Paul Kidson

To understand AI today, we need both why and how

We know AI is such a big deal that just this week the President of the United States, Joe Biden, signed an executive order to try to address the risks of a technology he described as “the most consequential technology of our time”.

So it is no wonder that the proliferation of both AI tools and of conferences during 2023 continues unabated.

And how seriously are we taking the challenge of AI in Australia? Our focus is disproportionately focused on “how”, while larger questions of “why” seem opaque. 

Now is a good time to reflect on where we are with AI. We might now have much greater capacity to generate data, but whether this is leading to knowledge, let alone wisdom, is up for serious debate.

A time to reflect

The number of AI tools and their applications to education is overwhelming, and certainly way beyond initial angst about ChatGPT and cheating that set the tone for the start of the 2023 academic year. 

But, as Maslow once wisely mused, only having a hammer makes us see every problem as a nail. If we have these powerful technologies, knowing how to use them can’t be the only issue. We need to talk more about why and when we use them. This goes to the heart of what we hold as the purposes of education. 

The case of the smartphone provides a useful comparison. First launched in 1992, it took until 2007 for the iPhone to disrupt the technology conversation. Some dreamed of, and seized, the opportunities in education such a device enabled. Others exercised caution, waiting to follow the early adopters only once the path was cleared.

UNESCO advice

Sixteen years later, though, responses have sharpened. UNESCO recently advised that smartphones should only be used where they benefit learning, advice that admittedly seems self-evident. It has taken so long for such a statement to emerge, though, it suggests the “tool” is having ongoing impacts well beyond learning. Sadly, too many examples from schools attest to the harnessing of smartphone power for abusive and manipulative purposes, particularly with sexual violence. The rise of AI has only exacerbated some of these concerns.

The potent combination of learning disengagement and social dysfunction continues to create challenges for how technology is used in schools. There is a rising chorus in support of more handwriting. Some jurisdictions have moved to wholesale banning of mobile phones at school

How we’ve dealt with smartphones should give us pause for reflection, particularly when some early warning signs about AI are clearly evident. 

When AI whistleblower, Timnit Gebru, first started in AI research, she lamented the lack of cultural and gender diversity amongst developers. Things have improved, no doubt, but cultural and social bias remain significant problems to be addressed.

Flat-footed prose

Much lauded creative possibilities of generative AI are still needing development, and also come with serious ethical questions. Margaret Atwood recently lamented the lack of creative artistry of outputs based on her own works, concluding that its “flat-footed prose was the opposite of effective storytelling”. 

Worse, she argued, was that the texts used to train these models were not even purchased by the company, instead relying on versions scraped – stolen – from the internet. That, in turn, meant any royalty payments she might otherwise have earned were withheld. Australian authors have similarly expressed their frustration. Eking out an existence as an author is challenging enough without pirated works further stealing from these vital cultural voices.

We seem to have a larger challenge, too, buried deep in little discussed PISA data. Much of the focus on PISA is about test results.

Sobering results

But here’s what is in Volume III : students’ perceptions about bigger existential questions on the meaning of life, purpose, and satisfaction. The results, all of which are below the OECD average, are sobering:

  • 37% of students disagreed or strongly disagreed that “my life has meaning and purpose”;
  • 42% of students disagreed or strongly disagreed that “I have discovered a satisfactory meaning in life”;
  • 36% of students disagreed or strongly disagreed that “I have a clear sense of what gives meaning to my life”.

And this data was collected before the traumas of Black Summer in 2019 and COVID-19. There is much anticipation about what story the more recent round of PISA data collection will tell.

Based on this data, we clearly have much more work to do on our second national educational goal to develop confident and creative individuals who “have a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity that enables them to manage their emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual and physical wellbeing”. 

What can AI do in pursuit of these goals?

Much of the conversation about AI has been focused on the first part of the first national educational goal – excellence. How can AI be used to improve student learning? How can AI reshape teaching and assessment? More remains to be done on how AI can address the second part – equity.

These concerns are echoed by UNESCO in its recent Global Education Monitoring Report. The opportunities afforded by AI raise new questions about what it means to be educated. Technology is the tool, not the goal, argues the report. AI is to be in the service of developing “learners’ responsibility, empathy, moral compass, creativity and collaboration”.

AI will no doubt bring new possibilities and efficiencies into education, and to that end should be embraced. At the same time, a better test for its value might be that posed recently by Gert Biesta, that we must not:

lose sight of the fact that children and young people are human beings who face the challenge of living their own life, and of trying to live it well.

