Humans have a complicated relationship with new technologies. We generally appreciate the ways in which they improve our lives in the long run but tend to be wary of them in the near-term. In my Unschooled book, I describe an example of a new technology that many people thought would be the downfall of society. One journalist warned: “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”
What was that new technology that caused such worry?
Today, new technologies often elicit similar worries. For example, there have been mounting calls to ban youth social media usage over fears of its impact on children’s mental health. More recently, several school districts have blocked student access to ChatGPT, the new artificial intelligence bot from OpenAI that within seconds can draft eloquent essays on any topic.
It’s this high-quality drafting that has many school administrators and education thought leaders in a panic. Officials in the New York City public school district blocked student ChatGPT access last month. Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and Baltimore school districts created a similar ban, as have districts in Alabama and Virginia. Other schools are considering related restrictions.
A main concern about ChatGPT is that students will use it to cheat. The speculation is that students will ask the tool to draft content for them that they can then incorporate into essay assignments, taking the words as their own. This is, of course, cheating and has long been a problem in schools and colleges worldwide.
While some are defending ChatGPT in classrooms, others are deeply concerned about this new technology and its impact on student learning. One education commentator recently quipped that ChatGPT could be the catalyst to bring back penmanship and avoid type-written essays altogether. Another suggested that ChatGPT could mean the end of the “flipped classroom,” with essay writing returning to the classroom, rather than the student’s home, as students write under the watchful eye of a teacher.
As with social media bans that fail to look more deeply at why young people are anxious and depressed, blocking ChatGPT also doesn’t address the root problem: Why do kids cheat?
Students generally cheat because they are uninterested in the topic or assignment and therefore find no motivation to produce authentic work tied to real learning. They may also cheat if they think the stakes are so high that their own efforts wouldn’t be good enough, as is the case with students who pay others to write their college entrance essays.
If a student is producing work for a class that she has voluntarily selected, tied to a genuine passion for the topic, and in pursuit of her own self-directed goals, cheating isn’t an issue. When individuals are intrinsically motivated to pursue knowledge and produce content, cheating isn’t advantageous.
Just as our system of forced schooling may be contributing much more to the youth mental health crisis than are new technologies, forced schooling is also the primary reason why students cheat.
As Boston College psychologist Peter Gray writes: “Our system of compulsory (forced) schooling is almost perfectly designed to promote cheating. That is even truer today than in times past. Students are required to spend way more time than they wish doing work that they did not choose, that bores them, that seems purposeless to them. They are constantly told about the value of high grades. Grades are used as essentially the sole motivator. Everything is done for grades. Advancement through the system, and eventual freedom from it, depends upon grades.”
Rather than blocking young people from using new technologies, and surveilling them even more, let’s instead err on the side of freedom. This includes granting young people the freedom to use the new technologies that shape our world, as well as granting them the freedom to learn in more non-coercive, self-directed ways, in pursuit of their own joyful interests.
Perhaps we will become “nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” as the 19th century journalist warned, but I’m betting against it. Humans thrive with freedom and the technological progress that freedom spawns.
This article is adapted from Kerry McDonald's weekly LiberatED email newsletter. Click here to subscribe.