Why Flint

|

Guest Article

King Lear and the Flint AI (Paul Erb)

Paul Erb headshot
Paul Erb headshot

Paul Erb | LinkedIn

Guest Writer

Mar 7, 2024

Class in library with King Lear AI robot
Class in library with King Lear AI robot
Class in library with King Lear AI robot

Foreword by Lulu Gao:

Paul Erb has over 27 years of experience working in education, both in schools and in industry. His roles in independent schools have varied from English teacher to French teacher to Assistant Head of School for Finance and Operations. He also spent 9 years working at Capital One in various roles including one as a Dean in their IT University and one as Director of Data Management. Currently, he teaches English at Woodberry Forest School, where he also coaches the squash team. His particular teaching passion is to discover in language the continuing capacity for new growth and connection.

The article below was written for the Flint blog by Erb. The images were generated by the Flint team using Dalle 3. We’re excited to share his process of incorporating Flint into his 11th-grade English class and his outlook on what place AI has in teaching reading comprehension and writing.

One hand washes the other

I’m an English teacher using human-produced artifacts to understand AI-produced artifacts—and vice versa. My students and I are learning to use the bot’s balance of errors, blandness, and excellence to think better ourselves. Look at the AI-generated image below of the expression “one hand washes the other,” an old saying that embodies what I’m trying to do. I’m teaching Lear with AI, and AI with Lear. But the image is not…quite…right, is it? Now compare the image’s shiny off-ness to Gloucester’s shock at a treacherous (forged) note he’s intercepted. “My son Edgar! Had he a hand to write this? A heart and brain to breed it in?”

AI-generated image of one hand washing another

I’m not doing it alone. My students and I are working in tandem: they are helping me to guide them. In my 11th-grade English class at a boarding school in Virginia, we study where myths and artificial intelligence overlap. There’s nothing technical about the course–the students learn just really basic terms like input, output, algorithm. They study a standard English curriculum like vocabulary, poetry, drama, prose essays, and fiction. They also learn classical logical structures like syllogisms and the Toulmin data-warrant-claim argument.

So how does it work? Right now we are reading King Lear. These high school boys express their skepticism about the way you might expect them to. But their encounters with Shakespeare’s story of servants and masters, trust and betrayal, foolishness and experiment, transfer of power, insanity, and love—let’s not leave out love, even though it’s filial love, not the romantic kind—have overlapped remarkably well with their attempt to discuss AI. They discuss such things with the bot we find—and the ones I build—inside of Flint.

I’ve approached learning Lear and AI in two ways: In Flint, the students have access to a GPT 4.0 bot. They also have my free license to use any online sources that they can find, even the vilified No Fear Shakespeare, to understand the source text. Every Monday they come to class and hand-write in a journal a close reading of a passage I’ve chosen from the play. This close reading, in the spirit of the AP English exams, has to meet all the requirements of a standard high-school English essay: It has to answer the prompt by exploring Shakespeare’s language, it has to cohere, it has to be thorough, and it has to show control at the sentence level.

I’m an English teacher using human-produced artifacts to understand AI-produced artifacts—and vice versa. My students and I are learning to use the bot’s balance of errors, blandness, and excellence to think better ourselves. Look at the AI-generated image below of the expression “one hand washes the other,” an old saying that embodies what I’m trying to do. I’m teaching Lear with AI, and AI with Lear. But the image is not…quite…right, is it? Now compare the image’s shiny off-ness to Gloucester’s shock at a treacherous (forged) note he’s intercepted. “My son Edgar! Had he a hand to write this? A heart and brain to breed it in?”

AI-generated image of one hand washing another

I’m not doing it alone. My students and I are working in tandem: they are helping me to guide them. In my 11th-grade English class at a boarding school in Virginia, we study where myths and artificial intelligence overlap. There’s nothing technical about the course–the students learn just really basic terms like input, output, algorithm. They study a standard English curriculum like vocabulary, poetry, drama, prose essays, and fiction. They also learn classical logical structures like syllogisms and the Toulmin data-warrant-claim argument.

