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Critical Thinking to AI: Are you a Friend or Foe?by@meadhbhh
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Critical Thinking to AI: Are you a Friend or Foe?

by Meadhbh HealyAugust 26th, 2023
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Digitization has enabled students to continue their endeavours mostly unhindered. It is easy, on this basis, to present the increased adoption of technology in education as an exclusively neutral or positive development. However, reservations might be harbored about this rapid transformation. With the development of sophisticated generative AI tools, there is a danger that eventually tasks will be assigned to machines instead of students. This would impact an individual’s ability to adequately structure material for consumption.
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The advantages of digital transformation in education are self-evident – particularly when one regards the disruption that the pandemic has wrought in recent times. Digitization has enabled students to continue their endeavours mostly unhindered whilst also allowing access to an increased number of resources such as artificial intelligence (AI) tools. It is easy, on this basis, to present the increased adoption of technology in education as an exclusively neutral or positive development.


However, reservations might be harbored about this rapid transformation. Techno-solutionism may be described as the tendency to gravitate towards technology as the ultimate answer to all individual or societal problems. Although it is obvious that humanity at large has been accepting of the rapid advancement of technology in recent years, it may not be without its disadvantages.


One of the primary issues with solutionism and its role in society is its reductionism of philosophical concepts. This establishes a fundamental problem with digitization – the convenience of providing instant solutions instead of enabling an exploration of obstacles and alternate paths to addressing them.


The principal aim of learning is the examination and analysis of abstract concepts and ideas. One of the oft-cited mantras associated with education alludes to it being not “the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”.


Whilst this declaration may have become trite through overuse, it has coherence when considering it in the face of solutionism. It is obvious, if not expected, that technology is used in answer to problems facing individuals in everyday life. This means that a resolution is sought and found quickly, rather than reflecting on a particular problem. It may seem prudent that time is not wasted when answers are so accessible.


Arguably, however, this meditation can engage the brain and contribute to the development of higher-order cognition skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. Proactively spending time thinking through and evaluating possible resolutions to a singular issue can evolve the brain’s ability to advocate and make decisions. The same cannot be said for reactively being furnished with the solution by an automaton. This has implications for how developing minds acquire information and solve problems. In a culture devoid of technology, the optimal method of resolving complex issues is to deliberate about the process. Where technology is accessible, it is likely that the method will be guided by the correct answer already being provided by a digital agent. Therefore, there is less critical thought by the user.


Currently, it is difficult to assess how large a detriment this is. After all, it has been the norm throughout the passage of time for the human brain to evolve and discard qualities that are no longer useful. A century ago, the skills perceived as being important included good memory and penmanship.


With the advent of computers, these skills have now largely become obsolete. Instead, the ability to effectively process information is now more useful and valuable to the individual. In this way, technology has assisted society by automating a task and extricating the human mind to focus on more complex undertakings. Could it be possible that by delegating critical thinking to machines the human brain could further progress? It is impossible to know for sure, however, it is highly unlikely. The ability to thoughtfully evaluate and interpret alternatives empowers individuals to contribute efficiently to their chosen vocation. Globally, the development of higher-order cognition skills during adolescence is a dominant instructional goal by educators and psychologists, and with just cause.


It is essential, therefore, that the adoption of digitization in education does not detract from any emphasis placed on cultivating critical thinking in adolescence. Awareness of the importance of self-efficacy and the negative effect passive learning can have on it must be figured out in any discourse. With the development of sophisticated generative AI tools such as GPT-4 there is a danger that eventually tasks such as written assignments will be assigned to machines instead of being the product of the acumen of students. This would impact an individual’s ability to adequately structure material for consumption, as well as their capacity to assess what information is relevant to include.


The indicators of critical thinking could include the skill to successfully adjudicate the credibility of sources, to advance and defend a rational hypothesis, and to formulate pertinent clarifying questions. These abilities are not present in generative modeling as they currently exist and are among those most at risk of being depleted in humans should reasoning be deferred wholly to machines. The only way that the information produced by AI can be verified is through human inspection. Thus, consciousness of the limits of AI is fundamental. If written assignments are designated to automatons, there is a greater compulsion on educators to promote and test critical thinking skills instead of the tasks that machines already excel at such as memorization and formatting.


There is a necessity to incorporate AI tools in education, and this necessity is driven by the level of interaction that students will have with generative AI in daily life. If the inclusion of AI cannot be avoided, is there a possibility that it could, instead, be embraced?


Certainly, there seems to be cause for hope.


It has been extensively documented over time that instruction in the classroom suffers from a uniformity of approach that is not appropriate or optimal for every student. With the advent of educational AI, there is a prospect of personalizing the learning experience to assist students more ably in comprehending complex concepts and processes.


In addition, training machines to better understand the requirements of students, in turn, can provide information to teachers and educators on how to instruct more effectively. Thus, it is imperative that the teacher as the agent of change in the classroom espouses the positive aspects of AI and profoundly integrates them within the instruction. As AI becomes more complex, its functionality becomes more accessible, and education can afford to benefit from its assimilation.