AI Role in Education

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Guest Article

Heart-ificial Intelligence: Emphasizing emotion while introducing AI in the classroom (Erika Gettig)

Erika Gettig Headshot
Erika Gettig Headshot

Erika Gettig | Teacher Profile

Guest Writer

Mar 18, 2024

Diagram with rainbow connections between teacher, AI, and student overlaid on top of illustration of a man by Bruno Schultz
Diagram with rainbow connections between teacher, AI, and student overlaid on top of illustration of a man by Bruno Schultz
Diagram with rainbow connections between teacher, AI, and student overlaid on top of illustration of a man by Bruno Schultz

Foreword by Lulu Gao:

What decisions should AI be allowed to make in the classroom? How much teaching can and should be relinquished to this seemingly all-knowing tool? Erika Gettig is an Upper School English teacher at
Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Florida, who has reflected on these questions, viewing AI in an optimistically cautious manner. In her guest article below, she argues that teachers must prioritize the human elements of teaching when deciding when and how to incorporate AI into the classroom.

The Human in the Loop

“An event may be small and insignificant in its origin, and yet, when drawn close to one’s eye, it may open in its center an infinite and radiant perspective.” — Bruno Schulz

In the early 1930s, before Nazis murdered him, Bruno Schulz hid entire worlds in his mind, occasionally sharing them with the rowdy, hardscrabble students of Drohobych, Ukraine. So entirely did these stories captivate his class that while he unspooled each narrative, the children became still, silent, like moths that have landed for the night. Eventually, he wrote some of his strange tales down in a collection both strange and bewitching entitled The Street of Crocodiles. In one story, the narrator addresses the reader directly, asking whether “under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other's hands?” 

Quote from Bruno Schultz overlaid on top of his artwork showing two fancy women walking among the unhoused on the street stating “Under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other's hands?”

The question also describes the bond between a teacher and a student, something Schulz himself understood. I bring this up because an unthoughtful, full introduction of AI in the classroom threatens to disrupt or eradicate the rituals foundational to student learning–the spontaneous grin, the belly laugh, the long pause as thought appears and an expression changes, perhaps your own, the communal experience of a collective epiphany, the buzzy exuberance of a Friday afternoon. But introducing AI into the classroom doesn’t have to unravel all the human connection we carefully weave. In fact, I would argue that our job isn’t to find ways to invite AI into learning but to prevent ourselves from leaving just as it arrives. 

The U.S. federal government, specifically the Office of Educational Technology, agrees, arguing in its exhaustive May 2023 report “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning Insights and Recommendations” offering guidelines to school districts, educators, and administrators to create “policies [that] center people, not machines.” The myriad of researchers, policy wonks, administrators, scholars, and teachers who wrote this report asserted that a top priority for education has emerged, namely that we keep “human in the loop as a requirement in educational applications, despite contrary pressures to use AI as an alternative to human decision making.” We must retain agency, the authors continue, because doing so isn’t just ethical but might be our only means of “preserving human dignity.” 

“An event may be small and insignificant in its origin, and yet, when drawn close to one’s eye, it may open in its center an infinite and radiant perspective.” — Bruno Schulz

In the early 1930s, before Nazis murdered him, Bruno Schulz hid entire worlds in his mind, occasionally sharing them with the rowdy, hardscrabble students of Drohobych, Ukraine. So entirely did these stories captivate his class that while he unspooled each narrative, the children became still, silent, like moths that have landed for the night. Eventually, he wrote some of his strange tales down in a collection both strange and bewitching entitled The Street of Crocodiles. In one story, the narrator addresses the reader directly, asking whether “under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other's hands?” 

Quote from Bruno Schultz overlaid on top of his artwork showing two fancy women walking among the unhoused on the street stating “Under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other's hands?”

The question also describes the bond between a teacher and a student, something Schulz himself understood. I bring this up because an unthoughtful, full introduction of AI in the classroom threatens to disrupt or eradicate the rituals foundational to student learning–the spontaneous grin, the belly laugh, the long pause as thought appears and an expression changes, perhaps your own, the communal experience of a collective epiphany, the buzzy exuberance of a Friday afternoon. But introducing AI into the classroom doesn’t have to unravel all the human connection we carefully weave. In fact, I would argue that our job isn’t to find ways to invite AI into learning but to prevent ourselves from leaving just as it arrives. 

