Is School a Tardigrade?

You’ve heard of the tardigrade, right? It is a tiny animal, an organism, that lives everywhere. It is best known for being able to withstand anything. People have bathed it in alcohol and boiled it, and it survives.

In recent days I have started to wonder if school resembles a tardigrade. And by «school» I mean the way in which we now organise education and formal learning. The paradigm we live in, so to speak. This school has survived for over 150 years, and seems to withstand almost everything, just as the tardigrade. We operate with classes of roughly the same size, which usually means one teacher per class, everyone in the class is the same age, they stay in the same room at the same time, and do the same thing. They have a curriculum that has been determined for the course they are now taking, and they are graded on the extent to which they achieve the goals in this curriculum. To find out what they have achieved, they take tests, or exams.

It happens all the time that someone tries to break out of this, but it is always within the paradigm. For example, teachers work without grades during the year – but then they have to go back into the fold and give grades for the 1st and 2nd term (it is like this in Norway, at least). The pupils know this very well, and they know what really applies. We say that learning is the most important thing, but it is not, in this paradigm. The most important are grades, diplomas, admission, further study and a good job. Both teachers and students know this, and when someone wants to do «something different» at school, such as theme days, solidarity days, you name it, there is always a group of teachers and students (the most realistic ones perhaps?) who protest because it means a lot of time away from what we should be doing, which is subjects, which is what shows on the diploma. You don’t get a grade for all the great words in the curricula, such as creativity and interdisciplinary themes – you get it in subjects. This results in such absurd results that the go-ahead is given to interpret interdisciplinary topics as something that can be pursued in each subject separately. Sustainability in Norwegian, sustainability in English. The new curriculum is here – the tardigrade lives on! 

Why am I bothering about this now? Because of artificial intelligence. Or rather, because of the discussions around Chat GPT. Can the tardigrade survive artificial intelligence? Chat GPT gives students yet another way to cheat, and the cheating will gradually become more and more difficult to detect. And what are cheating and disclosures? They are familiar words in the tardigrade paradigm. When the goal is the best possible result in the form of good grades, it is rational to see if you can get to the result in simple ways. And it is rational for a teacher to try to expose pupils who do this. Because we do believe that the system is fundamentally fair? And that the only thing that cannot be fair about it – is if the students cheat in order to get better grades?

ChatGPT challenges, among other things, writing as a skill you practise all through school. And now I’m not being ironic or sarcastic: I firmly believe that it is important to practise the skill of writing, and that learning to reason in writing promotes the ability to think. And that writing is creative and important for expressiveness and everything that is healthy and good for humans. And I so agree with those who said in a debate yesterday that for the students, it is the writing process that is important, not the final product. So if they skip the process, it makes no sense. But it DOES make sense. In the tardigrade paradigm. We tell the pupils in every way, apart from the writing teacher’s words, that it makes sense.

With artificial intelligence constantly and rapidly improving, I think it is time to shake up the structures. Simply try to kill the tardigrade. We must have a school (or call it something else) that does not double-communicate what the goal is. There must be learning, creativity, critical thinking, etc. Everything that everyone agrees on, but which we are unable to realise now, in this paradigm. Otherwise, we end up in pure absurdity, where AI writes texts and AI corrects the same texts while teachers and students buzz around in an eternal conversation about correct grades.

But I’m a bit pessimistic. The tardigrade survived the pandemic. We learned almost nothing. The exam is back in the same form, despite researchers and students and teachers who report that the exam cancellation was good for learning. It is not too difficult to see that the answer to the tardigrade’s encounter with artificial intelligence will initially be more control in the form of rules and technical installations. But in the long term, I wonder if this opponent is too strong for the tardigrade, and that we would have done it a service if we killed it before the AI does.

Source for picture: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/…/10.1098/rspb.2021.1760

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Forfattar: margreta

Pedagogisk leiar i NDLA. Idealist og optimist. Glad i skule!

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