ChatGPT is here to stay – so how might we embrace it?
Their hands rose tentatively at first.
But the secret was out: some of my students had already come across the artificial intelligence app Chat GPT, and a couple of them were even willing to admit using it to help with their studies (not in my subject, of course!.
If you are a secondary school teacher and you haven’t tried it yet, then I advise you to “wake up and smell the AI”.
Since its launch at the end of last year, educationalists have been wondering about how their practice might be impacted by this free, online, Artificial Intelligence application. For those who aren’t aware of it, it allows you to type in a question and within seconds it produces a tailor-made answer. Several teachers have reflected on how it might help teachers work (more on that later). But how will it affect the tasks that we set our students, and what might the longer-term implications of this technology be?
The initial frenzy of speculation about ChatGPT has now subsided as teachers and school leaders have embarked on more sober analysis of its implications. This has been assisted by the fact that the ChatGPT application was been overwhelmed by in January and was offline for much of the month. It is currently being eased back into operation so it can cope with users of all shades and stripes (including, yes, numerous students). And the tone among educators has already shifted.
Yes, there has been an acceptance that we will have to move away from setting students recap and past exam paper questions to complete at home. But this should have been the direction of travel for years, thanks to the increased sophistication of online search engines and the common practice of students sharing responses with each other, not only in person, but also via social media.
And yes, the current model of coursework, let alone qualifications which are largely or wholly based on written reports, such as Extended Project Qualifications, will have to be significantly rethought. Examination boards will need to grapple with increased urgency whether they can reform their qualifications, perhaps moving towards intensive ‘in-house’ write-ups of geography and history investigations.
Workarounds and opportunities
But there are several other workarounds, and indeed opportunities, that teachers and schools can employ in the light of ChatGPT. Some involve meeting its challenges and circumventing the risks of plagiarism. These include:
Adopting ‘flipped learning’ more wholeheartedly. Its benefits are already well known, but this might be the time to embrace it. Flipped learning involves asking the students to research, consolidate, and tackle simpler tasks at home, freeing up class time for higher value-added and/or interpersonal tasks such as evaluation, discussion, and decision-making.
Setting tasks which are bounded by local and up-to-date limits. This is because ChatGPT is, at the moment, fed by data which was online in 2021. For example, these four tasks stump it:
“Write up today’s experiment”
“What three things did you learn from today’s lesson?”
“What were the geopolitical challenges of 2022?”
“To what extent is Ilkley economically inclusive?”
Changing the format:
Holding more discussions – for example, Harkness discussions – and consider setting oral assessments
Trying alternative formats for work, such as sketching, photos, paired work, and videos
Running students’ answers through an AI detection software – the pre-eminent one is Edward Xian’s ‘GPT Zero’, which gives a ‘perplexity score’ – the higher the score, the more likely it is that text has been written by a human; GPT-2 Output Detector is another.In OpenAI (the creators of ChatGPT) also say that they are planning to run a ‘watermarking’ scheme so that AI-generated answers can be flagged up to consumers.
Additionally, as commentators such as Daisy Christodoulou and Evan Dunne have pointed out, we can also use ChatGPT to help us with a variety of our everyday tasks, and to enhance our teaching. We can use it to help us to mark, set quizzes, and write lesson plans and assemblies, and so on.
We can also encourage students to critique answers generated by ChatGPT, and discuss how they might be improved. Might we even see a return to examination boards adding the word ‘flair’ to their mark schemes for longer answers? This is something that a chatbot cannot easily demonstrate – yet!
The human side of education
Let’s take a step back for a moment, though, and look at how the wider educational landscape may be shaped by this app, and by its later iterations – not to mention the products of competitors like Google’s DeepMind.
Like it or not, AI will probably end up taking some of the control away from how we help students encounter knowledge about the world. In response, educators should take the opportunity to develop – and shout about – the human side of what we do. What a world of opportunity this could open up! We could develop into an army of well-respected teacher-facilitators, ushering in the next generation of critical thinkers.
