Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Teaching with AI: Charting the ChatGPT Classroom Challenge

Image by Midjourney

Since the advent of ChatGPT during this past school year, I've been eager to integrate the technology into my teaching and my classroom. It has been saving me a ton of time preparing lessons and activities, including my opening SEL questions. But I really want to teach my students to use it. My philosophy is that if there's a new technology out there that is changing the way we work, my students need to master it (see my previous post, Going Borg). I see ChatGPT as analogous to the advent of the calculator, only ChatGPT is much more powerful. And that's the problem. While we can allow students to use calculators and they still have to think for themselves, ChatGPT goes a step further and can do even the critical thinking for them. So how can we teach them to use this powerful new tool while also teaching them anything else?

The ChatGPT Dilemma:

During a recent interaction with ChatGPT, I explored two potential approaches to this conundrum. We can revert to doing only in-class, on paper assignments, so that we can monitor students and ensure they are doing their own work and coming to their own understandings, or we allow them to use ChatGPT and change our instructional and assessment strategies accordingly.

Reverting to in-person and on-paper only could potentially solve the problem, but we lose the opportunity to teach them to use the technology. It's analogous to not allowing them to use calculators or a Google search.

But how can we allow them to use the technology while still learning essential content and skills? ChatGPT's response?

"Here are a few ways to ensure students remain active thinkers:

    1. Evaluation & Analysis: Even if students use ChatGPT to generate content, have them evaluate its accuracy. They can critique, contrast, or validate it against other sources.
    2. Debate & Discussion: Introduce controversial or multi-faceted topics. Even if they use AI for initial research, their understanding and opinions will come to the forefront during debates.
    3. Scaffolded Exploration: Start with a base question, and let the AI provide info. Then, build upon it with deeper, more complex questions that require students to integrate multiple pieces of information.
    4. AI as a Partner, Not a Solution: Encourage students to use ChatGPT as a brainstorming tool. For instance, they can get a general overview of a topic from the AI and then dive deeper independently.
    5. Hands-on Experiences: Hands-on learning, labs and practical experiments are still invaluable. They provide tactile experiences and observations that ChatGPT can't replicate."
I think all of these approaches are important, and I think there may always need to be an in-person, on-paper component. For example, we may assume they are getting help from ChatGPT on the lab report or essay, and then we require them to self-score/evaluate it in class. Then we score them on their evaluation. Or maybe they produce a written product and then present it to the class and then answer questions to show their understanding. Or maybe they engage in an in-class debate after their AI-aided research.

ChatGPT took this and came up with the following list of strategies:
  1. "Lab Report/Research Paper/Essay Evaluation:

      • Assignment: Students generate their lab report, research paper or essay, potentially with the assistance of ChatGPT.
      • In-Class: They evaluate and score it, justifying their findings and pointing out potential inaccuracies.
      • Assessment: You evaluate based on their critical thinking and understanding, rather than the initial content of the report.

  2. Presentation & Q&A:

      • Assignment: Students produce a written product, potentially a research paper, or an analysis.
      • In-Class: They present their findings, emphasizing key points.
      • Assessment: After the presentation, you pose questions to gauge their depth of understanding. Their ability to handle impromptu queries demonstrates genuine comprehension.

  3. In-Class Debate:

      • Assignment: Students research a topic, possibly using ChatGPT for initial information.
      • In-Class: Armed with their research, students engage in a structured debate. While they might have collected data with AI's help, their ability to argue, counter-argue, and think on their feet is purely their own.
      • Assessment: You can grade based on their arguments' clarity, validity, and the depth of their research, rather than the mere collection of data."

I think these are all great ideas, enabling students to learn to use this revolutionary new tool while also learning essential content, communication and critical thinking skills. I hope to try them all out in the coming year, though this will depend on our school and department policies regarding student use of AI.

In the face of new and potentially disruptive technologies, we can choose to bury our heads in the proverbial sand and cling to tradition, or we can open ourselves to change and evolution. Of course there are always pros and cons to technological progress, but history has shown again and again that there is no stopping it, because those who assimilate it gain the advantage. And in the end, I'd like to believe that the end result of all of this progress is real progress in our humanity--that we all truly become better off in the process, that suffering is reduced and health and well-being is increased throughout the biosphere. It may seem that Artificial Intelligence threatens exactly the opposite--that we might lose our humanity, but I am hopeful we can harness it for good. In fact, it might be by truly embracing AI's potential for good that we can ensure its positive impact on humanity.

