Category Archives: education

Experiments with ChatGPT

As both a creative person and an educator I wanted explore ChatGPT and how it is going to impact my work and life. Without any real plan, I asked it twelve questions. Both my questions and the answers got better as I learned the interface.

I started with a simple task: write a blog post.

1) I asked ChatGPT to write a blog post of about 500 words on the topic of space tourism, with an emphasis on NEO hotels.
Here is its answer.

I took the same basic topic and turned it into a simple compare and contrast essay question:

2) Weigh the benefits and costs of space tourism as it relates to both environmental and fiscal health of the Earth.
Here is its answer.

As a creative person, I next asked it to compare software tools for writers.

3) Compare the benefits of various software tools designed for creative writers.
Here is its answer.

4) What are the best tools to format a manuscript into an epub? Which is the best and why?
Here is its answer.

It failed to offer anything more than marketing copy as an answer. There was no opinion given, or when given was conditional to the point of useless.

Then I went into teacher-mode and asked a series of social studies questions:

5) How has the Chinese government tried to suppress knowledge of what happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989?
Here is its answer.

6) Is China’s “Belt and Road” initiative good for partner countries? Why or why not?
Here is its answer.

7) Has Brexit benefited or hurt the UK?
Here is its answer.

8) Is Western Sahara a sovereign state or a dependency of Morocco? Cite your sources for the opinion you give.
Here is its answer.

Again, the answers were factual but lacked detail and were offered at the highest level only. The Brexit question had the weakest answer, as it seems to think that Brexit is a future event with no results apparent as of yet. It never cited results for its non-opinion on Western Sahara.

9) What are the arguments against declawing cats?
Here is its answers.

On the declawing your cat question, I clicked “Regenerative Response”, which creates a second attempt that builds on the first. It was better, and is below the first.

Then I reverted to creative mode:

10) Write a story of about 700 words about a gambler in a casino on the moon and what happens to him when he loses a bet he can’t pay.
Here are its stories.

Interestingly, ChatGPT’s first take on this was solid, but a “regenerative response” was much better.

I tried again, with a different idea:

11) Write a story of about 700 words that uses Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a plot point.
Here is its story.

The story was complete and original, but was simple in structure and contained no dialogue.

Lastly, I tried it out on fan fiction:

12) Tell the tale of Paul Atreide’s first love on Caladan.
Here is its story.

The AI understood who he was, and who his family was, but then it took a left turn, rather than giving a previously unknown prequel love interest, it put Chani on Caladan and began messing up facts of the story.

My conclusions:

It’s not there yet.

For a simple middle or secondary school essay (maybe grades 7-9), it does a decent job of giving an overview. It has a hard time stating an opinion, preferring to give both sides and then waffle on the conclusion.

It also can miss huge areas: one the cons of space tourism, the environmental impact of the fuel used was completely ignored, with ‘space junk’ substituted. That’s a valid concern, but not the only one, and possibly not the top one.

When it came to writing fiction, it has story structure down pat, and frankly, the “regenerative response” added a lot of complexity to the story. BUT… there’s no dialogue, and the story is all ‘tell’ with not ‘show’. The stories read a lot like Aesop’s Fables, even often ending with a ‘moral of the story’.

As a storyteller, I’m not worried about its impact yet. But it may become a threat (or a tool) in the future. The threat, that a crowded market gets even more crowded with AI-generated stories. A tool in that it may assist writers with writer’s block.

As an educator, the simplest fix is to insist, even at lower levels, that students cite sources, something that ChatGPT does not do.

Anecdotes from the Classroom

I retired from teaching just over two years ago. I spent sixteen years in the the trenches, mostly teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) but also two years as a secondary school English teacher. Some days I miss it, some days I don’t.

Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the kids I’ll never see again. There was the 14-year-old girl in Pusan who would bring her small robots to class with her. There was the young boy who had the most inquisitive mind, and who drew knowledge from me that I didn’t know I had. There were the musical prodigies, the kids who hated being there, the inevitable kid who had a crush on the teacher and couldn’t hide it… Many of these ‘kids’ have now doubled their ages. They’ve started careers and maybe families, and I’ll never know.

That’s part of being a teacher: Giving your best and sending them on to their future. We’re just one station on their journey. You don’t get to know what that future will turn out to be.

Here are a few that I’ve been thinking about recently.

I had a student, about 11 years old, who was the perfect student, engaged, happy, contributed well and in fun ways – as long as you didn’t try to get her to read. Then she became a holy terror. She would do anything to get out of reading aloud, including, once, punching the teacher (me).

