synthesize information and then communicate it in a coherent narrative, you develop more than just a deeper understanding of the subject matter. You become a savvier consumer of information, less likely to fall prey to falsehoods, conspiracy theories or biased narratives.

Writing also promotes critical thinking by encouraging us to identify problems and imagine solutions. To write a short article about a contemporary social issue, students must identify the underlying problem, consider it from various perspectives and craft a narrative that offers possible solutions. They learn to spot contradictions and tease out inconsistencies, ask questions and challenge assumptions.

Without sweating over a sentence that just isn’t working or struggling to find the right words to express an idea, students won’t develop the capacity for independent thought and analysis. In a world increasingly reliant on AI-powered technologies, that’s more than a learning deficit, it’s dangerous. Sure, thinking is hard. But as they say at the gym – no pain, no gain. By mastering these skills, students become discerning thinkers and responsible contributors to a democratic society. And that’s good for all of us.

#writing#AIwriting #criticalthinking#writingthinking

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