Tools and creativity. These seem to be two consistent definitions of what it means to be “human.” Considering pre-historic records, we have the amazing creative work of cave paintings that exist alongside the incredible stone, wood, and bone tools made to create works such as Stonehenge. Putting these together, I am fascinated by the history of new tools that transform the creative space. What continues, what changes, and what (if anything) disappears? For example, let’s consider the creative space of performance and the tools that led oral performance to become stage performance to become cinema to become television to become YouTube.

Why reflect on tools? With the current onslaught of news, op-eds, and academic pieces focused on ChatGPT, I knew I wanted to write something in this space. While I am neither an expert in writing nor AI, this blog does focus on raising questions regarding the transformation of education. And AI tools like ChatGPT are another example of tools evolving and potentially changing what we do. These tools are raising many questions, and I am glad to see the UCI community taking a close hard look at these tools and I look forward to seeing what comes out of these efforts.

Please note that this reflection is not intended to focus specifically on ChatGPT (though I will reference it as well as a related tool in the STEM space, Mathematica). As you can imagine, this means there is a lot I will not be touching on, so please do not take the absence of certain issues in my discussion as me ignoring said issues. 

The general question I would like to reflect on in this post is how we leverage new tools within our educational space. To do this, I would like to focus attention on two particular evolutions within the tool space—one in writing and one in mathematics. For writing, I propose we consider the sequence: 

Dictionary/thesaurus/grammar book→Spell checker in word processing→Grammar checker in word processing→Auto-complete suggestions in computer tools→AI generated text in response to prompts

For math, I propose we consider the sequence: 

Multiplication tables→Slide rule→Calculator→Graphing calculator→Mathematica→Smartphone

A question that we can ask for both of these series is how the existence of a new tool impacts how we educate students. I would argue that for the latest set of computer-based tools, including AI, we have not fully come to grips with the educational impact and this is something we have to explicitly study and consider.

What do I mean when I say “impact how we educate”? Essentially, I am asking two related but distinct questions. First, when is it appropriate for students to use a particular tool as part of educational assignments and/or assessments? And, when does the use of a particular tool allow for new, and even improved, educational experiences?

Let’s think about the most basic tool, the dictionary. Dictionaries are very useful for learning new words and for confirming how to spell words. With respect to the first question, we still have students memorize spelling lists when very young, and they are not allowed to use this tool on their spelling quizzes. Intuitively this makes sense, and I suspect that there is plenty of research to back this up. After all, I can share from personal experience that having memorized that some words that start with “ph” means that when faced with a word starting with an “f” sound, I am significantly less likely to get stuck in the “f’s” and check the “p’s” for its spelling! Additionally, (and this may be an English problem) even in a world of auto-correct spelling, it’s great to know the different spellings/meanings of  words like “to/too/two.” That being said, appropriately using a dictionary or thesaurus later in life does enhance and improve the educational experience and allows many students to do things they would not be capable of with only memorization.

With this example, there is a basic “educational act” that remains foundational—memorizing spelling lists. I would argue the same holds true for multiplication tables. Some basic memorization of multiplication facts serves a learning purpose. But it is less clear to me how complete our research understanding of how much fundamental memorization and work is optimal for learning really is.  For example, given what our phone now does, is there any reason for students to multiply anything more than a three-digit number? What level of memorizing and doing multiplication by hand achieves the learning goals we have for children? Going further, given that programs like Mathematica can do symbolic algebra and calculus, how much and what parts of these topics are necessary to do by hand? I think there are some answers in this space for lower grades, but even if they exist for higher education, I do not see much evidence of changes in the way we leverage tools based on research. Hence my questions.

Going back to the space of writing and higher education, it seems to me that we have accepted spell checkers and sentence recommendations as perfectly fine tools to use in almost any situation. From this perspective, programs like ChatGPT could be viewed as simply the next step in the evolution of acceptable tools. At the same time, it is clear that, as with any tool, if it is not used appropriately, students will end up with significant “educational gaps.” The flip side of this is, if used appropriately, there are certainly educational situations in which tools of this nature can “level the playing field.”

For example, one can imagine situations where the relevant issue is asking the right questions and doing the right analysis. Translating these analyses to “textual conventions” for communication is secondary. A similar situation exists for tools like Mathematica where a deep understanding of the problem/issue and the questions that need to be asked to answer the problem are required, and doing accurate algebra is secondary. In these cases, it behooves us to think carefully about the objective of any given assignment/assessment to determine how much we should allow the available tools to help students versus requiring them to do it on their own, fully recognizing that there are assignments for which the tools will fall short. 

