Teaching History/Social Studies in the Era of AI Writing Tools

Guest blog post by Torrey Trust and Robert W. Maloy, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Interactive digital tools have been shaping and reshaping the way K-12 students engage with history and social studies materials for decades. Multimodal historical timelines, videos, podcasts, digital collections of primary sources, engaging games and simulations, 3D modeling tools, and other types of interactive technologies offer exciting new ways for students to explore historical information and make connections between the past, present, and future.

Now comes ChatGPT – an interactive artificial intelligence (AI) tool that uses natural language processing to generate concise responses to user questions in seconds. It can provide instant access to information, write work emails and press releases, brainstorm creative ideas for parties, write code, compose poetry, solve math problems, balance science equations, explain concepts for different developmental ages, and do many other tasks for you with ease. 

But, ChatGPT is not just another example of an interactive digital tool remaking how history and social studies can be taught to students in elementary, middle, and high schools; it is a direct challenge to teachers and students to rethink and re-envision the roles of research and writing in the history/social studies classroom. 

Look what happened when we posed a history-based focus question about the influence of the Roman Republic on our modern-day United States government to the ChatGPT system – a question that comes directly from the Massachusetts History & Social Science Curriculum Framework. The system generated a concise, readable, textbook-style response (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Screenshot of ChatGPT Response to “How did the Roman Republic influence the United States’ modern-day government?” 

Similarly, when we asked ChatGPT to respond to a key focus question about the separation of powers in the United States government, it produced a well-written, easy-to-understand text (see figure 2). 

Figure 2. Screenshot of ChatGPT Response to “How does the Separation of Powers Function Within the United States Government?” 

With this type of information access, do students need to conduct their own research or write their own papers?  

With the release of ChatGPT, some educators and journalists have already proclaimed that the “essay is dead” (e.g., Marche, 2022) and even have gone so far as to pronounce “The End of High-School English” (e.g., Herman, 2022). 

Why should students do research and write papers when they can just ask an AI system to do that activity for them? 

Let’s take a closer look at the word “research.” Taken apart, it can be read as “re-search” meaning “to look again.” That is what historians do all time, examine and re-examine historical information and evidence to revise and update explanations of historical events. 

Similarly, writing is not a matter of summarizing information. It is a process of generating new knowledge (new to the world or new to the writer), deepening thinking about a topic, and composing words to communicate with others. In history and social studies, writing offers students ways to connect people and events – often from long ago and far away – to their own lives, experiences, and communities. Students’ writing forges connections between past, present, and future and it can help students envision themselves as history-makers whose decisions and choices matter. Writing in history and social studies can take many forms, from expository to persuasive to creative. In every case, students give their ideas and perspectives a sense of permanence and importance as they commit words to paper or screens. 

So, what does this mean for students in history and social studies classes who might be drawn to the ease of asking AI writing tools to do their research and writing for them? 

Students must learn how to become HISTORIANS and WRITERS, not simply how to research information and summarize it in writing. To do this, students need opportunities to interrogate what it means to be a historian and a writer. They need guidance on how to find and critically examine historical information and evidence. They need opportunities to break free from the 5-paragraph essay to uncover the purpose and intellectual benefits of writing. And, they need open-ended learning experiences that allow them to construct their own thinking and learning. 

Here is an example of what that might look like when students examine the history of the sugar and spice trade in a Global History course. Spices came into high demand in European societies during the time period 1000-1513. Traders traveled across the globe to find these goods – but why were these goods so popular? And how did the trade of these goods influence individuals, communities, and societies throughout history? 

While ChatGPT might be able to answer these questions in a textbook-style response, students can dive deeper. They can look for primary and secondary sources that provide evidence of the use of sugar and spices in different regions, continents, and cultures throughout history. They can critically evaluate historical sketches, photographs, audio recordings, and other types of media presentations of these commodities (see the Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280–1350: Egerton MS 747, f. 106r on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog). They can try to uncover like a historian would, people’s firsthand experiences with sugar, spices, and the trade of these commodities in different eras and countries. And, then they can build an interactive map (on Google MyMaps or Padlet) or multimodal timeline, and, like a writer, present a deep interrogation of the influence of the sugar and spice trade throughout history and on present-day society (something ChatGPT cannot do – see figure 3). In this learning plan, inspired by Marina Amicizia, a history/social studies teacher licensure candidate at our college, students do the analytical and creative work of historians and writers – curating, evaluating, and synthesizing information into new forms of text. 

Figure 3. Screenshot of ChatGPT Response to “Draw a Map of the Sugar Trade Throughout History.”

In this learning plan, you can see how information retrieval, made quick and efficient with ChatGPT, is shifted to information curation and analysis. 

The AI writing tool can free students from spending time trying to find basic, textbook-style information online (and potentially getting lost in the process) so they can spend more time thinking like historians and acting like writers. Of course, this does not mean that students should trust whatever any AI writing tool produces as true and credible information (see Trust, 2022 ChatGPT & Education). OpenAI, the designer of ChatGPT, openly admits that the tool may provide harmful, biased, misleading, and false information, especially when asking about anything that happened after 2021 since ChatGPT is not connected to the Internet and the data used to build the ChatGPT database was pulled prior to 2021. This makes the need for information literacy skills – essential for historians and writers – more important than ever. 

Ultimately, AI writing tools, like ChatGPT, are simply just tools. They are tools that present information. They will not replace teachers, but they might spark a rethinking of what teaching really is and can be. With these interactive digital tools, teaching does not need to consist of simply presenting information that students then summarize on paper or a worksheet. Instead, teaching can be a means of empowering students to creatively construct their own knowledge, experiences, and understandings of the world and to rethink and re-envision research and writing in the era of AI writing tools. 

Google Drive Folder with High Res Images: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/18mKZl5P4EqM2BJKxBzH_MymcQWsIa92a?usp=sharing 

Author Bios

Torrey Trust, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Learning Technology in the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her scholarship and teaching focus on how technology shapes educator and student learning. Specifically, Dr. Trust studies how educators engage with digitally enhanced professional learning networks (PLNs), how emerging pedagogical tools (e.g., HyperDocs), practices (e.g., Making), and technologies (e.g., 3D printers, augmented reality) facilitate new learning experiences, and how to design and use open educational resources (OERs). Dr. Trust served as a professional learning network leader for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) for five years, including a two-year term as the President of the Teacher Education Network from 2016 to 2018. In 2018, Dr. Trust was selected as a recipient of the ISTE Making IT Happen Award, which “honors outstanding educators and leaders who demonstrate extraordinary commitment, leadership, courage, and persistence in improving digital learning opportunities for students.” www.torreytrust.com

Robert W. Maloy is a senior lecturer in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he coordinates the history teacher education program and co-directs the TEAMS Tutoring Project, a community engagement/service learning initiative through which university students provide academic tutoring to culturally and linguistically diverse students in public schools throughout the Connecticut River Valley region of western Massachusetts. His research focuses on technology and educational change, teacher education, democratic teaching, and student learning. He is co-author of Transforming Learning with New Technologies (4th edition); Kids Have All the Write Stuff:  Revised and Updated for a Digital Age; Wiki Works: Teaching Web Research and Digital Literacy in History and Humanities Classrooms; We, the Students and Teachers: Teaching Democratically in the History and Social Studies Classroom; Ways of Writing with Young Kids: Teaching Creativity and Conventions Unconventionally; Kids Have All the Write Stuff: Inspiring Your Child to Put Pencil to Paper; The Essential Career Guide to Becoming a Middle and High School Teacher; Schools for an Information Age; and Partnerships for Improving Schools. 

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