To that end, I'm looking forward to the trying out these ideas in my science classes this year and seeing my students grow in their mastery of technology and science, while also growing in their humanity. I hope you'll embark on this journey with me into these uncharted waters and share with me your thoughts, experiences, and ideas.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

ChatSEL: A Novel Approach: Chemistry-Inspired Social-Emotional Learning Questions in the Classroom

Image courtesy of DALL-E
What do you get when you ask an AI to generate social-emotional learning questions for your high school chemistry class? Lots of really cool reflection and discussion, that’s what. 

I started a new routine this year of asking opening questions at the beginning of every class. Initially, I was mixing these up–one day would be a chemistry-related “warm-up” or “bell-ringer” type question to help the students tap into prior knowledge, and another day would be an SEL related question, like “How do you manage stress.” And sometimes, I’d integrate the two, like “Are you a proton, electron, or neutron, and why?” 

But a several months ago, when news came out about the powers of ChatGPT, I decided to ask the powerful chatbot for help. I asked ChatGPT to create opening questions that integrate both chemistry concepts and social-emotional learning (SEL) themes. The results have been engaging, insightful, and sometimes unexpected. Here are some of the prompts I've used and the responses they have generated:

1. Concentration and Focus

Prompt: The concept of concentration in chemistry refers to the amount of solute in a given amount of solvent. In a similar way, your 'concentration' in class can be influenced by distractions, diluting your focus. How do you maintain your 'concentration' during class, and what strategies do you use to minimize distractions?

Student responses: From creating checklists and setting time limits for work to listening to music or binaural beats on Spotify, students shared various strategies for maintaining their concentration and mitigating distractions. One student shared a unique method: "I watch a show or listen to music, and it helps me pay more attention to my work."

2. Saturation and Overload

Prompt: In chemistry, a solution becomes saturated when it cannot dissolve any more solute. Can you share a time when you felt 'saturated' with responsibilities, and how did you manage?

Student responses: Students identified times when they felt overwhelmed or over-committed, such as during football season or transitioning to high school. Their coping strategies ranged from taking tasks one step at a time, prioritizing work, to just managing to get through it. One response stood out, "Last week–I had a ton to do and felt like if there was one more thing added on top I might explode. I just took everything one step at a time, made lists with more important tasks at the top and tried not to get overwhelmed."

3. Stoichiometry and Effort

Prompt: Stoichiometry in chemistry is all about the relationship between reactants and products: what you get out is determined by what you put in. Can you share a situation where you've seen this principle in your own life?

Student responses: Students gave examples ranging from effort in sports leading to success, time and effort invested in schoolwork leading to scholarships, to respect given leading to respect received. A student shared a creative analogy: "When I redecorated my room this week."

4. Adaptation and Change

Prompt: Certain chemicals can adapt to their environment - for example, a solute will dissolve in a solvent. Have you experienced a situation where you've had to adapt or "dissolve" into a new environment or situation?

Student responses: Many students shared experiences of changing schools, with strategies for adaptation including making friends and taking time to adjust to the new environment. One poignant response was, "When I transferred from another school to here, I had to adapt to the new environment because it was very different from the one I was used to, and I did it by making friends and looking at things around me."

5. Types of Chemical Reactions as Life Experiences

Prompt: In chemistry, we've learned about different types of reactions, such as synthesis, decomposition, and displacement reactions. Can you draw an analogy between one of these reactions and your experience of this school year? 

Student responses: Students shared analogies relating to synthesizing new knowledge, displacing old friends, and decomposing old habits. One wrote, “I’ve stopped letting work pile up, so I also synthesized new ways of catching up.” Another drew a poignant picture of a  home life displaced by family upheaval.

6. pH and Emotional Balance

Prompt: In chemistry, the pH scale measures how acidic or basic a substance is - it's all about balance. How do you maintain a balanced mindset, especially when things get tough? 

At first, when I saw this prompt, I thought it was a bit of a stretch, but then I remembered the "Mood Elevator" concept from Senn Delaney, which makes our emotions into a scale from depressed to grateful, with “curious” as the “neutral” point. So I decided to go with it.

Student responses: Students shared a variety of techniques for maintaining emotional balance, from mindfulness practices and gratitude exercises, to calling their moms or simply taking a break. One wrote, “I try to look at the bright side or focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes I think about things I’m grateful for.”

