AI is Not the Solution to All Our Educational Challenges
Empowering Students with an Immersive Mindset for Navigating an Unpredictable World
A Realization in the Woods
While I am very excited about the future of AI in schools, I must admit after a week on an experiential learning trip with a group of 25 9th graders that AI will not likely solve the most pressing educational problems in the first half of the 21st century. This may sound like a surprising thing for an AI enthusiast like myself to say, but I find it a necessary foundational claim to make clear, particularly as I am now on the cusp of making available my innovative AI-responsive writing curriculum for educators, administrators, parents, and students in the first half of 2024.
AI Is not the Solution to Most Current Educational Crises
The state of contemporary American education is a complex, multi-layered network of histories, controversies, problematics, challenges, occasional success stories, and ongoing crises unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Since 2000, American educators have witnessed:
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The “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001
The Achievement Gap Between Students from Different Ethnic, Racial and Socioeconomic Backgrounds
Lack of Teacher Diversity
Teacher Shortage and Burnout
Increased Use and Reliance of Technology (Internet, Cell Phones, Social Media, AI)
Technology Gap and Digital Divide
Bullying, School Safety, Mass Shootings
Rise of Common Core Standards since 2010
Greater Focus on STEM Education
Rise and Legislation of New Literacy Approaches
Decline in Arts and Physical Education
Increased Need and Inadequate Support for Special Education
Decreased Readiness for College and Career
Expansion and Proliferation of Charter Schools
Inconsistent Policies and Reforms Between Administrations, Institutions, and State Governments
Rise of Online and Blended Learning
Covid Pandemic: The Great Accelerator
Then in 2020, the Covid worldwide health pandemic further exacerbated all the above trends and problems with schools and universities just beginning to get back up on their feet in the 2023-24 school year. Studies continue to reveal a wide range of social-emotional and academic gaps in this post-pandemic generation of students that have led many teachers to wonder whether a return to 'school as normal' is really in the best interests of our students.
If 'school as normal' was somehow related to an achievement gap, a digital divide, a student mental health crisis, widespread disengagement, and an inadequate state of college readiness, perhaps it is time to try something new.
ChatGPT: First a Solution; Then a Problem
Then, ChatGPT arrived on the scene. Many educators, administrators, ed-tech and ed-training personnel thought they had found the solution to many, if not all, their problems. The issue then became: How do we get AI to do the work of solving these other controversies and problems? And yet, after only a few days in circulation, the solution itself became another problem as students around the world rushed to use the software to generate unique, “undetectable” responses to assignments and essay prompts. But this dynamic is no surprise to veteran educators. So many times in the history of pedagogy and instructors have solutions come attended by additional problems. Such is the evolutionary state of educational development and paradigmatic change.
“Immersion”: Experiential Learning at Its Finest
At my current school, we dedicate the month of January to experiential learning. This pioneering program, known as “Immersion,” began in the 1960s and 1970s, with high-school travel programs dedicated to the study of foreign languages. Since then, the Immersion program has expanded to include both primary, middle and secondary divisions. Each year, teachers begin planning for immersion sometimes over a year before its occurrence in the next January. Each division plans a diverse offering of curricula, spanning interests across academic, professional, and interdisciplinary fields, and including local, national, and international travel options. Our youngest students experience two weeks of Immersion, while our oldest students spend the entire month of January in Immersion.
2023-24 High School Immersion Offerings
In the high school, this year’s Immersions included a trip focus on Astronomy and Space that culminated in a visit to space camp, a scientific investigation of Marine Life in Puerto Rico, an exploration of the Mandarin language in Taiwan, a historical analysis of colonialism in the United Kingdom, a local service-oriented project called “Compassionate Citizenship,” an artistic project focused on Midwestern Architecture, a journey through the American South and the Civil Rights Movement, and Freshman Immersion usually involving some service work, camping, and community development. The most remarkable and challenging thing about Immersion is that each year an entirely different curriculum rises up. Everyone must adapt and pitch in to make Immersion happen. It is truly a school-wide commitment and effort!!!
Freshman Immersion: YMCA Camp
This year, I was a leader on Fresh Immersion. This past week, our Immersion culminated in a trip to a local YMCA where we realized our theme, “Inward Bound, Outward Bound,” through a series of written explorations, group activities, and community development exercises. In the few quiet moments I had on this trip, I couldn't help but think about the role AI will most likely play in their lives as they graduate and pursue different professions. Yes, that will be part of my job to prepare them for those case-uses.
