Why Teacher Intelligence Will Always Trump AI: A Conversation with Sarah Hanawald

Sarah Hanawald is the Senior Director of the Association for Academic Leaders at One Schoolhouse, a partner in innovation to independent schools around the world. What follows is a conversation between Sarah and R.E.A.L.® Founder Liza Garonzik. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Liza: Sarah, thanks for being with us today. We are so excited to pick your brain. I have heard you talk about AI in schools in several different contexts over the years, and I really think you’re one the premier thought leaders about this topic. 

One reason I invited you to speak with us today was based on your recent headline, where you made the case that teacher intelligence will always be more important than artificial intelligence. Can you talk about where that came from and why you believe that’s true? 

Sarah: I’ve been following the evolution of AI for a long time, even though it sort of seemed like it exploded from nowhere this past year. We’ve been arguing about whether Alexa belonged in classrooms and whether Grammarly is appropriate for students to use for years. There’s a lot about AI that has been kicked around, but the discussion has fundamentally shifted in the last 12 months. 

What I’m seeing is, in some way, a parallel to what happened when social media emerged. Schools really just said, okay: that’s not in the classroom, or that’s not us, or we’re not sure what to do about that, so we just kind of let it go. As a result, we let social media teach kids how to handle social media and how to use it and how to engage with it. And I would say that we’re probably all really sorry that we did that. 

We now have an opportunity, if we move fast, to teach kids how to be good humans in a world where they are surrounded by ubiquitous AI. Let’s remember that they will never have less AI than they have now, and it will never be as weak as it is now–there will be more and more powerful AI, and it will be everywhere. 

What teachers can do that large language models and neural networks cannot is teach kids and adults – and each other, because I think we have to be communities of learners – how we’re going to take a human-centered approach to learning about artificial intelligence.

What role does it play in our lives? How much power do we give it? What’s appropriate to use it for? Who was harmed in the making of the tools that we use? What are the responsibilities that come with using these tools? That’s where I’m coming from when I say that teacher intelligence matters a lot more, because teachers know how to help kids grow in wisdom and discernment. 

Liza: We’re all about a great discussion question, and I feel as if the last three questions you just listed could stoke an amazing classroom conversation.

I have to say, though, that if I were a teacher, I might be a little scared to open that can of worms with students, particularly if I don’t feel like I’m an expert in AI, or I don’t have the answers, no matter how many hours I’ve spent on GPT. Do you have advice for teachers about how they can learn with and from students about AI?I?

Sarah: When technology started becoming emergent in the classroom, teachers would sort of wait to really get their heads around it before they brought it into their instructional practices. The challenge there is that if you wait, every year you’ve got a group of kids who don’t get exposure and practice, and that’s sort of alarming. And then during the COVID pandemic, people learned how to do a lot of things with technology that they never thought would matter. We have more capability than we know. 

I think it’s Ethan Mollick, whom everyone should follow, who said that when he speaks to people who have really senior roles, like CEOs and CFOs, they haven’t touched AI. They’re waiting for their people to tell them how it works. Likewise, I feel like some people in education are waiting for somebody to bring out the workshop that’s going to tell them, okay, here’s how we’re going to use generative AI in the American history curriculum.

That’s not going to happen. And the great thing is: independent school teachers are better positioned than anybody else to say, oh, I get to make my own curriculum, and I’m going to figure out how to incorporate this tool or resource. 

When I do my workshops, I acknowledge that there are indeed things we should worry about, because kids are asking AI questions that we didn’t know they would ask. They might be asking about a friend who maybe has a mental health challenge or disorder, and they ask the AI how they can be a good friend. That’s something we want kids asking trusted adults in their lives!

Liza: Yes, I appreciate that a lot. I think it’s even enough for teachers just to ask kids, how are you using AI? What do you know about AI? What questions do you have about AI? What are you hearing from adults about AI? 

I’m wondering: what are you finding really exciting in terms of defining the future of AI in education and helping educators wrap their minds and hearts and daily work around the challenges of AI in schools?

Sarah Hanawald, Senior Director of the Association for Academic Leaders at One Schoolhouse

Sarah: I have a couple of answers to that. One is that this is really a global phenomenon in a way that other issues are not. UNESCO has developed competencies for teachers around AI. Those competencies include having a human-centered mindset, thinking about the ethics of using AI, having a fluency with large language models and neural networks, which are really the two primary ways that artificial intelligence is kind of exploding in our world. 

And then, pedagogically, we need to know what’s developmentally appropriate for an 11 year old, a 15 year old, a 19 year old. And finally, how do I keep growing as an educator, knowing that this is going to continue to evolve and change? Those are the basic standards from UNESCO, and I really respect this work. I love that they’re global in ways that previous technology advances and our responses have not been. 

Liza: I think the fact that it’s global is really important to acknowledge and celebrate and embrace. And I think helping teachers across the country and around the world realize that the first core competency is having a human-centered approach! To me, that’s really the sticking point. 

How else do you see teachers using AI in their classrooms?

