High school essay is over

Good riddance.

There isn’t much evidence that being good at writing book reports or structured essays under normal high school conditions leads people to success or happiness later in life.

When typing became common, handwriting was suddenly no longer a useful clue to the writer’s background or sophistication. Some lamented this, while others decided it opened the door to a whole new opportunity for people to make an impact, whether they went to a prep school or not.

New York City schools are trying to ban GPT3 because it is so good at writing superficial essays that it undermines the command structure of the essay as a selection tool. An easy thing to assign (and a hard thing to grade) has become an easy task to hack.

High school essays had a huge range of problems, and banning the greatest composition device since Danny Dunn and his homework machine wasn’t the answer. In fact, this is a great opportunity to find a better way forward.

The first challenge of the essay was the uneven difficulty in providing useful feedback. 30 Essays, 5 minutes each, Math. It doesn’t scale, and five minutes isn’t even close to enough time to honor the two hours you asked a student to work on.

As a result, the superficial inspection system leads to a second challenge: students get more points for good typing and clear sentences than for actually thinking deeply, questioning the status quo, or changing their minds. If you grew up in a household with verbally agile family members, you probably did better on essays than your peers, but not because of much effort on your own.

The third challenge was a lack of clarity about why we were bothering kids to write essays. There was clearly no shortage of essays. Obviously, this is either to demonstrate that they have read what they are supposed to read, or that they are able to produce logical and persuasive arguments and analysis. Essays were a sign that you could read and you could think.

except…

They were actually a signal that you could do enough to convince an overwhelmed teacher that you were loyal.

So, now that a simple chat interface allows any high school student to write a mediocre to good essay on any topic, what should be done?

The answer is simple but difficult: switch to the Sal Khan model. Lectures at home, for class homework.

When we are alone, our job is to watch the best lectures on the subject, YouTube or Khan Academy. And in the magic of the live classroom, we do our homework together.

In a school where classrooms have decent class sizes and enough facilities to have devices, challenge students to discuss what they have read or learned. In real-time, teach them not only to make arguments but to be confident enough to refute them. Not only can the teacher ask questions to one student, groups of students can ask questions to each other. Of course, they can use GPT or other tools to formulate where they start, but the real task is to come up with something better.

At first, it’s hard work for a teacher, but really, that’s what teachers sign up to do when they become teachers.

It is much less cohesive and controllable than the industry model of straight queues and boring lectures. It will be a really hard transition. But it’s easy to think about: if we want to train people to take initiative, to question, read and create the arguments of others, perhaps the best way to do it is to make them do it.

Never again will we need to hire someone to write a pretty good press release, a pretty good medical report, or a pretty good investor deck. They are instant, free and mid-tier. The opportunity to move forward remains the same: to bring insight and courage to interesting problems. [More.]

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