We could also open curriculum breathing space, freeing up time from unrelenting knowledge transmission, and directing our energies into developing more rounded young people. They could be given more time to pursue the arts, sports, and outdoor learning, and to develop ‘eco-capabilities’ to reconnect with nature.
Let’s be bold as we contemplate how we might harness ChatGPT’s powers, not only to make teaching more efficient and relevant for our students, but also how we might work towards a more humane, caring, and sustainable future for everyone.
This post was developed alongside a presentation given to staff at Bradford Grammar School on 18 January 2023.
What themes might reinvigorate the global dimension of geographical education?
How should geographical education engage with visions of the future?
These are the two concerns of this post, and they are intertwined.
The post mainly concerns geographical education, but the discipline is necessarily implicated. It is meant as a discussion generator rather than as an academic article, so please excuse any clangers and unattributed notions!
The Geography of It All
The immediate trigger for this post is ‘The Geography of It All’, a recent article by David Lambert (2021), which poses the central question of “[W]hat does geographical study bring to the table, especially in our deliberations with young people about contemporary predicaments and existential challenges[?]”.
It is an accessible and thought-provoking piece which is open about geography’s predicament, warts and all. So, for example, Lambert flags up geography’s physical-human divide, its involvement in ‘competing’ with history for students, and its complexity, which threatens to overwhelm the integrity of the discipline. But he is insistent in promoting the value of geography – not just for students, but for the future of planet earth. His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:
“An appropriate educational response to the human epoch needs to value geographical thinking: thinking that does not put human beings above (or even separate from) nature; that puts locales and nations into their global context; and which always seeks to understand interconnections. I believe reformed school geography, which seeks to enhance children and young people’s capabilities with regard to thinking about society and nature relationships and environmental futures, represents a profound educational response to the challenges of the human epoch.”
Lambert therefore sees global futures as integral to the future of geography. I concur, and I offer some considerations that might inform the global dimension of ‘a reformed school geography’.
The symbiosis of History and Geography
Lambert notes how philosophers of history are increasingly recognising the role of earth systems in the story of humankind. If the role of the ‘non-human’ is indeed becoming more salient in the discipline of history, then this raises the prospect that we might see this feed more explicitly into the school history curriculum in the years to come. We must hope that this will see an appreciation of the importance of human/non-human interactions and planetary limits rather than a re-emergence of environmental determinism.
Just as history is coming to terms with the environment, I argue that geography should be more comfortable with temporality. In a presentation to the recent GA Geography Teacher Educators Conference, I showed images of four two-page spreads from a current A Level textbook on the theme of human development. There were a handful of maps, a smattering of tables and photographs, but no graphs showing change over time – and little recognition of trends in the text either. This may be an extreme example, but could it be symptomatic of an underplaying of trends in some parts of the geography curriculum, particularly in global development? Might this go some way to explaining why many students are so surprised when they are confronted with evidence for long-term improvements in a wide range of indicators of social flourishing, as presented by resources from the Gapminder Institute, Our World in Data, and so on?
Lifting our eyes up
Alongside a consideration of how much attention geographers could spend on long-term trends, it is timely to consider to who we claim to be speaking on behalf of. Indeed, although Lambert’s article chimes with my thoughts on the subject’s global dimension, his comment that “we are browbeaten about the end of progress (when we can no longer assume our children will have ‘better’ lives than their parents)” deserves closer attention. His use of ‘we’ and ‘our children’ appears to be made from the view of someone in the global north – and yes, from that standpoint, there has arguably been a narrowing of horizons, a questioning of progress, and a growing sense of unease, driven by inequality and widespread economic stagnation.
However, taking into account a broad sweep of socio-economic measures from a range of well-respected IGOs, and notwithstanding stubborn levels of inequality within countries, living conditions for most people in the global south have seen continual improvements over at least the past seventy years (Roser, 2018; Rosling et al, 2018), meaning that, in most respects, many global citizens are living ‘better lives’ than their parents, and many will expect their offspring to live ‘better lives’ in their turn.
