GesellschaftDr. William Van Reyk

Dr. William Van Reyk

Head of History & Politics North London Collegiate School (NLCS)

I have been teaching in the UK for the past twenty years, first as a university lecturer in History and for the past 14 years as a schoolteacher working with 11 to 18 year olds. In one sense the kind of education we need now is no different from what we have always needed, but in another it is totally different.
The best education is not generally narrow and utilitarian, simply preparing pupils and students for a particular job. Instead, education should be about training minds and revelling in learning for its own sake. The thing that I love about being a teacher is introducing students to new knowledge, getting them to think about things from different angles, and encouraging them above all to question, discuss, and debate. I don’t think any of this changes because of the advent of AI. Indeed, there is an increasing recognition that in the modern world we will need not just software engineers but individuals with a broad range of skills and knowledge in order to make the best of the technology at our disposal.
At the same time, there is definitely also a sense in which AI changes everything and the education we offer needs to change too. AI does now need to be incorporated into every aspect of the curriculum, whatever the subject. AI is not just the concern of the Computer Science teacher but all of us. There are two main reasons AI needs to be integrated into all subjects. First, it actually enhances the education we can offer and secondly, it is vital to prepare our students for a world in which AI will be the norm.
So, how does it enhance education and make our teaching even better? AI can be used in the classroom to really draw out problem-solving. In a History lesson, for example, having discussed the Troubles in the 1960s in Northern Ireland I was able to ask ChatGPT, with a few simple prompts, to create a complex scenario in which my students were able to be transported back in time, their task being to make decisions to prevent the conflict escalating. Students were presented by ChatGPT with various options at each juncture and had to think on their feet, discuss multiple options in their teams, and come to a decision. Of course, this use of AI also developed a range of so-called ‘soft skills’ such as communication and teamwork, qualities which AI itself cannot replicate and which are going to be of increasing value in our new world.
AI also brings a whole new dimension to the amount of knowledge at students’ fingertips. I came across a nice phrase in an online blog post by PwC Partner and Generative AI Leader Brett Greenstein: ‘knowledge is flat’ in the era of AI. In a sense knowledge has been democratised because it is now so accessible. Whilst this is a wonderful thing, the challenge for educators and our students is how best to manage this knowledge.
Indeed, the democratisation of knowledge is not without its challenges and in 2024, the biggest election year in history, we are all too aware of the problems of misinformation and disinformation. Generative AI clearly makes it much easier to produce fake or misleading news content. An important part of how we educate students must involve how to fully evaluate information. In a sense, of course, we already do this. Certainly in my subject, History, source analysis is a key skill. However, in the age of AI this needs to be something taught more widely and throughout school. In the UK, History for instance is only compulsory to age 13. In our new world, as well as ensuring AI is embedded across the curriculum, there is also a need for an AI literacy course that students cover throughout their time at school to ensure that no key areas are missed due to the particular subjects pupils end up studying. I should add that at the moment one of my favourite AI tools for education and research is Perplexity, precisely because unlike ChatGPT it always gives references and links to sources for its information, which can then be followed up and scrutinised.
Finally, the responsible or ethical use of AI is a whole new area that all students and those involved in education need to be aware of. An absolutely fundamental question for education in the age of AI is what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate usage of AI? In terms of pupils at school, it is important to be aware that many AI tools are 18 plus and only for use by younger children with parental permission. Some of the more substantive early ethical debates about AI and education revolved around AI and cheating and how to deter or detect AI usage. Things have moved on a little, not least because AI detectors have been shown to be unreliable and potentially discriminatory against non-native speakers.
My own view in terms of responsible usage is that educators should start from the assumption that pupils and students can and will use AI. Our job therefore is more about teaching and advising them when to use AI and how much to use it, not to police or ban it. It seems entirely sensible for pupils and students to regularly use AI as an assistant, for instance to help generate ideas or perhaps put it into the role of ‘devil’s advocate’ to challenge their thinking. Equally, there is work for educators to do in terms of essay writing and explaining why just asking ChatGPT to write an essay on a topic and submitting that would be inappropriate usage. We need to be more explicit about the point of such tasks in terms of developing understanding and how there is no short cut to this. A class exercise I have used to good effect is to give students a print out of a ChatGPT essay and then ask them to critique and improve it.
In healthy democratic societies it is vital that our education systems are flexible and adaptable. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that the advent of AI means education should now be focused on creating a generation of ‘prompt engineers’. Creativity, progress, and indeed technological innovation in society seem to me to be highly dependent on there being a broad and holistic conception of what it means to be educated. In the age of AI that means embracing AI, but not at the expense of what makes us truly human.

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