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A look at ChatGPT, school students and the future of homework

Ed Cumming Published 07.02.23, 08:26 AM
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The robot revolution has claimed another victim: homework. The head of Alleyn’s, an independent school in south London, has said that ChatGPT, software by the California company OpenAI, threatens to make traditional after-school essays obsolete. Users of ChatGPT can ask questions, say, “What were the origins of the Second World War?” or set a task like, “Describe the human digestive system” and the programme generates a response in seconds.

“This is a paradigm-shifting moment,” Jane Lunnon, the head teacher of Alleyn’s, said earlier this week. “[ChatGPT] is incredibly usable and straightforward. However, at the moment, children are often assessed using homework essays, based on what they’ve learnt in the lesson. Clearly if we’re in a world where children can access plausible responses... then the notion of saying simply ‘Do this for homework’ will have to go.”


David James, head of an independent school in southwest London, says it could change the way homework is set: rather than answering questions, which could be done by the AI, pupils will learn how to present it. “It has the power to be transformative in schools,” says James. “It will affect some subjects more than others. You can’t imagine it being much good in design technology or the other more practical subjects. But in essay-based subjects it will have to change how teachers set work and how they assess work, as well.”

James says the traditional model of homework, where a question is answered with a written piece of prose, is under threat. “It seems unlikely that in five years’ time students will be set an essay question that they will go away and write for teachers to mark,” he says. “It will be all about research, planning, writing ideas down for the work to be shaped in class.”

ChatGPT might be able to produce a plausible piece of prose, but it cannot stand up and explain concepts in front of its peers. James is optimistic that by encouraging less formulaic writing and assessment, machines could improve the standard of writing.

Instead of writing essays, homework of the future might look more like university, where pupils read up on an idea and defend it in front of their class — a skill that is indispensible in later life at work. Things have been already heading in this direction. The Internet, smartphones and parents have been assailing the old-fashioned style of homework for many years.

The phrase in teaching for the new style is “flipped learning”, where class time is spent analysing and debating a piece of information, rather than absorbing it.

While the results of ChatGPT are impressive, they are far from perfect. James tried it out. “I asked it to write a poem on death in the style of Philip Larkin and it was dreadful. Cliche-ridden drivel. But ask it to do an analytical essay on whether Macbeth has free will or not, and it’s good — it’s Grade 6 GCSE level. Intelligent students may see it as not being advantageous, but students looking for a pass might see it as appealing.”

Another teacher, at a school in West London, agrees that the software has some way to go. “I suggested a few A-level essays and it was hopeless, especially when you get specific,” he says. “If you ask it for the differences between Canning and Castlereagh’s foreign policy, it really struggles. I didn’t suddenly think my job was obsolete. You already have to think hard about what homework to set. Kids will WhatsApp each other the answers. So we tend to set things where you have to revise for a quiz in class, which are harder to game than just answering a bunch of questions in their exercise book.”

In the wake of the Alleyn’s story, Jane Lunnon wrote to reassure parents that homework was not about to be abolished but did say “there has been a quiet revolution going on in homework for a while”.

Whatever the future of homework looks like, the chances are it will be here sooner than we expect. Microsoft recently announced plans for a $10 billion investment into OpenAI. It would be a large bet on GPT having wide-ranging commercial applications. It threatens Google, as well as homework. Why settle for a simple “search”, where you have to sift through ads to find the results, when you can ask a direct question and get a specific answer?

GPT-4, the successor to GPT-3, is expected later this year. It will be trained on a far larger data sample.


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