The U.S. federal government, specifically the Office of Educational Technology, agrees, arguing in its exhaustive May 2023 report “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning Insights and Recommendations” offering guidelines to school districts, educators, and administrators to create “policies [that] center people, not machines.” The myriad of researchers, policy wonks, administrators, scholars, and teachers who wrote this report asserted that a top priority for education has emerged, namely that we keep “human in the loop as a requirement in educational applications, despite contrary pressures to use AI as an alternative to human decision making.” We must retain agency, the authors continue, because doing so isn’t just ethical but might be our only means of “preserving human dignity.” 

“An event may be small and insignificant in its origin, and yet, when drawn close to one’s eye, it may open in its center an infinite and radiant perspective.” — Bruno Schulz

In the early 1930s, before Nazis murdered him, Bruno Schulz hid entire worlds in his mind, occasionally sharing them with the rowdy, hardscrabble students of Drohobych, Ukraine. So entirely did these stories captivate his class that while he unspooled each narrative, the children became still, silent, like moths that have landed for the night. Eventually, he wrote some of his strange tales down in a collection both strange and bewitching entitled The Street of Crocodiles. In one story, the narrator addresses the reader directly, asking whether “under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other's hands?” 

Quote from Bruno Schultz overlaid on top of his artwork showing two fancy women walking among the unhoused on the street stating “Under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other's hands?”

The question also describes the bond between a teacher and a student, something Schulz himself understood. I bring this up because an unthoughtful, full introduction of AI in the classroom threatens to disrupt or eradicate the rituals foundational to student learning–the spontaneous grin, the belly laugh, the long pause as thought appears and an expression changes, perhaps your own, the communal experience of a collective epiphany, the buzzy exuberance of a Friday afternoon. But introducing AI into the classroom doesn’t have to unravel all the human connection we carefully weave. In fact, I would argue that our job isn’t to find ways to invite AI into learning but to prevent ourselves from leaving just as it arrives. 

The U.S. federal government, specifically the Office of Educational Technology, agrees, arguing in its exhaustive May 2023 report “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning Insights and Recommendations” offering guidelines to school districts, educators, and administrators to create “policies [that] center people, not machines.” The myriad of researchers, policy wonks, administrators, scholars, and teachers who wrote this report asserted that a top priority for education has emerged, namely that we keep “human in the loop as a requirement in educational applications, despite contrary pressures to use AI as an alternative to human decision making.” We must retain agency, the authors continue, because doing so isn’t just ethical but might be our only means of “preserving human dignity.” 

We Are Not Machines

We’re all familiar with the orphanages in Romania which, after the Soviet Union fell, adopted an “efficiency model” that brutally deprived abandoned and impoverished children of any caregiving, nurturing, or emotional connection, supplying them only with food, clothing, and shelter, technically meeting every human need. Described by a former orphan as “slaughterhouses of the soul,” these squalid and wretched institutions so damaged the children that many developed significant mental illnesses. Scientists later discovered another unsettling consequence, the literal shrinking of their brain and of brain activity, according to the Popular Science article “A Childhood without Affection can be Devastating, even if Basic Needs are Met” by Eleanor Cummins. And while no one can compare the abusive, horrific conditions of “Ceaușescu’s repressive regime” that brutally neglected tens of thousands of children to the public or private education system in the U.S., we must as teachers remember that neglecting the interpersonal–the shared look, the begrudging smile, the communal glee–doesn’t just mar the psyche of our students but damages the very human element we’re charged with inspiring, their mind. 

The role of the interpersonal connections in the classroom really consists of the gestures, words, and acts that evoke emotion in our students. How do we make them feel about themselves, each other, the subject? Studies have shown that emotion impacts learning and memory. In the journal article “The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory,” published in 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers concluded that “emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving.” Lest we don’t implicitly trust that conclusion, we need only remember three short years ago when Covid, or particularly the migration to the sterile, individualistic, “future-forward” world of screen-only learning, decimated student knowledge and skills. According to Harvard researcher Tom Kane and Stanford researcher Sean Reardon, who created the Education Recovery Scorecard to understand the learning loss in the Covid era, “math, reading, and history scores from the past three years show that students experienced a significant decline in learning during the pandemic.” Ironically, the “progress” that online learning promised years ago when first floated as an alternative to in-person learning was anything but. “It’s been painful to watch a lot of that progress being reversed,” Kane said, according to Harvard Magazine, noting that “some 40 percent of the increase [in test results] between 1990 and 2019 evaporated between 2019 and 2022.” It wasn’t the virus that undermined student achievement; it was screen learning with its demolition of the classroom community and flattening and erasure of you, dear teacher.