Up Against the Limits of AI
At the same time, the greatest education realizations I had while on this trip had nothing to do with AI or AI-responsive curriculum. Now, let me preface the following by stating that I have taken many similar trips with 7th and 8th graders, who shared similar upbringings, cultural histories, and academic training, before the pandemic, as a point of comparison and contrast.
What is most interesting to me as a teacher about an Immersion experience is that it brings many small but significant things to the forefront. These are aspects an educator might never learn about in another setting. Conceivably, at another school, I would have never had the one-on-one encounters that I did this past week, and thus have the opportunity to observe my students so closely as a result. Instead, after a year of more traditional instruction, I am rocketing through a crucible experience with my students and come away with a deep understanding of how social-emotional dynamics, in many cases, drive and inhibit academic and personal goals. I believe that this knowledge will make me a better teacher.
10 Observations about Today’s Students
In light of my admittedly small sample of students, I am prepared to draw a few conclusions about the challenges that post-pandemic students bring with them into the classrooms–challenges for which AI is no immediate remedy.
Admittedly, the following list represents developmentally appropriate challenges for 9th graders, particularly when operating in a context outside the normal school environment. However, based on my nearly 20 years of experience, today’s students struggle more significantly with these challenges—particularly the first four items on the list—than any other group of students I have worked with to date.
Students continue to struggle with emotional and mental health issues in various forms and ways in the wake of the global pandemic. Students continue to talk about the losses and absences of the pandemic at once with biting humor and bitter resentment. Small stressors, disappointments, roadblocks, and obstacles can easily bring these students to a total emotional stop. Students do exhibit different degrees of resilience, but the subset of resilient students appears to be smaller than prior to the pandemic.
Students continue to have significant difficulties concentrating and engaging with routine tasks in classroom and real world settings in the wake of the global pandemic. When asked to focus during a quick check-in or conversation, students need as many as 3 to 4 reminders before the majority of the group is ready to engage with a particular thought, direction, or objective. Use of hand gestures, verbal call-and-response, invitations to students to rephrase directions, etc. greatly assist in helping students attend to small details.
Students continue to have challenges carrying out multi-step processes without significant scaffolding, including multimodal directions, demonstrations, and consistent check-ins. When asked to work through a more complicated task, prompt, activity, or assignment, students need ample time, support, and resources to be successful. Walking students through the full process is helpful for the students that can attend such demonstrations. Other students will require social partnering or one-on-one coaching as the learning process unfolds. Postpone summative evaluation of the products of multi-step processes until students gained mastery over its steps and synthesis. Today’s students require more practice before such high stakes grading situations.
Today’s students are profoundly dependent on handheld technology to ground their identities, engage socially with peers, explore the world at large, and engage in academic life. During the pandemic, computers and handheld technology represented for students almost the entirety of their social, academic, and personal lives. Emerging from the pandemic has involved a complicated process of extricating themselves from these virtual networks in order to reestablish more traditional human-to-human relationships In the process, virtual networks are complexly reconfiguring, and yet still hold tremendously weight and power for today’s students. Recognizing this power, some schools are pushing to ban cell phones entirely; others are amping up extracurriculars and other kinds of SEL support. Regardless of one’s response, the core problem seems clear. Today’s students hunger for connection. The loneliness pandemic is still in full effect. How will schools feed this basic human need? How will schools help educate students that certain kinds of technology only make you hungrier?
Today's students are increasingly finding meaning and joy in creating and sustaining self-organized communities, often showing a strong preference for autonomy and resisting adult intervention or imposed order, and typically seek out adult guidance only in situations of extreme necessity. Here again, students evidence a very normal stage of development, and yet, the insularity of their social groups appear stronger and less porous. During the pandemic, in the absence of the physical presence of school, the virtual networks of friends and class groups strengthened significantly. Concurrently, the sense of isolation for individuals intensified to increasingly intolerable levels.
Students continue to face significant challenges occupying and inhabiting space inside traditional school buildings. However, when situated in more natural settings like playgrounds, parks, hiking paths, or forests, they become more centered, attentive, focused, and joyful. Students need much more opportunity for movement and rearrangement inside traditional spaces throughout the class work period across primary, middle, and secondary divisions. Students need purposeful “brain breaks” in between blocks of concentration and engagement in order to give rhythm to long work cycles. And yet, students crave the outdoors in a visceral way, as my trip to camp this past week revealed. Outdoors, students reignite when tapping back into powers and forces greater than human design or effort. When returning to school on campus, I will be considering how we might re-engage with nature in a purposive way that extends beyond pure recreation. At a Montessori school I worked at in the early 2010s, nature was a locus of measurement, investigation, and microeconomy, and as such, serves as an essential aspect of curriculum and instruction.