Attraction to the new, the shiny, the ephemeral, the how, is to be tempered by more fundamental questions of why. Keeping this central to the conversation might prevent us from realising Arendt’s prophecy that our age may exhibit “the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known”.

Dr Paul Kidson is a senior lecturer in Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University. Prior to becoming an academic in 2017, he was a school principal for over 11 years. His teaching and research explore how systems and policies govern the work of school leaders, as well as how school leaders develop and sustain their personal leadership story. He previously wrote about artificial intelligence for EduResearch Matters with Sarah Jefferson and Leon Furze here.

A new sheriff is coming to the wild ChatGPT west

You know something big is happening when the CEO of Open AI, the creators of ChatGPT, starts advocating for “regulatory guardrails”. Sam Altman testified to the US Senate Judiciary Committee this week that the potential risks for misuse are significant, echoing other recent calls by former Google pioneer, the so-called “godfather of AI”, Geoffrey Hinton.

In contrast, teachers continue to be bombarded with a dazzling array of possibilities, seemingly without limit – the great plains and prairies of the AI “wild west”! One estimate recently made the claim “that around 2000 new AI tools were launched in March” alone!

Given teachers across the globe are heading into end of semester, or end of academic year, assessment and reporting, the sheer scale of new AI tools is a stark reminder that learning, teaching, assessment, and reporting are up for serious discussion in the AI hyper-charged world of 2023. Not even a pensive CEO’s reflection or an engineer’s growing concern has tempered expansion.

Until there is some regulation, proliferation of AI tools –  and voices spruiking their merits – will continue unabated. Selecting and integrating AI tools will remain contextual and evaluative work, regardless of regulation. Where does this leave schoolteachers and tertiary academics, and how do we do this with 2000 new tools in one month (is it even possible)?!?!

Some have jumped for joy and packed their bags for new horizons; some have recoiled in terror and impotence, bunkering down in their settled pedagogical “back east”. 

As if this was not enough to deal with, Columbia University undergraduate, Owen Terry, last week staked the claim that students are not using ChatGPT for “writing our essays for us”. Rather, they are breaking down the task into components, asking ChatGPT to analyse and predict suggestions for each component. They then use ideas suggested by ChatGPT to “modify the structure a bit where I deemed the computer’s reasoning flawed or lackluster”. He argues this makes detection of using ChatGPT “simply impossible”. 

It seems students are far savvier about how they use AI in education than we might give them credit, suggests Terry. They are not necessarily looking for the easy route but are engaging with the technology to enhance their understanding and express their ideas. They’re not looking to cheat, just collate ideas and information more efficiently.

Terry challenges us as educators and researchers to think that we might be underestimating the ethical desire for students to be more broadly educated, rather than automatons serving up predictive banality. His searing critique with how we are dealing with our “tools” is blunt – “very few people in power even understand that something is wrong…we’re not being forced to think anymore”. Perhaps contrary to how some might view the challenge, Terry suggests we might even:

need to move away from the take-home essay…and move on to AI-proof assignments like oral exams, in-class writing, or some new style of schoolwork better suited to the world of artificial intelligence.

The urgency of “what do I do with the 2000 new AI apps” seems even greater. These are only the ones released during March. Who knows how many will spring up this month, or next, or by the end of 2023? Who knows how long it will take partisan legislators to act, or what they will come up with in response? Until then, we have to make our own map.

Some have offered a range of educational maps based on alliterative Cs – 4Cs, 6Cs – so here’s a new 4Cs about how we might use AI effectively while we await legislators’ deliberations:

Curation – pick and choose apps which seem to serve the purpose of student learning. Avoid popularity or novelty for its own sake. In considering what this looks like in practice, it is useful to consider the etymology of the word curation which comes from the Latin word, cura, ‘to take care of.’ Indeed, if our primary charge is to educate from a holistic perspective, then consideration must be extended to our choice of AI or apps that will serve their learning needs and engagement.

The fostering of innate curiosity means being unafraid to trial things for ourselves and with and for our students. But this should not be to the detriment of the intended learning outcomes, rather to ensure they align more closely. When curating AI, be discerning in whether it adds to the richness of student learning.

Clarity – identify for students (and teachers) why any chosen app has educative value. It’s the elevator pitch of 2023 – if you can’t explain to students its relevance in 30 seconds, it’s a big stretch to ask them to be interested. With 2000 new offerings in March alone, the spectres of cognitive load theory and job demands-resources theory loom large.

