Our Learners Are (Still) Smarter Than ChatGPT

Last year, I wrote to you with some reflections about the release of Chat-GPT and how text-generating AI platforms pose an existential threat to traditional educational paradigms — that because of AI’s superiority in sheer accumulation of knowledge, solely “learning to know” is all but obsolete, and a child’s education must instead equip him with the skills necessary to make keen judgments and develop novel solutions as he exercises creativity through divergent thinking, character, and collaborative energy. I continue to stand by what I said. You can check out the full article here


Since that time, it has been encouraging to see these themes and concepts gain broader attention and discussion. In fact, I recently stumbled across a study out of Cal. Berkeley that put my thesis to the test. 


The study pitted children aged 3-7 against AI machines in two tests. The first involved having them recall and apply existing, conventional knowledge by matching objects or tools based on some kind of commonality. A nail goes with a hammer. A compass matches better with a ruler than a teapot. 


The second challenge was far more interesting, though. It surrounded innovation, rather than recall. Both the bots and the kids were given a series of objects typically unassociated with a task and were forced to create novel uses for these items in order to complete the task. So this was not about simply recalling and making conventional applications, but it was all about divergent thinking, the foundation of all innovative problem solving and creativity.


Any guesses as to what happened? 


The children destroyed the bots. 


To give one illustration, only 8% of the bots figured out that a teapot could be used to draw a circle whereas 85% of the children did. 


So what does this mean for our children and the skills that will be most valuable in their lifetimes? Well, I continue to think that it does not bode well for paradigms built on memorizing answers to reproduce for a test. More fundamentally, though, it exposes an urgent need to reconsider the foundational goals of education and the means by which we assess its efficacy. The prevailing paradigm rates schools solely by test scores (which don’t even pretend to assess higher orders of thinking), thereby relegating these higher, more abstract forms of thinking to margins…as just the squishy kind of stuff that doesn’t count on the test. Perhaps more concerningly, because most schools design their programming to maximize test scores, many children’s capacity to think in divergent and novel ways slowly deteriorates as they are conditioned to believe that all that matters is churning out right answers. 


Think I’m exaggerating? A fascinating (and sad) study on divergent thinking found that the longer a child remains in school, the more her ability to think creatively deteriorates. I highly recommend checking out this 3-minute video from Ken Robinson on the topic. You can read about the actual study he cites here


So where does all of this leave us? 


As I concluded in my previous reflection on this topic, an Acton education is more important now than ever before. The ability to think laterally, to make keen judgments, to work collaboratively with others, to lead compellingly, to take on a hero’s journey and live with character and purpose…these are the skills that will be indispensable in the brave new world that is upon us. 


I’ll leave you with a quote that captures the heart of this well. Watch out for the “they.”


School was pretty hard for me at the beginning. My mother taught me how to read before I got to school, and so when I got there I really just wanted to do two things: I wanted to read books, because I loved reading books, and I wanted to go outside and chase butterflies. You know, do the things that five year-olds like to do.


I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came this close to really beating any curiosity out of me.


Any guesses who said it? 


Steve Jobs. 



Summaries of the Children vs. AI Study:

Inc Magazine: Scientists Pitted 4 Year-Olds Against AI. The Kids Crushed The Machines at This 1 Critical Skill

Psyche Magazine: Innovative 3 Year-Olds Expose the Limits of AI Chatbots

[Blogs or portions of blogs may be adapted from communications with or the blog of our partner school founders and advisors, Laura and Jeff Sandefer.]

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