It’s the process, not the product

A couple of months ago I decided to confront, head on, the elephant that had been taking up more and more space in my writing classroom. From the occasional paragraph in the occasional article, it was now making itself visible in more than half of all submitted essays. It showed itself in inhumanly perfect prose, using terms like “witnessed a film” when “watched” would have sufficed. Copying or outsourcing assignments is not new, but ChatGPT and other AI-enabled tools have just made it much easier for students to dish out material that fulfils the requirements without putting in their own ideas or effort.

We are all going to have to learn to work with such tools, no doubt, but what most students are doing – particularly in contexts like a writing class – is giving up the opportunity to learn the process and instead focusing only on the output. There is no doubt that valuable skills can be built with such tools, and contributors to this magazine, like Neerja Singh, have pointed that out. But that takes a more deliberate approach that looks at AI-integration or use as the process, and one would then evaluate differently, looking at how well students are able to use the tools, with the product being the reflection of that.

But back to my classroom. When asked, hardly anyone denied using AI. It was clear that this resorting to the use of AI to write their essays came from a deep anxiety about how they would be judged. And listening to them, it was hard to hold on to my irritation. I did give them a long lecture, saying, among other things, that I had no interest in grading AI and I was being paid to try to make them better writers, but as I thought more about it, I realized that the real problem goes much deeper. And sadly, it’s a problem we have known about for a while.

Our education system – as the ASER report shows year after year – has succeeded in producing students who get high marks and score well on tests without really learning anything. The premium placed on the final grades has resulted in a single-minded focus on getting those marks, no matter what the cost. Intensive coaching in test-taking is one way, and using AI is just another.

The sobering thing is that progress through the system demands a focus on marks and there is no real space for students to sit with ideas or practices until they acquire true competency. But perhaps we can think of small ways in which we can get children to take pride and joy in doing things on their own, to demonstrate learning, without the pressure of evaluation. It’s one thing to use AI to extend our capabilities; it’s an entirely different thing to use it to mask our deficiencies.

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