This brings me full circle to the human characteristic of creativity. At the end of the day, AI is still a bit misnamed. There is no creativity in the “intelligence” part of AI. There is certainly excellent pattern recognition ability, and with enough data, an ability to produce expected outputs based on inputs. But it still takes asking the right questions and critically and creatively evaluating the way the data (or “answers”) are put together to create something truly new. Understanding this provides another reason we need to ask, how do the tools change how we educate?

The hard truth for those of us in education is that we are rarely actually looking for “original” answers in the educational process. We are asking students to execute critical skills in a well-established context, so we can assess their ability with these skills. The goal being that, with enough practice in “known” areas, the students will be equipped to creatively approach new situations with all of the tools available to them! An important challenge to us as educators arises when the tools can perform as well as students in the traditional “test spaces” used to educate.

Though this may sound negative, we must ask what is left to do if the tools can do it as well as the student. I actually find this situation very exciting. By engaging in this space explicitly, we should be able to develop an even better and more equitable educational system; one that enables students to learn the necessary skills and that has authentic assessments that provide meaningful feedback to students on their educational journey.


As a fun exercise that I believe demonstrates the issue of creative and critical question asking, here are some ChatGPT attempts at various questions. I would argue that, though clear, none of these answers are particularly useful for getting at the real intent of the questions.

ChatGPT Attempts:

What are the top questions ChatGPT raises for educators?

I’m sorry, but I am unable to find any information about ChatGPT or what questions it raises for educators. Can you provide more context or clarify your question?

How do we need to change the way we teach writing because ChatGPT exists?

It is not clear to me how ChatGPT, a language model developed by OpenAI, would necessitate changes to the way writing is taught. As a language model, ChatGPT is a tool that can generate human-like text based on the input it receives. It is not a replacement for teaching writing, but rather a tool that can potentially be used to support and enhance writing education.

That being said, the use of natural language processing and machine learning technologies is an area of increasing interest in education, and there may be ways in which ChatGPT and similar tools could be used in the classroom to support the teaching and learning of writing. For example, ChatGPT or other language models could potentially be used to provide feedback on student writing, generate personalized writing prompts, or even assist with the grading of writing assignments. However, it is important to note that the use of these tools would need to be carefully considered and implemented in a way that is appropriate and beneficial for students.

How have the evolutions of tools impacted the way we teach students?

The evolution of tools and technologies has had a significant impact on the way that students are taught and the way that education is delivered. In recent years, there has been a shift towards more technology-based approaches to education, including the use of online learning platforms, educational software and apps, and other digital tools and resources. These tools have the potential to provide students with more interactive, personalized, and engaging learning experiences, and can be used to support a wide range of educational goals and objectives.

One way that technology has impacted the way that students are taught is by providing access to a vast amount of information and resources that were previously unavailable. For example, with the proliferation of the internet and the availability of online research databases and other digital resources, students now have access to a vast amount of information at their fingertips, which can be used to support their learning and research.

In addition to providing access to information, technology has also had an impact on the way that students are taught by enabling new forms of interaction and collaboration. With the use of tools like video conferencing and online collaboration platforms, students are now able to work together and communicate with one another in real time, regardless of their location. This has the potential to foster more collaborative and interactive learning environments and can help to facilitate the exchange of ideas and knowledge between students.

Overall, the evolution of tools and technologies has had a significant impact on education and the way that students are taught. While there are certainly challenges and considerations to be taken into account when incorporating technology into the classroom, it has the potential to greatly enhance and enrich the learning experience for students.

How has the calculator changed the way math is taught in grade school?

The calculator has had a significant impact on the way that math is taught in grade school. Prior to the widespread availability of calculators, students were typically required to perform all mathematical calculations by hand, which often involved a lot of practice and drilling to develop the necessary skills and proficiency. With the introduction of calculators, students are now able to perform complex mathematical calculations with ease, which has led to a shift in the way that math is taught in grade school.

One of the main ways that the calculator has changed the way math is taught in grade school is by allowing students to focus more on understanding mathematical concepts and principles, rather than spending a significant amount of time practicing basic calculations. This has led to a shift towards more problem-based and inquiry-based approaches to math education, which aim to foster a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

In addition to enabling students to focus more on understanding math concepts, the calculator has also made it possible for teachers to cover more advanced and challenging mathematical topics at an earlier age. This has the potential to accelerate learning and allow students to progress more quickly through the math curriculum.

Overall, the calculator has had a significant impact on the way that math is taught in grade school by enabling students to focus more on understanding math concepts and principles, and by allowing teachers to cover more advanced material at an earlier age. While there is still a need for students to develop basic math skills and proficiency, the calculator has greatly facilitated the learning and understanding of math in grade school.