It seems that almost every day we hear more about the threats posed to education (and even to society at large) by large language AI models such as ChatGPT. How will we be able to tell if a student’s work is computer generated or not? Now it is possible for students to enter any question into such programs and receive an instant sample essay or assignment. In time, these programs will be able to provide solutions to mathematical problems as well – in fact, students could use such programs to answer almost any question that they could be asked at school.

When you read some of the responses that ChatGPT generates, they are impressive. Indeed, there was one article online which suggested that if a student had used ChatGPT for every one of their assignments they would have been able to pass a law degree without ever having attended a lecture.

Is this the end of education (and tertiary education, in particular) as we know it? Perhaps – if we think that education is about the quality of the work that our students produce. But if we think that education is about the transformation of our students separate to the work that they produce then this is very much a side issue.

As adults, we can think of school as being parallel in many ways to our own workplaces. We have bosses, students have teachers, we have work we need to do each day; so, too, do students. If students are good at doing work at school, then they will be good at doing work in the workforce of the future. But this overlooks the fundamental difference between “schooling” and “work”.  

The measure of a workplace is the amount that it produces – be this cars, new technologies or services rendered. The measure of a school is the amount of learning that takes place. While students at school may produce a whole range of things – model cars, essays, musical productions, or even HSC results, what actually matters first and foremost is what students have learned as part of engaging in these productive processes. Learning takes precedence over production. As a school we ask very different questions to assess how we are going compared to those asked in the workplace. Schools are interested in student growth and development. What are the skills that students have developed? How have they grown as learners or, even more broadly, how have they grown as people?

In the workplace, we are required to be learners as well – and we learn new things as adults every day. Indeed, our experience at school has hopefully prepared us to be lifelong learners. But the prioritising of learning and production are reversed in the workplace – being productive is paramount, and learning, while still important, is secondary.

ChatGPT, and other such tools, simply represent another way for students to avoid doing the thinking and learning that teachers hope will be the outcome of completing an assigned task. Already, some students get their parents to help, or even their tutor if they have one. In some ways, ChatGPT has levelled the playing field so that all students have the same opportunities to avoid learning (not that this is necessarily a good thing)! What teachers will need to do is to develop new approaches to assessment (or return to pre-existing methods) which will ensure that assessments completed by students are a valid reflection of their thinking and learning. This has always been the goal of assessment and it will continue to be part of our ongoing professional conversations as teachers focused on developing students’ learning character.

Dr James Pietsch