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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Will ChatGPT Alter How Teachers Teach?

[C]hatbots could be used as powerful classroom aids that make lessons more interactive, teach students media literacy, generate personalized lesson plans, save teachers time on admin, and more.”

The hullabaloo in and out of schools over this bot introduced eight months ago–the above quote is only one of many paeans– has marked the journey of ChatbotGPT from teachers and professors chewing nails over potential massive student cheating to their sheer ecstasy over using the bot in classrooms and homes (see herehere and here).

Similar claims about new technologies have been made before. Recall that, earlier generations of technophiles claimed that students using graphing calculators in class would transform math instruction (and raise test scores). Calculators surely helped students and teachers but did not alter dominant ways of teaching math.

Instead, familiar tensions between teacher-directed and student-centered ways of teaching called “math wars” have persisted for decades as advocates for one or the other have argued over the best way to teach math in elementary and secondary schools.

While these “wars” ebbed and flowed, students’ use of graphing calculators has become as common across math lessons in secondary classrooms as pencil and paper. Whether these devices ever raised test scores is now irrelevant; they have become basic tools math teachers use. Most math teachers use these devices to meld teacher-directed and student-centered ways of teaching although most lessons still remain well within the tradition of teacher-directed instruction (see here).

What about the enthusiastic embrace of 1:1 computers over recent decades? Has 1:1 computers altered how teachers teach academic subjects? By 2023, laptops, tablets, and phones in schools have become ubiquitous. Nearly every student has access to a device in the schools they attend. Dreams that many high-tech enthusiasts including teachers and administrators, dreamt–have become realities in U.S. schools.

But I have yet to find substantial evidence that teacher and student access to and use of these devices over the years have changed how teachers teach.

What about the onset of Google devices and apps and the “Googlification” of schools? Have those trends altered how teachers taught or teach now? The miracle of super-quick answers to homework questions and , and use of Google Classroom , insofar as I have determined, have not substantively changed how teachers teach lessons in English, social studies, foreign languages, and other academic subjects.

Nor has online instruction pervasive in U.S. schools during the Covid-19 pandemic (2020-2021) altered these core traditions of teaching. At the beginning of the pandemic, K-12 schools closed across the country. Districts responded to the emergency with a blanket mandate of remote teaching. What became obvious within a few weeks was digital inequality.  Those children from affluent and middle-class families with easy access to Internet and multiple devices eclipsed working class and poor families with fewer or no computers at home and spotty access to the web.

Likewise, online instruction disadvantaged preschool and primary grade children and students with disabilities. Lower attendance rates of these students, i.e., showing up for Zoom classroom meetings, worsened as the pandemic stretched out over two school years.

The rush to provide schooling online so that students could continue learning uninterrupted offered incentives to technologically-driven reformers to promote even more online instruction once schools re-opened in 2021. And there are economic incentives for adopting “distance education,” as it once was called, since such instruction tends to cost less (e.g., fewer teachers, larger classes). But even with the federal stimulus packages passed in 2020 containing funds for K-12 schools to expand remote instruction, these incentives have not yet led to clear growth in online instruction.

For the fact of the matter is that online instruction during the pandemic simply strengthened one of the historic traditions of teaching noted above. Teacher-directed instruction has dominated students’ screen time. Creative teachers anxious to involve students remotely came up with imaginative ways of getting students to work in small groups and coax students to answer their questions from afar. They were a distinct minority, however. Watching and listening to teachers teach on screens is, after all, watching and listening to teachers dominate Zoom lessons.

It is within this historical context of graphing calculators, 1:1 computers, and the Covid-19 school closures accompanied by the ubiquity of online learning that I locate ChatGPT. Exaggerated claims about new technologies altering how teachers teach has a long history when it comes to teaching in public schools. The current hype surrounding ChatGPT sits squarely within that history of previous technologies entering U.S. classrooms. And technological hype is, well, as American as cherry pie.


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