Sarah: Apologies that I keep comparing AI to social media, but when social media first emerged, not everyone had a smartphone. Right now, so much of the planet is connected that access to artificial intelligence really is global. 

At the same time: one of my co-teachers, Ilana Saxe, M.Ed., The John C. Wellemeyer ’55 P’18 Teaching Chair for Science at The Lawrenceville School, in a class this fall took our online class for the first time this past summer. She came back to me and said, hey, I want to show you what I’ve been doing with my department. I watched what she showed me and came back to her with, “Wow! Can you teach the class now? Because you are frontline in the classroom and doing amazing work.” I think a lot of schools probably have someone like Ilana on campus, and they need to find them and celebrate them and help them grow and lead.

Liza: Absolutely. What do you think are some immediate ways AI can enhance classroom discussion?

Sarah: So do you know who’s really good at this? Arts teachers. 

Liza: Interesting. Why?

Sarah: They have a sort of multi-faceted approach to AI adoption. First of all, there’s the fact that so much intellectual capital and property has been stolen from artists. If you wanted to, you could log into your AI tool of choice and ask it to write you a fan fiction novel every week based on your favorite author’s series. It wouldn’t be as good as the originals, but if you love fanfic and want to live exclusively in that world, you could. What does that mean in terms of intellectual property rights? Ask an arts teacher!

Arts teachers are really good at navigating this kind of situation, because they get that – they see artwork, whether written, drawn, or music – “in the style of.” And so they can teach about that. They can get students to think deeply about what it means to be a creator. What does it mean to make a living through your creative powers, then have somebody steal that from you and create new “things” based on your original ideas? Kids can get really passionate about that. 

And then at the same time, these teachers can talk to kids about what they can create, if they are using these tools, using their own creativity. So the discussion centers around how to make AI work for you, instead of using it to steal from someone else.

Liza: Those are two fascinating approaches. And I think that is something that will really resonate with our teachers as they help students to develop and see value in their unique voices and realize that self-expression is an end in and of itself. If you outsource that, you might have a paper at the end of the day, but there’s really no intrinsic value in the process.

Sarah: The advent of AI and bringing it into the classroom: 

is our chance to put our money where our mouth is on saying that we value kids’ process. 

We’ve been saying it for a long time, and yet it’s still the final product that gets most of the grade. And now we know that the final product could be generated or augmented by AI. 

But if a student passionately defends the point of view they’ve taken in an essay during a classroom discussion or debate, then you as a teacher have a chance to say, we want you to write a synthesis essay, because we want you to put new information together with what you know and make something that is brand new. That’s how you learn to write something better than what AI can generate. 

And you know who else knows a lot about this? Coaches. Not everybody is going to be an Olympian, but you can grow and persevere, and there’s value in being on the team.

Liza: At R.E.A.L., we’re big advocates of the teacher as a coach! Our model equips teachers to give specific, actionable feedback at predictable intervals and prescribe drills based on what they see – the same way a coach would. That’s another compelling connection between our work. 

The other thing I just can’t stop thinking about is that relationships in a classroom are still going to matter in an age of AI. Why do you think that relationships will still be at the center of learning?

Sarah: We already have AI tools that seem to be accurate. An AI tool can be completely tuned into where students are in their development. And we may even be able to tell it: this is a girl who loves softball, and she’s in the chorus, etc. But what a teacher can do is hand a paper back to a kid and know something important is happening based on the look on that child’s face in that moment. And before anybody’s opened the screen or done anything, that teacher can note, “this is a day to back off here.” Or they can ask a question before anything else happens. Or they might even know how some kids may be feeling even before they get to the classroom, because the teacher knows that last night the softball team lost in the regional playoffs, and this is a senior, and that’s the end of her career because she’s not playing in college, so the teacher will decide to approach her differently based on all of that context. 

Liza: Yes. I think that’s absolutely right, in terms of how teachers read students, and that there is infinite and evergreen value in that ability, especially in independent schools. I’m also constantly thinking about how we can equip kids to provide that support to each other, and how to read each other intelligently, even in an AI world.

Sarah: Especially if most of their interactions are behind a screen. I’ve heard you talk about challenges such as how many kids will say, if I have something really hard to say, I’m going to text it. 

Liza: Right. And I wonder whether we can also help teachers realize that in connecting with kids in person, they’re also modeling what human connection looks like for a generation for whom live communication can be scary and hard. I think that’s honestly something teachers take for granted that they’re doing every day. 

Sarah: Yes, and I think a lot of people might be taking it for granted. 

Liza: How can we learn more about your work, Sarah? 

We’d love to have more folks join us at the Association for Academic Leaders! We’re a professional community for Academic Leaders–and that’s anyone who thinks about teaching and learning from the perspective of multiple classrooms. We offer asynchronous online courses on everything from curriculum development, onboarding faculty, evaluation and growth and more. We also have live online cohorts organized by school roles, meetups for discussion about big ideas and small steps to solutions and more. Check us out and reach out if you have any questions!

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