Revolutionizing Education: How AI Can Empower Teachers in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2023 Issue
By Adam Stone
At KIPP BOLD Academy, a school for Grades 5–8 in Newark, NJ, educator Winston Roberts teaches financial literacy. Lately he’s been using a new tool to get the job done—Artificial Intelligence (AI).
“I wanted [students] to research a bunch of different businesses that have made questionable business-ethics decisions,” he says. “I had ChatGPT generate a list of some of the most infamous business scandals that were instigated by profit motives, and also had it suggest Google search terms so kids could look up more information.”
In about 15 minutes he had generated a list of examples that would have taken him many hours to compile by hand. That was enough to get the kids off and running on their research.
While AI is still an emerging technology, educators and K–12 advocates say it has the potential to make life better for teachers. It will save them time, surface new teaching materials, and spark deeper classroom engagements.
The international consultancy group McKinsey reports that 20 to 40 percent of a teacher’s working hours are spent on tasks that could be automated. That’s roughly 13 hours a week that teachers could redirect toward higher-value activities. Some say AI will help them get there.
Exploring the Possibilities
At Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, NY, Phil Schwartz is head of the upper school and also teaches computer science. He’s using AI to develop problems for his students to solve.
The AI gave him a wider list of possible problems than he could have crafted on his own. “I could use that to come up with things that I haven’t thought of before, to challenge the students in new ways,” Schwartz explains.
Across the K–12 landscape, experts point to a wide range of possible ways in which AI could help teachers save time and effort, while simultaneously also expanding their pedagogic options.
Anthony Clemons is a doctoral student in the International Technology program at Northern Illinois University who is very interested in AI-powered assessment modules to help streamline the grading process. Once students complete an assessment, “the teachers can give students the ability to allow an AI module to grade the responses,” he says. Student can review that feedback and use it to improve their responses.
For the teacher, the AI can deliver “a comprehensive overview of each student’s performance, highlighting areas where students excel and where they struggle,” Clemons explains. “It [can] save teachers a lot of time in grading drafts, and provides the students with insights that they can use to adjust their papers.”
By using AI to generate things like lesson plans, teachers can potentially save “hundreds of hours” of prep time, says Jeff Hughes, founder of STEM-skills provider Skill Samurai.
He recently asked an AI engine to create a lesson plan that would explain how the stock market crash of 1907 led to the rise of financial services firm J.P. Morgan. Seconds later, he had a detailed plan that stated the educational objectives and needed materials, offered a step-by-step outline of the lesson, and suggested possible assessment strategies.
With a follow-up prompt, the AI generated an eight-question multiple choice quiz on the topic (complete with an answer key), and another prompt delivered a list of learning objectives aligned to the six cognitive learning domains defined in Bloom’s taxonomy.
AI can potentially give teachers “new ways to experiment with and incorporate creativity, critical thinking, and research skills in the classroom,” explains Carlos Bortoni, global industry advisor for K–12 education at Qualtrics, whose technology solutions empower digital experiences.
“Keeping the content engaging for K–12 students is always challenging, especially while balancing state-mandated requirements with the needs of individual learners,” he says. “But what if the curriculum was paired with tech that could expand on the classroom lesson by aggregating additional learnings across [multiple] sources?”
For example, teachers could put AI to use “as the starting point for a debate on a given topic,” Bortoni suggests. With AI generating a range of viewpoints, based on student prompts, “it’s likely each group would come back to the larger group with different key arguments or learnings, igniting broader conversations and surfacing other points of view that may otherwise have been missed completely.”
At the accredited online high school Penn Foster, Chief Learning Officer Andy Shean points to a number of other potential classroom uses:
- Research: “Research is an essential part of academic writing, yet it can often be a challenging and time-consuming process. AI allows students to access a wealth of information in minimal time, providing more time to develop a comprehensive understanding of their subject matter and ultimately producing higher-quality work,” Shean says.
- Writing Prompts: Students and teachers can use AI “to generate creative writing prompts, jumpstarting the creative process,” he notes. “For teachers lacking inspiration or students practicing their skills independently, AI can cater to specific interests and needs, and help teachers instruct a range of writing styles.”
- Real-Time Feedback: “AI tools allow for immediate feedback,” Shean says. Meaning that “as students are developing their own writing, they can get real-time feedback from the platform, when their teachers may not be available to help.”
- Brainstorming: “When students ask the right questions, AI can help generate new and innovative ideas to fuel creative ideas and projects,” he explains.
Teachers can also look to AI to help support collaborative learning.
“AI technologies embedded within platforms can help teachers form groups based on past performance, model effective collaboration, suggest problem-solving strategies, and prompt teachers to intervene as a result of data analysis,” according to CoSN, a K–12 ed-tech professional association.
At the ed-tech company SchoolJoy, co-founder and CEO Ian Zhu points to AI’s ability to synthesize information as a potential boon for high school teachers who are deluged with requests for letters of recommendation.
“If we know what the kids’ achievements are outside of the class—their community service, their feedback from the mentors and other teachers—AI can do a great job creating hyper-personalized letters of recommendations to give [the] teacher a much better draft to work with,” he says.
Clearly there’s big promise here. But what about the potential downsides? How will teachers make best use of these emerging capabilities, and leverage AI in a way that’s effective and responsible?
Bringing It to Life
AI is human-informed, and it won’t always give a perfect answer, or even the right answer. In Shean’s opinion, that’s all to the good.
As students evaluate the AI outputs, they will “build their critical thinking skills, which are essential for success in academic and professional settings,” he explains. “In fact, some teachers may even turn this process into an assignment in and of itself, challenging students to push back against the generated responses, improve them, and produce an even better response themselves.”
As teachers look to AI for time-saving assistance, they too will need to bring a wary eye to the process.
Roberts, for instance, has used AI as a kind of personal assistant, at first asking it to generate various drafts of communications as a way of getting his initial thoughts on paper. He’ll always fine-tune those results, to ensure they convey his personal style, and he’s done a lot of research to figure out how to prompt the AI more effectively.
“I found a lot of tips on YouTube, on TikTok, on Instagram,” he says. In general, he has discovered that it helps “to be as descriptive as possible about what the output is that you want.”
Schwartz has come to the same conclusion as he has sought the help of AI. “You have to be incredibly specific about what you’re asking,” he notes. “It is a computer program that still just does what it’s told. It doesn’t have a lot of gray to its thinking, so it will produce exactly what you say, and if you’re asking the question incorrectly, it’s going to come up with the wrong information.”
As AI comes into play more often, teachers will need to ensure that they are being careful with the privacy and security of student data, especially in these early days when many are still trying out free and publicly-available tools. They’ll need to be thoughtful, too, about AI’s power to magnify any unintended bias.
“It’s crucial that educators receive comprehensive training to help them effectively use and integrate these tools into their instruction,” Clemons says. Educators need to understand that as powerful as AI can be, it’s here to support human effort and not replace it. “By viewing AI as a supplement, rather than a replacement, teaching methods can be augmented, and students can benefit from more tailored learning experiences.”
As with any new type of technology, educators will need to approach AI with all due caution. But many experts say that it will be worth the effort. With its capacity for instantaneous brainstorming, and the ability to craft helpful first drafts, AI could help save teachers countless hours of effort.
By combining natural language processing and data-driven analysis, AI-assisted teachers “can provide instant feedback, answer questions, and guide students through their educational journey,” Hughes says. Add to this the ability to personalize and individualize information, and “AI could revolutionize education.”
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.