“The Mockingbird’s Call” – Navigating AI in the History Classroom

By: Clay Huffaker

“The function of memory is not only to register past events, but to stimulate human conscious”-Raphael Lemkin (Holocaust Survivor, and the individual who coined the term “Genocide”)

Nearly ten years ago I saw the quote listed above at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It haunted me and caused me to reflect. Though I wasn’t fully or immediately aware of why, I placed it at the top of my syllabus. It has remained there as an elusive focal point and target for what I believe a robust history education can provide.

History professors, history teachers, and students of history are always looking for ways to “use” history. We may be able to justify the “use” of history for many purposes from the more practical civics education all the way to the routine “learn from the past” answer we often hear. Though I believe in many uses for history, the Raphael Lemkin quote to me represents one of the highest, most elaborate, and difficult types of thinking we can do with history.

Lemkin Quote

As we approach a simultaneously troubling, and perhaps exciting age of the AI tools, I wanted to simply share a few useful reflections on this quote and how it might help navigate what a history classroom can look like.

When Chat GPT first became available, I immediately spent some time with it just to see what it provided and explore its capabilities. AI appears to be remarkably easy to use. I spent nearly three hours on a bus ride back from Washington, D.C. this past year testing/investigating the medium. I am not for avoiding AI and what it can do, but I was left unimpressed and surprised by how easy, simple, and lifeless the responses were to complex questions.

One example of this was an occasion (at the end of the semester) when I told my 12th Grade Civil Rights class that I would go to Chat GPT and ask it when the Civil Rights Movement took place. I told them ahead of time that it would inevitably list out 1954-1968 without even questioning it. I posed the question to Chat GPT. Sure enough, it spit out a predictable and routine answer with no consideration of nuance or alternatives. After a semester of studying Civil Rights, the class found it both humorous and disappointing that it gave us such a simple answer to a topic and theme that is far more complex.

Chat GPT will always be the culmination of human thoughts and inputs. On its own, it will never allow a student to truly pause and reflect on a moral dilemma. It will never allow a student to be empathetic. It won’t allow for the high levels of nuance that the study of history requires. It will never allow a student to truly stimulate their own human consciousness to make sense of the world and why we are here.

I have a few bits of advice of teachers of history, and how they can navigate teaching history in the age of AI/Chat GPT:

  1. The expository essay/response is the sketchiest assignment a teacher can give right now– be cautious with how you assign something like that. You are asking for an AI generated response depending on how you assign it.
  2. Ask for a persuasive essay instead based upon a question that will force out an opinion.
  3. Require students to reference the very specific things that you have read and discussed in class in any type of written response.
  4. Find ways to shut down access to certain domains within your school/district. Can your school allow access to only word processing under certain circumstances? Some institutions are even going so far as to provide laptops/devices that can only access word processing.
  5. Monitor student sources as they are researching. I have often required students to share the sources they are encountering during the research process.
  6. Require students to share a live document of writing with you to monitor “chunking of information”/live history or copy and pasted information.
  7. Embrace a discussion-based curriculum for key texts to see if a student has grasped the texts.
  8. Assign a performance task that involves a problem that needs to be solved.
  9. Shut down the technology as often as possible. Go paper. Avoid judgment of handwriting and lean into the ideas/thoughts of students.
  10. Ask students the questions that we all need to address as human beings:
    a. Why are we here?
    b. How should we live?

A robust history curriculum is the perfect place to investigate the last two questions that we all need as human beings. Regardless of background or religion, we ought to lean into these: Why are we here? How should we live?

AI can serve a purpose as a data generating medium. We need students to be the “inputters,” the revisers, the re-evaluators, and the criticizers that will shape the moral climate and landscape of AI. To do that, it is necessary that students do difficult thinking and processing themselves, as often as possible. Take the opportunity to have your students do the difficult work of stimulating their human conscience. AI needs to take a back seat for this to happen.

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