So how does it work? Right now we are reading King Lear. These high school boys express their skepticism about the way you might expect them to. But their encounters with Shakespeare’s story of servants and masters, trust and betrayal, foolishness and experiment, transfer of power, insanity, and love—let’s not leave out love, even though it’s filial love, not the romantic kind—have overlapped remarkably well with their attempt to discuss AI. They discuss such things with the bot we find—and the ones I build—inside of Flint.

I’ve approached learning Lear and AI in two ways: In Flint, the students have access to a GPT 4.0 bot. They also have my free license to use any online sources that they can find, even the vilified No Fear Shakespeare, to understand the source text. Every Monday they come to class and hand-write in a journal a close reading of a passage I’ve chosen from the play. This close reading, in the spirit of the AP English exams, has to meet all the requirements of a standard high-school English essay: It has to answer the prompt by exploring Shakespeare’s language, it has to cohere, it has to be thorough, and it has to show control at the sentence level.

I’m an English teacher using human-produced artifacts to understand AI-produced artifacts—and vice versa. My students and I are learning to use the bot’s balance of errors, blandness, and excellence to think better ourselves. Look at the AI-generated image below of the expression “one hand washes the other,” an old saying that embodies what I’m trying to do. I’m teaching Lear with AI, and AI with Lear. But the image is not…quite…right, is it? Now compare the image’s shiny off-ness to Gloucester’s shock at a treacherous (forged) note he’s intercepted. “My son Edgar! Had he a hand to write this? A heart and brain to breed it in?”

AI-generated image of one hand washing another

I’m not doing it alone. My students and I are working in tandem: they are helping me to guide them. In my 11th-grade English class at a boarding school in Virginia, we study where myths and artificial intelligence overlap. There’s nothing technical about the course–the students learn just really basic terms like input, output, algorithm. They study a standard English curriculum like vocabulary, poetry, drama, prose essays, and fiction. They also learn classical logical structures like syllogisms and the Toulmin data-warrant-claim argument.

So how does it work? Right now we are reading King Lear. These high school boys express their skepticism about the way you might expect them to. But their encounters with Shakespeare’s story of servants and masters, trust and betrayal, foolishness and experiment, transfer of power, insanity, and love—let’s not leave out love, even though it’s filial love, not the romantic kind—have overlapped remarkably well with their attempt to discuss AI. They discuss such things with the bot we find—and the ones I build—inside of Flint.

I’ve approached learning Lear and AI in two ways: In Flint, the students have access to a GPT 4.0 bot. They also have my free license to use any online sources that they can find, even the vilified No Fear Shakespeare, to understand the source text. Every Monday they come to class and hand-write in a journal a close reading of a passage I’ve chosen from the play. This close reading, in the spirit of the AP English exams, has to meet all the requirements of a standard high-school English essay: It has to answer the prompt by exploring Shakespeare’s language, it has to cohere, it has to be thorough, and it has to show control at the sentence level.

A dog’s obeyed in office

A happy dog in a suit sitting at an office desk with a view of NYC

We’ve met some obstacles. Flint’s Assignments module has helped me create several bots, with varying levels of success. When it generates the assignment, it often wants to do a character role-play. It offers to debate the student from that perspective. But that voice never feels authentic, so I have to go in and adjust expectations. I want the bot to act more like a teacher because I don’t think it will ever speak in Shakespearean English as Lear or Cordelia or Goneril or Edmund would. I’ve tried to engineer that, and so far I’ve failed. And I tend to use the Friendly mode, but the students tend to dismiss its blandishments and want to get to the grade (which is so far not accurate or consistent enough for me to enter it in the grade book).

But automated grading is not my objective. I aim to help students think and read and write in a way that each of these skills assists the other–making myself, as good teachers do, redundant. So I’m asking the bot to do the same. We all know that it doesn’t have any thoughts, but it simulates thinking usefully. And that rich simulation—one hand washes the other—is akin to the simulation of a person that we get when Shakespeare’s words play out on the page.

Now thou art an O without a figure: I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing.