Drawing students’ attention to these achievements (see, for example, Alcock, 2019a, 2019b; Standish, 2020), should not be seen as being dismissive of remaining problems, or as being ignorant of the huge challenges of the Anthropocene. As Max Roser – the founder of Our World in Data – has written, “The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better. All three statements are true” (Roser, 2018; see Figure 1). There is indeed a great opportunity for a rich and far-reaching debate to be had, not only amongst geography educators, but also between students, on the theme of ‘progress’. This would draw on commentators who have responded critically to proponents of an ‘optimistic’ or, as Rosling would have it, a ‘possibilistic’ worldview (see, for example, Hickel, 2017; Paulsen, 2019a, 2019b; Aguilera, 2020).
A reformed school geography, I argue, should enable students to develop a more accurate and balanced evaluation of humanity’s achievements and failures over a prolonged period, and at a global scale. Such a worldview would not be uncritical of economic and social failings or of environmental crises. Instead, it would contextualise them. It would not underplay young people’s anxieties about the future. But it would embolden them to develop a sense of hope, as they would be able to draw confidence from previous successes – such as victories in human rights, reductions in child mortality, and increases in renewable energy supplies – with which to face the future. This balanced evaluation would also assist them – and us, as teachers – to pursue our shared geographical journey to explore the challenges of the Anthropocene.
My other reflections on Lambert’s post come under three broad themes.
Three global themes
With the above comments in mind, and in response to Lambert’s provocation, what might the global element of a ‘reformed school geography’ look like? I offer three very broad approaches. These are rough and ready, incomplete, overlapping, and they piggyback on the ideas of many others. Indeed, many elements are already taking place in classrooms – and remote learning environments – across the country! My main aim is to stimulate a reaction, to help geography stay relevant, engaging and attractive, but moreover, so that it is able to be more responsive to the challenges facing the human and non-human world.
Big Picture Geographies
Big Picture Geography would entail an increased awareness of significant historical trends in ‘human’ geography (using data visualisations such as those on Our World in Data), accompanied by a focus on graphicacy skills.
It would also harness the power of ‘big picture’ narratives. In a comment below Lambert’s piece, the historian Andreas Koerber identifies a new wave of large-scale popular historiography which he calls ‘Big History’ but whose contents are often deeply geographical (for example, Frankopan, 2015 and Diamond, 2011). This appetite for popular narratives which explore long-term changes over space exposes a vein of curiosity which geographers should leap at the opportunity to tap into. Geography teachers and students should take care not to be ‘prisoners of geography’ and look outside of our traditional literary domains.
Big Picture Geography should be informed by a decolonised approach to the subject: it should involve a wider range of perspectives, it should heed more voices, and it should acknowledge and problematise the long history of shifting power relationships.
For too long, Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) has been the go-to resource use theory for many geography teachers, myself included. However, although it assumes innocent actors combining to cause large-scale problems, in its application, it heightens misanthropic prejudices and a pessimistic view of human co-operation. It is time for a tilt towards co-operative geographies. These would give due recognition to evidence showing the fundamental decency and collective mindedness of most humans. Giving more saliency to Elinor Ostrom’s theories of small-scale co-operative management of common resources would not only be closer to what happens ‘on the ground’ in many cases, but it would restore some much-needed belief in humanity. Rutger Bregman’s Humankind (2020) is another weapon in the geographer’s armoury against cynicism: he draws on a wide range of historical evidence to argue that believing in human kindness and altruism can change how we think and act.