I shared with them the "Mood Elevator" concept from Senn Delaney, specifically the importance of becoming 'curious' to shift our perspective. 

We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis among teenagers today, and the classroom is one place where we can encourage students to reflect on important issues and SEL skills in a supportive environment. These kinds of reflections and discussion also help build community and a positive climate in the classroom. 

Some might think that SEL questions are out of place in a chemistry classroom, but I (and CHatGPT) would disagree. In fact, the way I see it, the separation between science and emotion, or school and the rest of life is artificial, and the more we can blur that line, the better. Life is one unbroken whole.

What better way to show students the relevance of school, and science, than by integrating chemistry concepts with practical questions they deal with every single day. In the words of ChatGPT, who helped me write this post, "it’s a beautiful kind of synergy.”

And ChatGPT is surprisingly good at creating these questions--surprisingly human-like. And I wonder what impression this makes on my students as well.

I’ll finish with ChatGPT’s conclusion, because I couldn't write a better one: 

By seamlessly blending chemistry principles with everyday scenarios that students grapple with, we underscore the relevance of their education in a more tangible, relatable manner. ChatGPT has been an invaluable accomplice in this endeavor, generating thought-provoking questions with a surprisingly human-like intuition.

This entire process feels akin to a live chemical reaction – an enthralling interplay of chemistry education and SEL elements that lead to an outcome greater than the sum of its parts. It’s been a transformative journey, not just for my students, but for me as an educator. The lessons learned and insights gained have made our classroom a unique experimental ground, fueling a fresh brand of holistic education.

So, here's to blurring the lines, to redefining norms, and to forging a future of education that embraces the wholesomeness of life, one chemistry lesson at a time.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Teaching (or doing anything) while the world burns

Lately I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the problems in the world. I didn't really expect COVID-19 to surge again, and it looks like the speed of climate change is also exceeding expectations. I have been surprised by the degree to which racism is still endemic in our society, and our current state of political division is truly disheartening. It's as if the world is burning in more ways than one. How do you teach (or do anything) while the world burns? 

I think there are at least four ways, but a combo of the second two is the best (and BTW I think all of this burning craziness may be the beginning of growth).

Option 1: Give up

You can always just give up and either quit altogether or emotionally check out and just go through the motions.  Lots of folks are choosing this option, and I don't blame them. There is a time to quit, especially if you're close to retirement age, but for me, now's not the time. More on that below.

Option 2: Pretend it's not burning

Denial: It's not just a river in Egypt. A popular way of dealing with difficult situations is to pretend the difficult situation does not exist. I'm not sure if we do this because we think it will go away if we ignore it, or if we think "dwelling on it" will only make it worse. Likely it's a combination of the two. But either way, it doesn't work. Problems do not go away if you ignore them. They either get worse immediately, or they fester and come back to bite you. Only by facing them can you have any hope of solving them. This is true for relationship problems, and it's true when the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

Option 3: Acceptance and inaction

You can accept that all of these things are happening around you, but just keep doing what you love--kind of a monastic approach, I suppose. Isolate yourself. Tend your garden. Walk your dog. Enjoy your family. Teach your classes. View the world's problems like bad weather that will pass. I guess it's what I've been doing with my art and brewing during the pandemic. It's an escape, and I can forget all about the chaos of the outside world for a while. 

There's some power to this approach. If everyone did this--living simply and accepting things as they are, we'd all be much better off, I think. But it's kind of hard to pull off, and the downside is that not everyone will do it, so the shit's going to keep hitting the fan, and at some point the flames will be outside our door. So I tend to lean more toward a balance with Option 4.

Option 4: Action

You can realize that teaching (or whatever it is you do) has a role to play in helping to solve the problems that surround us. In a war, not everyone is on the front lines, and the battle against climate change, racism, COVID-19, and political division needs supply lines as well. 

We live in the information age and yet a destructive ignorance abounds--ignorance about climate change, viruses, history and racism. And one thing I learned this past year is that somehow American schooling has failed to adequately educate the nation. But it's not about facts. We've failed to teach people to think critically, quantitatively, scientifically and humanely, and we need to do better. We have a huge role to play here as the world burns.