Competence – don’t ask students to use it if you haven’t explored it sufficiently. Maslow’s wisdom on “having a hammer and seeing every problem as a nail”  resonates here. Having a hammer might mean I only see problems as nails, but at least it helps if I know how to use the hammer properly! After all, how many educators really optimise the power, breadth, and depth of Word or Excel…and they’ve been around for a few years now. The rapid proliferation makes developing competence in anything more than just a few key tools quite unrealistic. Further, it is already clear that skills in prompt engineering need to develop more fully in order to maximise AI usefulness. 

Character – Discussions around AI ethical concerns—including bias in datasets, discriminatory output, environmental costs, and academic integrity—can shape a student’s character and their approach to using AI technologies. Understanding the biases inherent in AI datasets helps students develop traits of fairness and justice, promoting actions that minimise harm. Comprehending the environmental impact of AI models fosters responsibility and stewardship, and may lead to both conscientious use and improvements in future models. Importantly for education, tackling academic integrity heightens students’ sense of honesty, accountability, and respect for others’ work. Students have already risen to the occasion, with local and international research capturing student concerns and their beliefs about the importance of learning to use these technologies ethically and responsibly. Holding challenging conversations about AI ethics prepares students for ethically complex situations, fostering the character necessary in the face of these technologies.

Launching these 4Cs is offered in the spirit of the agile manifesto undergirding development of software over the last twenty years – early and continuous delivery and deliver working software frequently. The rapid advance from ChatGPT3, to 3.5, and to 4 shows the manifesto remains a potent rallying call. New iterations of these 4Cs for AI should similarly invite critique, refinement, and improvement.

L to R: Dr Paul Kidson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University, Dr Sarah Jefferson is Senior Lecturer in Education at Edith Cowan University, Leon Furze is a PhD student at Deakin University researching the intersection of AI and education.

So much love: school leaders answered the call through COVID and bushfires. Now love’s gone

Each year, the Australian Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey of nearly 2500 school leaders comes to similar, and disheartening, conclusions – the accumulation of demands, and generous preferring of others ahead of themselves, leaves too many school leaders languishing. And while we continue to encourage school leaders to seek help and be responsible for their own circumstances, our concerns have shifted markedly this year

It’s a tough time to be a school leader. In addition to regular demands of the role, the impact of significant weather events and COVID-19 in recent years has added to already full workloads; 2022 started the year with thousands of principals across some jurisdictions even monitoring vaccination status and administration of rapid antigen tests! And yet they keep turning up to serve their communities, and do so with distinction. They certainly deserve more than thanks.

Increasing demands, diminishing resources

An increasing number of school leaders are losing their passion to manage workload, teacher shortages, and offensive behaviour. As well as items on health and well-being, the survey includes specific items on Job Satisfaction, Commitment to Work, and Meaning of Work. We identify these as types of positive, protective factors which sustain school leaders to do their challenging work. 

From the start of the project in 2011, all three of these items have been constant, showing that school leaders derive a lot of meaning and satisfaction from their work, consistent with some research which characterises school leadership as an ethical and moral vocation.  But a concerning shift may be emerging. Remarkably, in 2020, the first year of COVID-19 and which followed Black Summer bushfires, both Job Satisfaction and Commitment to Work were at their highest level since the survey started, seeming to reinforce the notion school leaders have a strong sense of “call” to serve, especially in difficult circumstances. In 2022, both are at their lowest.

We also compare school leaders and the general population on these three items. Between 2019 and 2021, all three were much higher than across the general population, as might be expected from leaders in one of the caring professions. In 2022, however, these differences are not as great, with Job Satisfaction now about the same for school leaders as the wider general population.

Nearly 400 open-ended comments were received, highlighting three key consistent themes, represented here through one comment for each theme (some have been modified to keep confidentiality consistent with our ethics approval):

  1. Bureaucratic pressuresPrincipals’ jobs are becoming increasingly more difficult. Expected compliance and bureaucracy are destroying schools. The curriculum is being pushed as the holy grail with no consideration of pedagogy and engagement. 
  2. Diminishing professional trust – My professional wellbeing would be enhanced by the system trusting me to manage my school with local autonomous decisions and recognising that I have wisdom and skill in conjunction with staff, student and community partnerships to deliver on the high performance agreed outcomes that we have established
  3. Waning passionThe increasing workload on my colleagues and myself is causing increasing disillusionment with our profession. The need to continually provide evidence and accountability for teaching and learning is adding to the stress and workload. In my [many] years of teaching, recent years have caused me to look at early retirement alternatives.

Even among those who express great passion for their work, the tensions and pressures are mounting: 

Sometimes it feels like a thankless task and whilst you hold the noble ideal of why you do it in your head there are days when you feel spent and wonder why you do it ( and I love what I do!!).