Quote from Erika Gettig overlaid atop Bruno Schultz's sketch of two women stating “The role of the interpersonal connections in the classroom really consists of the gestures, words, and acts that evoke emotion in our students.”

Though, We Need Machines

Every class has students who eagerly want to learn but struggle to read or to process or to connect or to engage. And while clear and timely feedback combined with the occasional extra help sessions can help these kids, that outreach often isn’t frequent enough. They can end the year with their progress unfinished, some skill still elusive, some understanding too faint, some habit not yet formed. Knowingly passing along an unprepared or insecure student to a harder class or an entirely different subject haunts most educators. Fortunately, the robust and consistent and individualized outreach of AI promises to not just help underserved students improve but actually give them wings, possibly eradicating the burden of incompletion and inadequacy some students drag from class to class and year to year. 

But be mindful though, dear teacher, not to mistake the efficiency of instantaneous, frequent AI-generated tasks and feedback offers with the education of an entire human being. Efficiency in itself is not a noble aspiration. It would be much more efficient for me to read summaries of books than the novels themselves, for instance. Doing so, however, would mean I’d miss sentences so arresting I have to momentarily recalibrate my perspective on love or time or loss. John Dewey, in his Education and Experience, challenged us then and now to examine the beliefs underneath our decisions as educators: “The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other, for some experiences are mis-educative.” Similarly, I can simultaneously believe that I should employ every tool available to help a student and refuse to believe that AI can ever replace the confluence of biology, psychology, language, and culture that determines student growth. 

Quote from Erika Gettig overlaid atop Bruno Schultz's painting of two women facing a person dressed in black at a distance, stating “Be mindful ... not to mistake the efficiency [AI] offers with the education of an entire human being. Efficiency in itself is not a noble aspiration.”

But A Machine is Just a Machine

There’s an ethereal quality to the community of a classroom, as it's both a collective experience and a journey of individual growth. Such growth begins with a student’s singular idea, then blossoms when paired with a meaningful exchange with another student or the biological surge of serotonin that comes from solving a difficult problem. That rare space of experimentation and play and connection exists like no other in human civilization. In the classroom, the institution and individual’s motives remain pure, altruistic, and uncorrupted. Certainly lots can muck it up. Teachers can be inept, indifferent, incapable; students can embrace boredom, stress, each other rather than the subject matter and skill sets; parents can steamroll and snowplow; administrators can nitpick and meat cleaver. But each day that the classroom door opens, so too does the possibility for what can only be described as magic. 

Any tool, mechanism, device, routine–imposed on or adopted by the teacher–might dissipate the delicate atmosphere, the collective thinking that coexists with the individual striving for independent thought, the permission students sometimes give themselves to care about mitochondria, metaphor, or mass incarceration. AI-enhanced lessons and interactions do seem to differ from the dry worksheets, droll textbooks, monotonous AP test prep drills, cumbersome learning management systems, and pedagogical jargon that all aspire to colonize that rarefied interplay between the student, the teacher, the idea, and the community that is the classroom. Still, very few families enshrine their tool boxes, pay homage to them, or even keep an enormous eyesore of a toolbox on the dining room table so that they must crane their neck to see over it and into the eyes of their child. 

Teachers must remember that the metaphor of a toolbox is incomplete without imagining the person carrying that box. In this metaphor, the teacher is the artist, the craftsperson, the engineer, the mechanic who chooses when and why to open (or close) that box, which tools to use, and how to work with them to construct something wonderful. When it comes to inviting AI into your classroom, remember that your interface with students, your personal perspective on a student’s progress, your education and expertise, and your ability to create a classroom community has the power to build more than knowledge and skills. Artists would never cede their creative power and decision making to a single instrument. And nor should you, dear teacher. On your best day in the classroom, you’re orchestrating a symphony of possibility, and on your worst day, you’re teaching them what it means to be human.

Spark AI-powered learning at your school.

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Spark AI-powered learning at your school.

In your demo, we’ll start by learning about your school’s AI strategy and then explore how Flint can help.