An examination of different scales of co-operation would be a great geographical project, and a way to build a conceptual bridge from the local to the global. It could draw parallels between small-scale community initiatives such as Friends groups and Green Flag projects, regional and national instances of altruistically pulling together (as shown by the high levels of adherence to social distancing rules in the Covid-19 pandemic), and international and global examples of co-operation, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
As Elise Boulding pointed out in 1988, IGOs and NGOs may be interpreted as aspects of a co-operative global civic culture which fosters ideals of global interdependence, sustainable development and peace – but how often do we refer to them as such? And how have geography teachers framed largely successful co-operative endeavours such as the European Union? Generations of students grew up thinking of the EU as creators of milk lakes and butter mountains and pesky imposers of fishing quotas, rather than as engines for peace and creators of social democratic norms. (Did Boris Johnson bribe David Waugh?)
A more realistic, historical, and evidence-based awareness of how humans pull together, adapt, and respond to resource challenges would also enrich secondary school geography. A move away from the discredited theories of Thomas Malthus to a more nuanced examination of the ideas of a range of thinkers, including
Ester Boserup, Kate Raworth and Ruth DeFries (see, for example, DeFries, 2014) would reveal different takes on the contentious issue of population/resource management. This might then soothe pupils’ fears of a ‘population explosion’ (which, according to one KS3 Geography video on the otherwise commendable Oak Academy, is still happening!) and instead open up a new sense of optimism for engaging with the future.
Reinvigorating the ‘futures dimension’ is vital in reformed secondary school geography. The groundwork for this has been laid down by David Hicks and others since the 1990s. The theme of the 2007 GA Conference was Future Geographies, and there is a significant bank of resources and skilled practitioners that could be drawn upon from the past thirty years or so. Francis Hutchinson (1996) is also a source of inspiration for geographers who are keen to get a handle on how to teach a futures-orientated curriculum. An intriguing and agenda-setting article by Hoffman et al (2021), based on action research, found that “a futuring approach to education… contributes to an enhanced sense of agency among students in dealing with wicked problems”.
Sitting squarely alongside futures education, but also drawing from the ideas of ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies, a reinvigorated and evidentially grounded ‘geography of hope’ should surely play a role in the education of future geographers: this would help students to evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and then, using these insights, help them to create a better world.
Climate change deserves a special place in the curriculum. As the ultimate global ‘wicked problem’ – and one which is not going away any time soon, it deserves a permanent, significant, and guaranteed place at the table, and it should be repeatedly visited in the classroom. The wording in the National Curriculum is not emphatic enough. Climate change is a touchstone environmental issue and one which the public view as being inherently geographical. It also allows for the development a panoply of hard and soft skills, as well as providing an opportunity to feed into ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies. Two of the most pressing needs are firstly for students to be able to have the skills to navigate the debate about ‘who is to blame’ for climate change, and secondly to appreciate the relative impact that different strategies might have on overcoming this challenge (see, for example, Project Drawdown): what use is recycling and turning lights off, if steel and concrete production continue unhindered, and animal products remain a mainstay of so many diets?
Planetary futures would also provide a suitable home for Late-covid and Post-covid geographies. The resource bank developed by Alan Parkinson (2020) is a treasure trove for educators which could be used to help conceive of a post-covid world. Applying some of the insights to other infectious diseases would help to bring up discussions in health geography which until now may, for many of our students, have been muted owing largely to the fact that diseases have mostly occurred ‘in other places’.
Bringing young people in
Lambert is passionate about developing children and young people’s capabilities; I agree, and they deserve a central and active role in the future of school geography, both as agents in the reformulation of the curriculum, and as citizens of the world it – and they – will help to shape. If we are bold enough to reform the way we approach the global dimension of school geography, then we should involve young people in our journey. Exactly how this could be done is beyond the scope of this piece!
As the world moves on, so must geography. If we accept that the Anthropocene is indeed a ‘game-changer’ (as Lambert refers to it on a comment in the thread below his article), we need to continue with the pivot to the global and take the futures dimension seriously too.
I welcome feedback on these ideas.
Aguilera, R. (2020) The Glass Half-Empty – Debunking the Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century. London: Repeater