I spoke with her parents (they’re paying good money to send her to a top language academy. This needs to be addressed for her to progress). Her mom knows this happens but doesn’t know why. Her school counsellor suggested it was some psychological aversion (?).

I did something we’re not suppose to do; I suggested the parents have her tested for dyslexia. I wrote it out on the board so she could take a picture of it. They’d never heard the term, it certainly hadn’t come up with their daughter’s school counsellor.

A few classes later, the girl shows up wearing glasses, all smiles. “Hi teacher, I have dyslexia!”

“OK, we can work with that.” I had a font that was supposed to be easier for dyslexics to read. I started printing a handout in that font for her (if I gave it to all the students I’d’ve had to explain why we were using an odd font.) I also had a list of all the famous dyslexics to show her that it wasn’t a tragedy to resign oneself to.

Her mom thanked my manager for my suggestion on being tested for dyslexia, and since we’re not supposed to do that, I got “talked to” and told not to do it again.

I had a new class of teenagers. When I walked in on the first day, one of the boys was barking. As I called the class to order and started taking attendance, he continued barking.

I walked around, calling names, and when I got to him, asked quietly, “Can you control this?”

His tone sounded panicked as he answered “No.”

“Ok,” I walked away. Apparently, he had a form of Tourette Syndrome. I figured it got worse when he was anxious so I tried to take the anxiety out of our encounters.

We tend to think that kids with disabilities are somehow model students otherwise. He wasn’t. He was one of the class bullies.

At one point, I sat down with him. I told him that I’m never mad at him for the sounds he makes, but if he didn’t behave properly in class, I would get mad.

This was a surprise to him. I guess a lot of his teachers gave him leeway because of his TS.

He started behaving better in class after that.

I was teaching nine-year-olds in Korea. One day, one of the boys, who had never been trouble before, started acting up. He wouldn’t pay attention and he was disrupting the class. I ended up having to raise my voice with him.

Class continued. I didn’t punish him or isolate or in any way treat him differently from before.

The next day, my Korean manager calls me over. The boy’s mom is here to talk with me (When this happens, I’d speak in English to my manager who would translate for the parent). Apparently the boy came home crying, believing that I now hated him and wouldn’t let him back into class.

I told my manager that the student was fine; He was a just a boy. Sometimes boys that age have too much energy and don’t know how to control it. I had to raise my voice to get him to focus. Each day is a clean start. I wouldn’t be upset unless this became his new normal.

Having said all that, I asked the manager to translate. “Oh, she’s fluent in English. I don’t need to translate.”

So I turn to the mom to see if she wants to ask any questions. “Thank you, you are a good teacher.” And she leaves.

That’s the highest compliment.

Again, teaching in Korea, I’m in the grocery store when something very common but very annoying happened:

“Stephen-Teacher!” A man is calling out to me. “You teach my daughter. How is she doing?”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” I have sixty students, about half are girls. Perhaps I can figure out who he’s talking about.

“Jenny.” I have seven girls named Jenny across my five classes. I tell him this, ask for more detail, meaning which class, which days. “She’s about this tall,” he answers (The same height as most of my students) “and has straight black hair” (Just like every girl her age).

Me, still with no clue who we’re talking about, “Oh, yeah, Jenny. Yeah, she’s doing fine.”

Of course, this wasn’t good enough. “But what more could she do?”

Korean kids don’t get to have enough fun, at least not back then. “She could exercise more… maybe ride her bike or play soccer with friends. Something to help clear her mind, get some fresh air.”

“Oh?” He walked away disappointed.

I walked out of class into the usual confusion that was end of day. While many kids took school buses to and from the academies, others were dropped off and picked up by a parent.

Note that each class has a camera in it and parents are allowed to watch classes through the monitor in reception (instead of standing at the classroom door, distracting us all)

A mother comes up to me, being followed by our manager, who has a panicked look on her face. The mom speaks to me, very upset. “Teacher, you asked every student 3 questions except my daughter. You only asked her two. Why?”

“Oh, it was obvious that your daughter understood everything. I needed to check that the other students were as smart as her.”

Happy mom walks away, manager looks at me with confusion. “Really?”

“I don’t know… who’s her daughter?”

Before I come off sounding too full of myself in all these anecdotes, here’s an embarrassing one.

I had a young student, I think he was 10, again, perfect: Engaged, fun, great on team work, excellent scores and talkative but not dominating conversations.