It is why our concern this year highlights the commencing decline of that passion for an increasing number of school leaders. Were it to continue, consequences are far-reaching and will exacerbate what is already evident with teacher shortages.

A broader Action Plan is needed

Teacher workforce issues have been the focus of scholarly research and policy debate for many years. Performativity, standardisation, workforce supply and retention, and initial teacher education conversations seem perennial. Yet it was only in the latter part of 2022 that all Australian education ministers came to the table with an agreed National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. As the Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, told The Australian newspaper recently, the Plan is “not a panacea, not perfect – but it’s a start”.

Agreed, which is why the lack of presence of school leaders throughout the plan is astonishing. The two priority areas which fall mostly to schools to implement, and thus to school leaders, are Priority Area 3 – Keeping the teachers we have and Priority Area 4 – Elevating the profession. School leaders are mentioned in only two of the 13 action items listed in these Priority Areas. The first is the unremarkable and expected consultation on any curriculum initiatives, and the second is about the merits and challenges associated with an “accreditation process aligned with the principal standard” (Key Action 15)! The intentions seem good, but the appearance of school leaders is opaque. In light of our report, it seems extraordinary that school leaders are not central to the plan, given we can reasonably assume they will likely be held to account for many of its outcomes. Additionally, we argue that the situation requires a comparable national school leader strategy to address the issues identified in our report.

Productivity Commission’s critique

Open-ended comments in this year’s survey reflect extraordinary frustration at the impact of unilateral accountability. So let’s broaden the lens. Policy and procedure, as well as accountability for their implementation and any results which they achieve, flow centrally to school leaders who now are saying, loudly, “enough”! The recent report on the National School Reform Agreement seems to echo this. It makes for sober reading. “Failure to achieve” is a consistent theme expressed through the words of the report itself:

• no outcome that captures wellbeing; 

• a single weak target for academic achievement; 

• a dearth of targeted reforms to lift outcomes for students from priority equity cohorts and for students who do not meet basic levels of literacy and numeracy; 

• a lack of transparent, independent and meaningful reporting on national and state reform activity which means there is limited effective accountability (p. 33).

So where is system accountability for these failures?

Of the seven Expected Outputs and Implementation Status as reported by Education Council (p. 6), only four have been achieved, one is in progress, and two have not been achieved. We can only wonder at the response systems would have to school leaders achieving 57% of their targets. Where, and to whom, are education systems held to account?

Our educational elephant and the blindness of policy

An ancient Buddhist story tells how six blind men came across an elephant for the first time. Each felt a different part of the elephant (ears, leg, trunk, etc.) and described what they touched. None could see the whole, nor had any prior experience with elephants to describe accurately what they touched; each told their own limited “truth”. It seems an apposite metaphor for our current education system. The most recent evidence of this may be that it took only three paragraphs for last week’s Teacher Education Expert Panel Discussion Paper to acknowledge the “complex regulatory and funding environment” (p. 4) constraining its own work. Outcomes, the Expert Panel politely mused, “cannot be addressed by any one jurisdiction alone” but must be “a shared responsibility” (p. 4)

School leaders must take responsibility for their personal health and wellbeing, but the responsibility is not theirs alone. It is time for greater systemic accountability. It is time to be healed of our blindness and to see the whole. The Productivity Commission’s blunt assessment deserves to be heeded. 

Perhaps an even wider Commission might therefore be needed to achieve this. So intractably complex is our national policy architecture, and so apparently ineffective is it at meeting our national educational goals, and so lacking in transparency and accountability are current frameworks (according to the Productivity Commission), perhaps there’s need for a Royal Commission into the purposes and processes of education for our nation. We’ve seen their effectiveness in responding to other priorities related to education – disability, protection of children. 

This will be read by some as histrionics. However, a close reading of the report will find, in similar spirit, that :

Parties should retain the provision in the next school reform agreement for an independent review. The scope of the review should consider all aspects of the agreement, including the effectiveness of state-specific reforms (p. 30; emphasis added).

If the next National School Reform Agreement doesn’t address the Productivity Commission’s findings, the voices may grow louder. We now have 12 years of data, representing over 7,100 school leaders, many in broad agreement with the Commission’s view. The accountability school leaders have worked under for decades must now be embraced by policy makers and bureaucracies which, according to our report, preside over many of our participants’ frustrations.

Dr Paul Kidson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University. Prior to becoming an academic in 2017, he was a school principal for over 11 years. His teaching and research explore how systems and policies govern the work of school leaders, as well as how school leaders develop and sustain their personal leadership story.