13 December 2022

Does Chat GPT really herald the end of the essay?


There is an ongoing debate in education about whether students should be taught ‘stuff’ or ‘skills’. In many ways it’s a false dichotomy: how can you have the skill of being able to play the piano, or write an essay on Shakespearean tragedy, or order spaghetti alle vongole in Italian, if you do not know musical notation, or English and Italian grammar? Knowledge is the bedrock of learning and, as Dan Willingham has remarked, memory is the residue of thought.

Getting children to think, and remember how and when to apply their knowledge, is a difficult process that requires years of hard work (by pupils and their teachers). Even so, lots of well-qualified people frequently come together to violently agree with each other that in an age when you can Google anything, schools are wasting their time teaching ‘stuff’. Subject knowledge can be accessed via the cloud.

Instead, they argue, what they should be doing is teaching children to be creative, rather than being crushed by stultifying rules that teach them how to write well. Better still, many self-styled ‘edupreneurs’ claim that students should be prepared for the ‘digital age by developing ‘21st century skills’.

But perhaps such arguments are about to become redundant because it turns out that in the brave new world of today you won’t need knowledge or skills, or consciousness, or anything remotely human, to write a good essay.  All you have to do is work out how to use the chatbot du jour, ChatGPT, and away you go: not only can it write persuasive bullshit that would make an undergraduate student in intersectional studies proud, but it can even ‘write’ genuinely funny parodies of songs and poems.

In CapX’s Weekly Briefing John Ashmore noted that some teachers and academics are worried that this new technology could mark ‘the end of essays’. In fact, the opposite is probably true, and it should be welcomed by all those who value original thinking and effective writing, not because of what it does but because of what it exposes.

Rather than signalling the end of the essay technology such as this could result in its rebirth. In both schools and universities coursework has come to dominate GCSE, A levels and undergraduate degrees. This is not necessarily a bad thing: essays which can allow the student to research a topic, that gives them the time to redraft their work, editing it after their teacher or supervisor has given them feedback, can be a rewarding process. The problem comes in how these essays are assessed.

Consider A level English Literature. Whereas the primary text should be foregrounded by teachers, too often it is the assessment structure that dominates how a writer is taught, especially in schools which have limited resources or who have to use teachers who are not subject specialists.

Assessment objectives break down how to assess an examination answer, or a coursework essay, and the teaching often goes where the most marks are awarded. Difficult, demanding and complex works of genius – such as George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, or Henry James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ – have long disappeared from A level courses, to be replaced by less sophisticated authors (such as Arthur Conan Doyle) whose works are more ‘accessible’. It’s also easier to mark them, and to standardise grades across classes and whole cohorts. If the writing is driven through a template then that process becomes easier still. 

At its worst, writing to meet the various assessment objectives results in formulaic, predictable essays. OpenAI will quite quickly be able to emulate the writing styles of many GCSE and A level essays. That’s not the software’s fault, but the result of an assessment system that has become increasingly formulaic and predictable. As writer John Warner tweeted soon after OpenAI ‘went public’, too often ‘students no longer learn how to think through the problem of structure’, instead they are given ‘all kinds of rules which [are] proxies for ‘good’ writing.’

For students to get high grades they have to know the assessment objectives. This narrowing of technique is compounded by the ongoing campaign by examination boards to limit a student’s exposure to writers of genuine brilliance, often preferring to remove great writers and replace them with lesser talents who are more ‘diverse’ and accessible. I’m sure you can still write well about Ben Elton’s The First Casualty (I’m not joking), but it is more likely that genuinely original thinking is going to result from studying great writers.

Students need to find the ghost in the machine that genius articulates, and if it takes a machine to allow us to do it then there is hope for the future of the essay.

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Dr David James is deputy headteacher of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.