Then one week he comes in and he’s a different kid. He’s sullen, vacant, lost. This goes on for a couple more weeks (I only see his class on Sundays).

He’s young enough that he can’t leave after class until a parent shows up. So I wait around, find his mom and ask to speak to her.

I tell her what I’ve observed, then ask a stupid question, “About three weeks ago, did his dog die or something?”

“My mother, his grandmother, yes.”

I apologized, a lot.

We talked on about how this was the first time he’d experienced a death in the family. She said they had talked to him about what had happened and he said he was fine.

Apparently he was putting on a brave face for them that he couldn’t sustain when he was out.

He did come most of the way back to normal eventually, but he’d aged a bit (or perhaps matured).

One more: Even more embarassing.

It was literally my first week teaching ESL in South Korea. I wasn’t used to the culture at all and was probably still a little jetlagged.

One of the boys in class (10/11-year-olds) won’t stop talking over me. I’m going through an escalation of responses … “Ok, time to listen… ok. stop talking now .. ok, be quiet …” Finally I said, “Will you shut up?”

There’s loud gasps from all the students. One of the girls says, “Teacher swore!”

“No I didn’t.”

“You said the ‘sh… word”

“I said ‘shut up’” Large gasp again. “That’s not swearing, ‘Shut the f*ck up’ is swearing.”

Yes, I actually said that, to a class of ten- to eleven-year-olds.

I don’t know how I didn’t get fired, but no one ever mentioned it to me, not a student, not a parent, not my counsellor, or manager.

When reputation overstays his welcome (part 1)

In two different context recently I’ve been considering the concept of reputation and how reputation reflects the past but is slow to catch up tot the present. I’m sure that’s not groundbreaking but it’s just something that I’ve been mulling over recently.

The first context, that I’ll explore today, is that of universities. We can all name a university that has an amazing reputation but how well does that reputation reflect the quality of their most recent graduates?

I’ve dealt with enough ‘ivy leaguers’ to know that they really aren’t better educated than anyone else who’s put in time and honest effort at a post-secondary education. The main difference is that they graduate with an amazing network of contacts and from that, opportunities that others won’t even know exist.

I remember talking with a new coworker, a recent Harvard grad slumming it with the rest of us. She was distracted by her blackberry. It was a message from her friend. Her “ooh…” made me ask if everything was OK. Yes, she replied. Her friend was starting a new job, it was supposed to be in Washington, but it turned out she was en route to Beijing.

Now I was enough of a political wonk to know that Obama was en route to Beijing, so I asked, “Is your friend’s first day on the job on Air Force One?” The answer was an immediately defensive, “well, she is Joe Biden’s niece.” As if that obviously made it completely normal for a recent undergrad’s first day of work to be on Air Force One.

I met another Harvard alumnus, someone who was unemployed because she’d help cause the collapse of the world financial markets in 2008. She was adamant that she was qualified to have wielded that kind of power solely because she was a Harvard graduate. I asked her what she’d studied at Harvard. “Medieval Literature.” That teaches you how to manage the world’s economy? “I WENT TO HARVARD!” She shouted at me.

That in and of itself was justification enough for her to be given the reins of the world economy. How dare you question this. End of discussion.

I worked with a Stanford MBA who didn’t believe me that whales were mammals and not fish. When I asked him if seals were fish, or penguins or turtles, he got thoughtful. Came back later to admit he never knew that whales were mammals. But hey, he had an address book full of billionaires and politicos, so who cares if he doesn’t know anything about life on Earth?

Do I sound jealous? I’m not.

I have a great education from a mid-ranked Canadian university. It’s done me well. I may not know Barack Obama, but I know three people who have dined with him. And I have dined with a king. I know people who have spent time with Nelson Mandela. I’ve met Kofi Anon and leaders or former leaders of a number of nations. My students have stood on stage with Bono, been interviewed by Jon Stewart, and won major awards for economics and humanitarian work.

I’m not jealous. I’m angry at the arrogance, the misplaced self-confidence that comes from studying at a university with a reputation that masks the abilities and capabilities of its graduates. Some of the worst politicians in America today are graduates of these schools: Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton went to Harvard, Josh Hawley went to Yale. Trump went to Wharton.

When I was in uni, a long time ago, one of my political science profs (a cagey but-if-you-got-him-drunk-he’d-admit former spy) said that what’s taught in university tends to be about ten years ahead of what’s considered general knowledge. This was before the internet, so that time frame may have collapsed (or expanded, as conspiracy has now replaced fact in so many people’s lives).