Harold Bloom famously wrote that Shakespeare is “secular scripture.” By that I think he meant that Shakespeare’s text is inexhaustibly wiser than I am, and bears traces of something mythically true, beyond my fullest grasp unless I just cite it. So my assignments have tended to be classically oriented: Discuss this passage with the bot, use Shakespeare’s language to make your points and ask your questions, and then tomorrow come in and discuss a passage I will give you. I’ll judge your writing, and I will not use the bot.

Student discussing Shakespeare with an AI bot

A student-bot tutorial exchange follows:

—————

BOT: Let's discuss a line from Act 1 of King Lear. I will choose the line to discuss with you. I'll ask you to give me the context of the line, and I'll help you if you're lost. Then we will choose another, and then another, and repeat.

BOY: Alright, let's start

BOT: Great! Let's start with this line spoken by King Lear: "Nothing will come of nothing: speak again." (Act 1, Scene 1). Can you tell me the context of this line and what you think it signifies?

BOY: Yes. During this scene, Lear has just asked Cordelia for flattery in return for a portion of his kingdom and wealth. When she refuses to do so and stays quiet, Lear implores her, trying to argue that if she stays quiet and does not give him what he wants, she will get nothing in return, offering a sort of trade.

BOT:
Excellent interpretation! You've correctly identified the context of this line. King Lear is indeed trying to coax Cordelia into expressing her love for him in exchange for a portion of his kingdom. This line also reflects Lear's belief in transactional love, where he expects his daughters to express their love for him in return for his wealth.

Now, let's delve a bit deeper. How do you think this line reflects Lear's character? And how does it set the tone for the rest of the play?

BOY: Lear is showing that he believes that he has control over his daughter and the trade he is offering, setting prices for the bargain of her flattery for his wealth. It shows us that Lear is blind to the truth of the situation--- his other two daughters are in control, and have gamed him, and he is blind to the truth spoken by Cordelia.

BOT:
Absolutely, you've hit the nail on the head. Lear's transactional view of love and his blindness to the true nature of his daughters are key aspects of his character that are revealed in this line. This also sets the stage for the tragic events that follow, as Lear's inability to discern genuine love from flattery leads to his downfall.

Now, let's consider the specific phrasing of the line: "Nothing will come of nothing: speak again." How does this phrasing contribute to the impact of the line on the reader or another character?

Also, can you recall any interaction between the Fool and another character in Act I that might shed further light on Lear's character or situation?

BOY: This phrasing is ironic. Lear will later realize that he has been gamed and divested of his power, and in effect, from Cordelia's "nothing" and her banishment, Lear winds up with, well, "nothing." Later, the Fool offers Lear his coxcomb, a hat worn only by court jesters, since he thinks that Lear has become the fool in his naivety and blindness in banishing his only faithful daughter.

BOT: You've made a very insightful point about the irony of Lear's statement.

—————

So far, the students give this procedure a thumbs-up. They like the opportunity to practice without judgment, and they are just now learning how to set the bot straight, to assert themselves to the AI. Here’s an example: We are using GPT 4.0, but the bot still makes mistakes. I can’t give it enough context so that it will cite only the passages or sections of the play that we have already read. When I practice with the bot myself, I find it citing passages from later in the play that would confuse any but the best students. And so I model these discussions in class, going live to see how to navigate the dialogue.

The worst is not, so long as we can say, this is the worst

So that AI variability, or even weakness, doesn’t stop us. My instructions to the students include insisting that they question the bot, challenge it, or use in parallel a Gutenberg.org text, searching in a browser to confirm that the text proposed to them is in fact within the range of the assigned reading. Some of them do that; some of them give up. And this split leads me to a next point that seems very important: In any learning encounter, the opportunity for the teacher to provide feedback offers more than just skill development. It’s an opportunity to develop a relationship with the growing person. Especially in independent schools, the relationship between the thoughtful, focused, skilled adult and the growing student is the experience our families want and need. They want responsible mentorship. They want trust and safety. And maybe they want skills and scores, but the precision is less important than the encounter and the striving together.

So that’s how we’re using Flint. We are using it, discussing, testing, and looping back again to understand a little better. How mythic!

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.

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.