How to help students find their writer’s voice in the age of AI

Kids Writing

How to help students find their writer’s voice in the age of AI

With AI writing tools on the rise, what’s the point of writing assessments? With the ease of accessibility to AI writing tools, the only way to ensure we help nurture the next generation of critical thinkers would be to rethink how we teach, learn, and assess writing.

To prepare our students for the future beyond our foresight, the certainty of AI’s advancement is something we must not dismiss. Instead, we must make do with the limited information we have now to imagine beyond what we know—even if that means that what we learned about last week will be obsolete next week. And this is what we shall use to continue developing the human skills that AI cannot yet—and hopefully not—replicate.

AI Only Mimics Human Thought and Creativity

****While ChatGPT can generate seemingly coherent text, it only mimics understanding and original thought. Prone to errors and biases, ChatGPT is nowhere near the human ability to enact purposeful change despite its advancements. It lacks intention, intuition, and context—which humans have. Its lack of sentience and life (for lack of a better term) leads it only to mirror authenticity instead of wisdom based on learnings from lived experiences: the combination of which lead to the power of human authenticity and creativity.

As Piaget’s cognitive development theory suggests, children learn by actively understanding the world around them by making meaning out of their past and present experiences. All these stages they go through in their maturity—sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational—involve children learning from their experiences by assimilating new information into what they already know and accommodating new information by reconstructing their previous mental maps if things don’t make sense.

How does this apply to learning in the Age of AI?

****First, with the rise of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, we must ensure we give plenty of opportunities for lived experiences because that is how children learn. Pretending it does not exist by totally banning it in the name of safety and security only assures our students a disadvantaged, unequal future. There must be a balanced approach where we are aware of its potential and pitfalls, where it’s not a contest between machine and machine but a responsible, critical, ethical collaboration between the two.

Second, as ChatGPT lacks true comprehension, original thought, and human creativity, we must nurture these aspects of a child’s development to ensure we continue going where AI cannot. That we keep what we must and what we can to ourselves.

Third, such an approach is a way to “AI-proof” learning—where there is an acknowledgment of the existence of AI-generated text as a reality, but it does not take precedence over learning.

How do we do this?

  1. Prioritize assessments that value originality, authenticity, experience, processes, and intention.
  2. Nurture voice through timed free writing without AI:
    1. Focus on generating ideas without judgment. Do “brain-dumps” routinely.
    2. Make all the mistakes. Let there be a stage where communication, not correctness, is the priority.
    3. Celebrate mistakes in class. Ask your students what their favorite valuable mistakes are. Tell them to share with their classmates why and how they’ve used these mistakes to improve their writing.
    4. Allow your students to use a stream-of-conscious style in writing. Don’t think about structure yet. Just let them write!

The act of free writing helps clarify and celebrate thinking. Such liberation before organizing and restructuring thoughts on paper allows authentic perspectives to emerge. AI’s formulaic thinking can come later.

Should you decide to incorporate AI (whether by guiding students or allowing them to use it independently), you can help protect and nurture their writer’s voice by doing the following:

  1. You could use one of our teachers’ tips: She always ensures that her first writing assignment is a low-stakes brain-dumping free writing activity. In your case, let it be a getting-to-know-you activity at the start of the semester. Let your students write for the pure joy of sharing their most passionate thoughts about something they love doing. Tell them to set a timer for 20 minutes. Write whatever comes to mind with whatever prompt you’ll give them. It doesn’t matter if, in the 20 minutes, all they came up with was “I couldn’t come up with anything” or “I hate writing.” The point is that they get to make do with the time they’ve been given. (Here’s why that helps—Through this, they will understand that imperfection is not to be penalized and that authenticity is what is prized. In this way, you set the stage for writing as something that is not intimidating. You get a sample snapshot of where they’re at as writers. And they get to learn this little freewriting trick they can use when they get stuck.)
  2. Have students map out or outline their arguments in their own words before they ask AI for help. It doesn’t matter whether it is a handwritten or digital argument map or a very rough outline of their thoughts complete with typos—the point is: they wrote it themselves, and you celebrated it in all its raw glory.
  3. Look for appropriate graphic organizers to help students structure and make their thinking visible before they run the text interpretation through AI.
  4. Have students read the AI output to see if it matches their intentions. Let them critique the output.
  5. Have students edit AI suggestions to match their personal preferences and writing style. Let them reflect on their editing process by giving them questions like:
    1. What characterizes my writing?
    2. How different is it from AI writing?
    3. What do I give that AI can’t and vice-versa?
    4. How can I learn from what AI is giving me?
    5. What can AI learn from me?
    6. How would I like to improve AI tools? Why?
    7. How can I use what I’ve learned here elsewhere in my life?
    8. Why is this helpful for me to learn?
  6. Before assigning any writing assessment, choose your micro-skill focus for that particular exercise. Do not grade everything. What matters most is that you give focused feedback.
  7. Pay special attention to giving personalized feedback over aspects that AI cannot replicate, and if it’s AI-assisted, give feedback on the thought process that led to that intention. If you decide to use AI to streamline your feedback process, ensure you’re just focusing on 1-2 skills. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Spend the time you saved through AI by having mini-conferences with your students on what you liked, what can be improved, etc. Let your warmth be felt in person. Nurture that voice by letting them hear your own in person.
  8. Discuss mistakes, don’t just penalize errors. Dissect successes, and celebrate what went well.
  9. We must rethink our writing assignments to nurture voice while teaching responsible AI use. We must evolve with the times—adjust rubrics periodically as necessary. (Note: For this, know that we know that it is not easy. Kudos for powering through such exponential changes. We know how challenging it can be, that’s why we’re trying to figure this out together!)

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