I think a lot of universities have unfounded reputations, at least in these times, and we need to reconsider what exactly makes a university special or reputable.

Of Peacocks and Practical Jokes

I’m not sure how vague I need to keep this one, but I’ll try to write it so that if you were there you’ll either know the story or be able to recognise the events. If you weren’t there, hopefully this will still be an amusing anecdote.

I had an employer who encouraged practical jokes. He wasn’t very good at them himself, but he saw them as a sign of a healthy work environment. Usually they were small things and not very memorable.

Then there was the time we created a news network, a revolution, and a plot to kidnap a person. All because of peacocks.

This was a school, and it had peacocks. They’re pretty birds, but they poop a lot and often in doorways or on sidewalks. The school decided to get rid of them (not knowing that the peacocks were killing the snakes – we’d learn that too late).

Many of us objected to the culling of the peacocks, and we decided to protest by making our own t-shirts, the Peacock Liberation Front. This is the photo I took and the graphic I made.

We decided that as a protest, we would kidnap the student-body president from the cafeteria at lunch time and “hold him hostage” until he had finished having lunch with us (we ordered pizza). We had flyers and we had a link to the Peacock News Network, a page put up on the school website (see image below).

Our demands were, of course, return the peacocks, for which we’d exchange the student.

We put this whole thing in motion, then…

The night before, our target, the student president, violated a major school rule and spent lunch in the Dean’s office as punishment. We couldn’t make a public “kidnapping” of him and we really couldn’t reward him with pizza when he was being punished.

So the “joke” collapsed.

Other than a few of us having t-shirts, I don’t think there’s any remnant of the story at the school.

I still have my t-shirt, in storage in Canada. I have the graphic here, and may reprint it for myself or even sell it on t-shirts again.

What can you do with a degree in Political Science? Give it back!

Like many of you who are reading this, I have a BA in what could be called the Liberal Arts. Unlike many of you, I got it at a university that is more famous for its agricultural programs, a university where you could smell the fields of various fertilizers being tested, a university that embraced country music and line dancing.

Image from Pixabay.

In my university residence, we lived in pods of six students – four in single rooms and two in a double. My pod was four aggies, a business major and myself, a poli sci.

I came from a city more famous for its steel mills and pollution than its culture. To me, our podmates were salt of the earth, good drinking buddies and a lot of fun.

The business major, on the other hand, came from the big smoke, and this rural university was beneath him. To him the aggies were “back-ass country f*cks.”

Don’t worry, the distaste was mutual, and where he had language as a weapon, they had skills.

Did you know:

  • That if a door is closed, and you exert enough pressure on it, you can get a gap between the door and the door jam? Stuffing pennies into the gap will make the door almost un-openable once you stop putting pressure on it.
  • That a skilled farmer can climb up the outside of a three-storey building and enter through a window?
  • That really small pieces of uncooked beef are very hard to find until long after they’ve gone rotten and stunk up a decent sized bedroom?

I don’t remember now what all else they did to him (back in the 1980s) but it wasn’t a fair fight, even if he obviously picked and perpetuated it. His most biting response was, “that’s OK. I’ll own your farm one day.”

For the most part I fit in with the aggie crowd. Almost all of my friends in the first two years of uni were farmers. I went to their challenge pubs, I sat in on some of their classes, I visited their farms. When a group of dippers (2-year diploma students instead of full 4-year BSc students) petitioned the university to start a chapter of Alpha Gamma Ro (an Aggie-centric fraternity) I was invited to be a founding member of the chapter.

My one (forgivable) flaw, in their eyes, was my field of study: Political Science. Our school had a real political divide between the right-leaning aggies and the left-leaning artsies, and I was seen as being on the wrong side by my friends and neighbours.

Once, there was a seminar being offered: What You Can Do with a Degree in Political Science: Options for Your Future. I found a copy of the flyer on my bedroom door. Under the title, “Options for Your Future” had been scribbled out and one of my friends had added, “Give it back!”

It was meant as a joke and that’s how I took it. We all laughed about it.

Times weren’t as polarized then as they are now.

What brought this to mind is discussions I’ve been a part of recently that dealt with the lack of critical thinking apparent in today’s political climate and specifically under-graduate studies, how classes, courses, and especially majors designed to promote critical thinking are not popular.

Then tonight a promoted tweet in my timeline appeared, introducing, a website specifically designed to dispel myths about the value (or lack there of) of an education in the Humanities.

One of many talking-point images available at

It’s a start, an entry point to a conversation that we need to continue.