by Marina Budrys | High School Humanities Teacher
What is the future of education if artificial intelligence can write essays, give quick answers to whatever questions we have, and translate languages instantaneously? Is schooling, the way we know it, on its way out? Are we holding onto a system of the past?
Before I answer these questions, we need to address what the real purpose of K-12 schooling is. Because if it is possible to write an essay, know who was instrumental in starting the American Revolution, and chat with someone while traveling in Spain, then maybe ChatGPT and others like it will replace education systems. ChatGPT can write an essay, it can give us historical information and it can (and will become even more adept) at speaking in different languages. We don’t really have a need for schooling the way it is now if that is our goal.
But, what if the real purpose of schooling is something different? If the goal of writing a six page essay in 12th grade has a lot more to do with showcasing individual voice, unique perspective, and relational thinking, then the actual finished product is not the aim. Rather, it is the process that the student engages with along the way. It is the comments they make during class discussions, the comparisons they notice between Octavia Butler and Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novels, and the observations they turn into theses. The culminating essay is merely a means for the internal capacities to be made visible. Prompting ChatGPT to write it doesn’t build new neural connections or advance synthesizing capacities in the way that writing an essay does. The thinking grows throughout the course, and what becomes important to each student is what their own free mind comes to.
If education is more about intellectual development and social development than knowledge acquisition, then we have an entirely different task in front of us. ChatGPT no longer becomes pivotal to the question. Instead, what becomes important is what ensures that someone succeeds in an unpredictable world. It is less about memorization of a list of facts, and more about the ability to find out what the most important next step in the problem is. It is less adherence to a certain structure and more the flexibility to discover an evolved or new structure. It is not only doing things by yourself in a room, but also finding a way to work with a group of 18 other people that have as much individuality as you. These are capacities we build when human development is prioritized.
If anything, the development and advancement of large language models makes Waldorf more relevant than ever. You may have heard it said that Waldorf is about developing humans to be their highest selves and this is true. That means their highest potential in their brain, their body, and their heart. Every part of the Waldorf education (in its striving form) seeks to give space for this to happen for each individual student.
It is radical that Rudolf Steiner never wanted teachers to teach his philosophy (Anthroposophy) to students. He didn’t think that any way of thinking about the world should be taught. There is a deeper wisdom to this, Steiner didn’t ever want anyone to be told how to think about the world. That discovery is for each and every individual to come to on their own. Artificial Intelligence is an incredible tool for humanity’s progress. But it does not change the need for them to reach their highest neural potential first. We still need to develop our brains and our bodies in a way that helps us be free actors in the world. With deep fakes, an overwhelming number of opinions in news reporting, and biased data statistics, we need the ability to make our own decisions more freely than ever. We need to freely decide who we want to be and how we want to exist in the world.
Waldorf Schools focus on human centered education. That can sometimes be misunderstood to mean that technology is not important. But in Waldorf education, technology is not the enemy but is a tool that should enhance, not inhibit, the purpose of education: the development of free thinking. Brilliant human beings created AI. I am excited to see the amazing things our students will do with AI for medical care, for legal proceedings, for solving climate change and of course, for guiding the ethical implementation of AI.