But ignorance and sloppy thinking are just the tip of the iceberg. There's also a tremendous lack of trust in our society right now. There's also a tremendous deficiency of empathy and compassion. And there's a tremendous loss of social support, despite all of our online connections. And if we are going to fight all of these "fires" that burn around us, we are going to need more empathy, compassion, trust, and social supports. We're going to need unity based on our common humanity. These skills of empathy, compassion and building trust, unity and social supports were not traditionally taught in school, but we need to teach them now. 

And most importantly, our students need teachers that care, safe places like schools and the support of their classmates, as they watch the world burn around them. But they'll also need help because they're not going to just watch. They'll need help because they are going to fight the flames--the climate change, the pandemics, the racism and division. Because they are going to make the world a better place.

The Bright Side

So there's lots to teach while the world burns. There's lots to do. But there's also lots to enjoy, because honestly it's always a joy working with young people--they are so full of life and openness and hope and potential. And the world, burning though it is, is still so full of wonderful things to explore with them. And the journey of learning, even though it can be challenging and frustrating and painful at times, is worth it all as we grow from it. 

In fact, sometimes the burning happens inside of us, also. Sometimes the old us gets burned up and something new grows. What's it like to teach while that happens? 

Fires are a natural part of ecosystems, triggering renewal and new growth. We're teaching, or doing whatever job it is we're doing, in a time of fire and renewal. And my hope is that it will bring the same kind of regeneration to all of us--everyone of you reading this, and everything.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Justice over achievement
Image via
One of my big takeaways from COVID-19 is the importance of equity. Our society, including our educational system, has been built on a model that values overall achievement over equity. In other words, as long as you are enabling your top students, or at best, most students, to achieve at high levels, you are doing a good job. But this is wrong. I've been wrong. I have historically had it backwards, idolizing human potential and achievement and neglecting equity. Here's what I'm learning:

1) Prioritize equity: Better to live in a just society than an advanced one. If forced to choose between a just society or school and a high achieving one, choose just.
2) Don't teach or test in a way that disadvantages some students.
3) If that means the quickest won't progress as fast because you can't support those who are less ready, then that's how it will have to be until we can get better at supporting and challenging everyone. "Do no harm" is the guiding principle.
4) Challenge every student, but not more than they can actually handle. Set the bar high. Let them try. Then adjust it, always trying to challenge them and inch it higher.

So how can we actually do this in the COVID-19 world?

Let's take a look at the primary hinderances kids are dealing with, and some possible solutions.

Access to technology

Problem: Many students of low socio-economic status lack fast, stable internet or computers. This can lead to an inability to participate fully in Zoom calls, especially if webcams are required.

Possible solutions: Don't require webcams. Provide asynchronous options for learning, and extended deadlines. Bring these students in to school, in-person and full time, if possible.


Problem: Many students have home environments that are not conducive to participating in live classes. Some are caring for siblings. Others have distracting activity all around them. Others may be embarrassed to show their homes or families.

Possible solutions: Same as above, plus multiple opportunities for learning and success. In other words, mastery-based learning. They need flexibility. They need to be able to take or submit an assessment when they are ready, not on a deadline. They may also need extra academic help and social-emotional resources and instruction.

ADHD, sleep issues, low conscientiousness, low SEL skills

Problem: Many students attempting to learn from home are hindered by a lack of non-cognitive skills: the ability to get up on time, stay awake during class, manage their sleep, schedules, and tasks, stay focused, manage depression or anxiety, etc. These things prevent them from accessing the curriculum.

Possible solutions: Same as above, mastery-based learning, with a focus on explicit instruction in social-emotional learning and 1:1 SEL support. Instruction, assignments and assessments that target SEL skills separately from content skills.

Lack of readiness

Problem: Many students lack the pre-requisite academic skills and knowledge to access the curriculum.

Possible solutions: The mastery model. Extra academic help and support. 

As you can see, I keep coming back to the mastery model. I think it's really going to be the only way forward if we want to keep standards high and value equity. The impact of COVID-19 is going to ripple out into the coming decade, with students entering each successive year less ready than they would have been--and less equal. COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted at-risk students, so we can unfortunately expect gaps to be wider. 

Moving forward, we can either be driven by the fear of losing some imagined edge or status as a individuals, schools, country or society, or we can be driven by compassion and a desire for a just and equitable society. 

2020 was a unique and challenging year, and it's been hard to accomplish much, but one thing we can do is learn. Unfortunately, in our society we have a history of valuing some people over others. We have the opportunity to learn better and change.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

A mission for 2021

 New year thoughts: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?” and a mission for this year.