Let’s Use ChatGPT to ‘Think Different’ About K-12 Schools

Key Points

  • Learn why it’s important for educators to welcome ChatGPT as a transformative innovation in teaching and learning.

  • Get ideas for how to use ChatGPT to work more effectively, efficiently, and creatively.

  • Understand how ChatGPT could help us think from the diverse perspectives of our students and parents to help shape a more equitable, inclusive learning experience and school environment.


By: Kara Stern, Ph.D.

When Horace Mann dreamed up the idea that eventually became the US public school system, the world was a different place.

Fast forward to 1940. By then, the one-room schoolhouse had morphed into something we’d recognize today. And then things got…a little stuck. For example, I went to the same high school as my mother. When I was in 10th grade, I read the same exact books in English class she’d read 23 years before. My baby sister, 20 years younger than I am, read the same ones, too. Since their founding, the job of K-12 schools has been to open up access and opportunity to all children, to prepare today’s youth for tomorrow’s adulthood, citizenship, and employment. But we’ve basically done that by sticking to what we’ve always done in the past. 

The recent hew and cry about ChatGPT in schools is a perfect example. If you google ‘ChatGPT and schools,’ almost every single link on the first page of Google includes the word “ban.” Search Facebook and you find posts like: “We’re blocking it for all faculty and staff,” “I’ll let you guys work out the kinks first,” and “If we just ignore it maybe it will go away?” But it’s not going away. 

The public school industrial complex cannot operate out of fear of the future as we prepare students to live and lead in the world that’s to come. As economist and author Daniel Pink has pointed out when speaking to an educator audience, “We need to prepare kids for their future, not our past.”

Schools may be stuck in the past, but teachers are early adopters of cool technology.

So it’s not surprising that alongside the calls to ban ChatGPT, we quickly started seeing teachers’ posts, and even books, about how to use it to plan lessons, assess student work, and compose messages to parents. New York State Master Teacher Mary Howard, author of Streamlining Your Teacher Life with AI, says, “As an educator, one thing that I can assert with respect to this new wave of artificial intelligence tools is that we need to adopt and accept the risk inherent in being early adopters.  AI tools will not go away. The internal combustion engine replaced the horse and the calculator replaced the abacus.” Each new technological advance makes space for new ways of teaching, and new ways of learning, solving, creating, and inventing. 

As school administrators start to individually embrace ChatGPT for its capability as an unpaid 24/7 personal assistant, the go-to spot for ideas is social media. Facebook chat groups show diversity and creativity of usage. For example:

  • Creating a section on academic integrity and AI for the student handbook, written by ChatGPT
  • Having ChatGPT analyze an annual school survey for trends and use that to develop goals for the year
  • Using ChatGPT to generate an A/B block schedule

On X (Twitter), you can find Rebecca Bultsma, a school communications professional in Canada, tweeting ChatGPT prompts like: “I want you to act as a crisis communication specialist, crafting a checklist for handling a potential incident that could harm our school’s reputation. Detail your immediate response, key messages, and the process for updating stakeholders.” These prompts show that administrators (like teachers) are using ChatGPT to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. 

They are thinking from the mindset of the role they occupy. 

But what if we used ChatGPT to “think differently”?

Apple’s focus on the user experience revolutionized how we use computers. This is something we don’t really think about in schools. For my Master’s program, I was assigned to shadow a 10th-grade student for a day. It was one of the most boring days of my life. Seriously. I barely made it through each class awake. If that’s what school feels like for students, we need to rethink the user experience (UX). That’s where ChatGPT can help.

The fear (and focus) when it comes to ChatGPT and students are cheating. We need to flip the lens on that. Graphing calculators helped usher in a new approach to problem-solving. Could ChatGPT usher in a new approach to teaching and learning? If we know that ChatGPT could write any number of essays on The Great Gatsby, or the causes of the Civil War, maybe those assignments aren’t actually encouraging students to be critical or original thinkers. If we have an advanced tool that can craft capable responses for students, it doesn’t mean we should shut it down quickly. It means we should change our methodology. 

What’s a prompt a teacher could give ChatGPT for this example? How about: “Write 5 sample classroom-based activities about The Great Gatsby that are culturally relevant, meet the needs of different kinds of learners, and don’t have Google-able responses.” That’s one way a teacher could use ChatGPT to:

  • Do the job more efficiently
  • Prevent students from cheating
  • Address the needs of a wider diversity of students

But that only improves the UX partway.

ChatGPT can help us think from the POV of our students and parents.

We live to the limits of our own understanding, imagination, and experience. But ChatGPT is built with a lot more information than any of us could hold in our brains. So, in addition to asking ChatGPT to think like a school communications professional, a principal, or a teacher, what if we asked ChatGPT to think like the populations we’re serving, as a way of improving the education (or UX) we’re delivering? ChatGPT is a neural network that works very much like the human brain, which means we can use it to think like folks who are different from us. Who are not planning and leading in districts, buildings, and classrooms? Who may be new to the country, or the English language? Who may be chronically absent or have an IEP or be in the foster system? 

Here are prompts I could imagine asking:

  1. As if you were a teenager, create the ideal school schedule for what my brain and body need. 
  2. As if you were a struggling math student, write a lesson plan on factoring algebraic equations that would be easy to understand but that includes activities so kids who get it don’t get bored. 
  3. Review this unit/communications plan/newsletter/classroom update/lesson plan/college counseling document/student handbook/welcome letter and show me how it could be improved for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  4. Write a culturally inclusive 8th Grade science curriculum that adheres to NGSS Standards.
  5. As if you were a new immigrant parent in a public school, list the communications you need to see in your home language.
  6. As if you were a chronically absent 10th-grade student, suggest what the school could do to help you feel like you want to be there.

In this way, ChatGPT becomes an equity tool to help educators reach and connect with more students and families. It gives insight into how to achieve a more inclusive school system. We can use it to foster school connectedness and trust, turning chronic absenteeism on its head. 

It’s time to let go of the rear-view mirror approach to schooling. The way to overcome the current challenges dominating k-12 is to think out of the box, from the mindset of our ‘users.’ And the way to overcome the challenges in our future is to model for our students how to embrace the new and unfamiliar with curiosity and confidence.

We can only do that by looking forwards.

Kara Stern, Ph.D. is an educational leader committed to equitable and inclusive k12 education & am a staunch advocate for the importance of home-school communications in building trust, reducing absenteeism, and creating more inclusive school communities.

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Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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