Today’s students crave opportunities, activities, projects, and assignments that offer them multiple ways to engage and interact with content, concepts, objectives, and purposes. Universal design teaches us to provide students with multiple pathways to engage and interact with materials, assignments, and assessments. In the wake of the pandemic, this principle has never been more true. Gone are the days of a single pathway to demonstrate skills and competencies. Our students are too diverse! The challenges they grapple with are too numerous! Their need for self-empowerment is too great! Needless to say, the rise of generative AI also makes the single pathway an unwise method to rely on. When designing activities, students want us to lean into projects, debates, video or podcast production, gamification, image or video analysis, and real-world consequences. Mid-week at camp, we shifted our curriculum to focus less on literary analysis to real-world consequences of present choices, and found engagement significantly increased as a result.
When offered multiple pathways for engagement and interaction with sufficient support, today’s students experience more extended periods of immersion inside particular learning challenges where they master existing skills and competencies and practice new skills and competencies. Students, trained up on the immersive streams of social media, cannot help but desire similar flows of experience in educational spaces. When school does not and cannot provide these kinds of stimulation, many students disengage and await the next opportunity to use their handheld devices. By opening up multiple pathways into assignments and combining them with purposeful experiential learning, we offer students the opportunity to immerse themselves in engaging learning experiences within a pedagogical context. While these flows do not pack the same neurochemical punch as social media, the short-term and long-term consequences are indeed attractive in their own right to many students. This I witnessed firsthand this week. In the months and years to come, schools need to work on multiplying the opportunities for such flows of immersive learning as a method for counteracting the at-time debilitating consequences of handheld devices.
Today’s students push themselves towards mastery when they feel significant ownership over the process of their engagement, learning, and assessment. Students need to feel in control of their own educational journeys and destinies after a period of extended powerlessness. Students need opportunities to relearn skills and competencies of self-care, self-ownership, and self-management. Over the course of the week at camp, I witnessed in my students a profound lack of assurance about their ability to make simple decisions about their own self-case and self-determination. As a parent, I know that my fear over my own children’s health and well-being resulted in my overstepping into their lives on a variety of different vectors in order to keep them safe. But at what cost? This week, I witnessed a glimmer of the price in my students, and I am grateful as it has given me an opportunity to be more reflective about my own parenting. Our students need the room to relearn how to be responsible for themselves. It is time to scale back the restrictive measures. It is time to make our expectations clear, but also give students space in applying them to their lives.
Today’s students continue to struggle with a fundamental distrust in ‘school as normal.’ They do not yearn for a complete pedagogical or technological revamp of existing instructional processes. Instead, they await both personnel and a coherent set of policies that recognize them as self-empowered learners. Students are experiencing a crisis of trust in authorities and in themselves. How do we reestablish this multi-dimensional equation of trust? Only gradually and incrementally. Students are watching us closely to see how we manage this transition out of the pandemic and into an AI-responsive world. They most certainly took notice that our first attempts to respond to AI involved more rigorously surveilling their online activities and writing assignments. They are also watching closely as we plan our bans of particular technologies in schools. How will we handle this? What are our rationales? Will teachers continue to use cell phones while students are denied access? Small gestures are big gestures to this current generation. This generation knows that it needs guidance, but desires the kind of assistance that empowers. The question is: Are we ready to offer such assistance?
Conclusion: Immersion as a Mindset
Admittedly, AI holds great promise as educators tackle the manifold challenges that students grapple with today. AI promises to diversify and individualize curriculum, engage and empower students, multiply and improve methods of assessment, and maximize teachers’ time in the classroom working directly with students.
And yet, we must not forget that our students need distinctive cognitive skills and competencies to engage efficiently and effectively with AI as part of any curricular process or instructional pathway. In addition, any attempt to integrate and implement AI into today’s schools without recognizing the greater need to address the above issues, circumstances, and challenges will also likely meet with little success.
As a consequence, our goal here at Educating AI is not to propose yet another “band aid” solution, but rather to offer an AI-responsive method of instruction that is cognizant of these larger spheres of complexity. Drawing inspiration from the school I call home, I am proposing that we need to cultivate in our students an “immersive mindset” as a foundation for engagement across the disciplines and in particular with AI in specific settings.
The Immersive Mindset: Characteristics
In this initial work-up, an immersive mindset exhibits the following qualities or processes:
Engagement with social-emotional learning and reflection
Activation in self-organized and self-maintained societies and communities
Exploration of multiple pathways of engagement and interaction
Responsibility for determining individual and group purposes
Cultivation of fundamental trust in self, educational process, and world
Thanks for reading this edition of Educating AI!
Nick Potkalitsky, Ph.D.
Educating AI is a community-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.