OpenAI’s GPT-4, the souped-up engine for their ChatGPT interface, can easily knock out passable (or better) versions of standard school writing assignments. Given this reality, people are freaking out, assuming that students will use the technology to cheat. But if a chatbot — which is a non-thinking, syntax-assembly machine — can get an A (or at least a B) on an assignment, is it even worth the students’ time?
Rather than putting energy into policing student behavior — perhaps by going back to pen and paper (or hammer and chisel?) — what if we give everyone access to writing experiences that stoke interest and fascination, experiences rooted in what makes us different from large language models (LLMs)?
Writing is a fully embodied experience that invokes every aspect of our unique selves: what we know, what we believe, what we want to know.
The existence of AI that can combine words into sentences doesn’t change the fundamental human desire to connect.
Given that an AI chatbot can now produce fluent English syntax, we have to ask what value we find in writing, and what kind of experiences deliver that value. I want to suggest that rather than outsourcing our writing to chatbots, we instead travel on a writing journey that is interesting, frustrating, and ultimately, empowering.
Schools are failing to stoke engagement among students. What students are being asked to do just doesn’t get them excited. If we focus on engagement first, we’ll have students doing work that obviates the desire to turn to ChatGPT. They’ll be too busy being fascinated by what they’ve discovered about their own views of the world.
A 2015 survey by Gallup found that for every year of school, student engagement with school declines. By 11th grade, a majority of students are either not engaged or actively disengaged. Even before the pandemic, engagement was declining.
As a teacher of first-year college writing, I often saw bright, curious students who didn’t see a writing assignment as an occasion to learn something new, but rather as a chance to parrot what they’d already been told by others. This didn’t make sense to me, for at its heart, writing is an opportunity to explore one’s own curiosities.
If we pay attention to the four key elements of student engagement — value, competence, relatedness, and autonomy1 — we can help all writers, regardless of context, learn the value of exploring their own ideas and sharing them with the world.
Value is the belief that what we are doing is important and meaningful. This means rather than regurgitating information in an attempt to prove comprehension to a teacher, we write for real-world audiences eager for insights, with a unique style.
Competence is the belief that what we are doing can be done. This requires giving students sufficient structure and support so they can get down to the work of writing for an audience and impact. Rather than writing a disposable piece that’s forgotten as soon as it’s graded, students could be motivated by substantive feedback to complete multiple revisions. They would see what it’s like to return to the well and discover new insights.
Relatedness is the belief that we are doing this as part of a larger community. Too often, writing in school is limited to proving a surface-level proficiency against an opaque standard. Student writing disappears into a learning management system. Writing should be shared with others, read by other humans, fueled by community.
Autonomy is the freedom to make choices consistent with one’s deepest beliefs and values. The first-year students I worked with were trying to figure out what I wanted them to say. But I wanted them to say what they wanted to say, to reveal their full selves to the world. Autonomy means writing about your interests and doing so in your authentic, individual voice.
By focusing on engagement first, writing becomes a deep expression of the self that the writer can share with the world, joining an interconnected community. The cycle of engagement and reward repeats each time the writer returns to the page.
Get Off the Bench, Take Some Swings
One of the best parts of writing is that you can always get better; there is no such thing as terminal proficiency. But an unfortunate attitude among students in American schools is that failure is always a bad thing. Students are conditioned to believe grades matter more than anything and that they should take the shortest route to an A. But in reality, failure is the precursor to learning.
Failure has always been one of our most important teachers, particularly when we have the chance to try again. The most successful Major League Baseball players get hits 30% of the time. Both a strikeout and a home run are data that players use to improve future at-bats.
I like to tell students that writing is an extended exercise in failure.
Failing at writing is the best kind of failure because every attempt brings us closer to our ultimate vision. The writer has control over when — or whether — to share a piece with the audience, and even after something is published, it can still be revised.
Your ambitions can be as big as you wish. In your head — at least in my head — is the greatest novel in the history of the English language. You feel it, deep in your bones. You just haven’t written it yet.
Perhaps your published piece doesn’t reach the heights of that ambition, but the decision to share it with the world becomes a success in itself. By putting in the effort and putting your work out there, you’ve accomplished something meaningful.
The learning of writing is directly connected to the doing. Outsourcing your thinking and your craft to AI is like calling yourself a ballplayer without ever leaving the dugout. Maybe some days — many days, even — you don’t hit homers, but every bit of work brings you closer to your goals.
Yes, this is frustrating. For some reason, that greatest novel in the history of the English language has not (yet) burst forth from my fingers, but along the route to this goal, I’ve produced lots of work that I look back on with pride.
Those at-bats add up. Each day is another chance to surprise yourself with your own progress.
Writing Is Power
As I say often, writing is thinking — both the expression and exploration of an idea. Writing is an exploration that reveals the unknown. Writing is a chance to know your own mind, and better understand the world around you.
At the same time, writing is a fantastic tool for helping others know you. By writing online, your ideas can span the globe, via the Internet, and you can create a platform of your own. A single piece may put you in front of thousands of people (or more!) at a time.
If you can be yourself on the page, by demonstrating your passions and writing in an authentic voice, you can attract others to your passions. It is hard to overstate how energizing this can be. The sooner this happens in your writing journey, the better. Even when you are working alone, you will sense the presence of a community interested in what you have to say, because what you have to say matters.
Once you know that your writing is more than words on a page, or a mark in a grade book, the idea that you would outsource self-expression to AI literally does not compute.
- Blumenfield, P., Kempler, T., & Krajcik, J. (2006). Motivation and cognitive engagement in learning environments. In R. Keith Sawyer (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Science, (pp. 475-488). Cambridge University Press.
John Warner is a writer, editor, speaker, and consultant with more than twenty years of experience teaching college-level writing. He is the author of Why They Can’t Write and The Writer’s Practice.
Cover photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash