What Is to Be Done? Teaching Writing in the Era of AI

The development of AI-driven large language programs like ChatGPT raises fundamental questions about teaching writing. The core issue teachers need to consider is this: If writing in the future will be a collaboration between a human and an AI program, then what writing-related skills does a student need to develop?

To answer this question, we must start with the core purpose of writing itself. We teach students to write so they are able to formulate and communicate their thoughts accurately and clearly. Both verbs are relevant here: writing is not only about communicating to others but also about formulating your thoughts more clearly for yourself. The discipline of writing gives order to your thoughts, which is why journaling is such a powerful tool for creativity and insight.

The Power (and Challenges) of Writing with AI

Obviously, artificial intelligence programs cannot substitute for an individual’s own writing—to do so would be to outsource your thinking to an external agent. Equally obviously, though, an AI program can be a powerful support to any writing project. It can assemble and organize relevant facts and considerations while modeling proper spelling, punctuation, and other writing mechanics.  

To get the AI “take” on any given topic is not much different from reading someone else’s thoughts on that topic as an inspiration to formulating and refining your own. The primary difference, of course, is that the AI version has been tailored precisely to the prompt the human writer wants to address. AI essentially scours the internet and repurposes the information it finds to align with your definition of the topic.

That difference makes the AI essay almost like a rough draft of the version the writer can ultimately claim as their own. Almost. It is not truly a rough draft in the traditional sense because the AI version relies entirely on thoughts external to the writer. It is highly customized and relevant to the writer’s topic, but it is not an expression of the writer’s thoughts.

“Obviously, artificial intelligence programs cannot substitute for an individual’s own writing—to do so would be to outsource your thinking to an external agent. Equally obviously, though, an AI program can be a powerful support to any writing project.”

— Tom Rochon, ERB President

A Revised Approach to Teaching Writing

This perspective on the AI-writer partnership suggests an approach to teaching writing that builds on the respected tradition of emphasizing the revision process as a way of honing skill. Rather than revising their own rough draft, though, students could begin with the AI-generated response to their topic. 

And, rather than treating that account as a rough draft to be edited for word choice and punctuation, the student could be asked, as a first step, to write a critique of the AI-generated essay. What is included and excluded from that essay? Are there alternative perspectives that should be considered? Are there gaps in logic or evidence that need to be addressed? Having written their critique — essentially the formulation of one’s own thoughts,  which has always been the foundation of writing — a student is then ready to create their own essay on the topic. 

Most often, students will draw liberally on the AI-generated version, but they will do so in a way that makes it fully their own. And in so doing, they will have fulfilled the essential reason we teach writing in the first place: to formulate one’s thoughts clearly both for yourself and for others.

Teaching Writing with ERB

ERB offers tools that can help you teach writing in the era of artificial intelligence. Our ERB Writing Practice program enables students to submit an unlimited number of essay drafts for real-time automated scoring using the highly-awarded PEG scoring algorithm. 

One way to use ERB Writing Practice is to have students input an AI-generated essay and then see how their revisions change the automated scores and comments. Alternatively, they can compare their own first drafts with AI-generated drafts. In so doing, students can become skilled in the human-AI partnership that characterizes the writing process today, while at the same time sharpening their own autonomous skill in thinking and communicating. 

Even in the brave new world of the human-AI partnership, there are times when a teacher needs to understand a student’s unaided capabilities in writing. ERB’s writing assessments—including our Writing Assessment Program (WrAP) and the Comprehensive Test Program (CTP) subtests on Writing Mechanics and Writing Concepts and Skills—fill this purpose admirably. These assessments are administered in school under standardized conditions and provide benchmarked insights into specific writing-related skills in several genres. 

The development of powerful tools to assist writing is having a fundamental impact on how educators approach writing instruction. While methods of teaching are bound to change, the purpose of teaching writing has not changed at all. That purpose is to develop student capabilities in clarity of thought and expression—both for themselves and for others.

Summer Discount on ERB Writing Practice

Keep learners engaged this summer and boost their writing skills with reduced pricing on ERB Writing Practice, designed for students entering grades 3-12. Learn more, or order now as an ERB member school.

About the Author

Thomas R. Rochon became president of ERB in 2017. He has held faculty appointments at Princeton University and Claremont Graduate University, a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, and a year as Fulbright Scholar in Japan. Administratively, Tom has served as dean and provost at Claremont Graduate University, as provost at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and as president of Ithaca College in New York. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was a regular speaker on European political trends for foreign service officers in the U.S. Department of State. Within the world of educational assessment, Tom has served as executive director of the GRE testing program at the Educational Testing Service. 

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