Long Division & Dead Batteries

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 2/15/2023

Long Division

Each time I craft one of these articles, I’m challenged with captivating you with educational wisdom and perspective that is original, engaging, relevant, and thought-provoking. Sometimes the words come with ease, and other times it’s a process (brainstorming sessions, research, writing, and rewriting). What gives these articles “soul,” as my editor would put it, are the personal stories I share to help illustrate and support the subject. So, let me tell you about LONG DIVISION & DEAD BATTERIES.

I will never forget learning long division in 3rd grade and simultaneously being introduced to calculators. 

Like every other kid, I asked why I needed to tediously perform long division on paper when I could just punch the numbers into the calculator. My teacher always replied with the age-old mantra, “You need to know how to do it yourself because you might not always have a calculator handy, and if you do the batteries could die.” Well, 40 years later, I’ve never come across a calculator with dead batteries. In fact, I grew up when they started putting those little solar panels in them. I also had a Casio watch with a built-in calculator — they were all the rage in the 80s. For the last few decades, my smartphone took over to ensure I was never without a calculator. I can still do long division, and I’m grateful for that, but the prophecy that “I had to know it” is questionable. I can diagram a sentence too. But if I couldn’t, there are a plethora of tools to get around that too. 

As we continue to push the boundaries of technology in education, we also need to consider the potential impact on our students' learning experiences. One such example is the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the form of ChatGPT, a natural language processing tool that can assist with tasks such as writing and research. Have you heard of it? ChatGPT is just the latest technology gaining notoriety these days for its incredible ability to write grammatically perfect, well-constructed answers to practically any prompt a user can lob at it. It’s a game changer, but time will tell if it’s for the better or worse.

Language processing AI brings us to a whole new level of such capability. I encourage you to give it a try — go ahead and ask it anything. The responses are sophisticated, original, and simply mind-boggling. It can research facts, write code, and opine on moral dilemmas. As a teen I recall how difficult it was to keep up with assignments and deadlines, and how overwhelming it felt to balance academics, extracurricular activities, and social life. Today’s high school students feel the same way, if not more so, given the additional pressures and distractions of the digital age. The temptation for students to use ChatGPT to lessen the crunch will be a predictable reality, especially considering it will produce an “A” paper, with original wording (i.e. not plagiarized) — and with citations if asked, in approximately a minute and a half. It can do your math homework too — even the word problems, and ironically it can also “show your work.”

As educators and parents, it’s important to approach the integration of ChatGPT with caution and consideration. As I mentioned, it has the potential to enhance the learning experience. For example, ChatGPT can offer personalized tutoring, assist with foreign language acquisition, provide feedback on assignments, and suggest ideas for projects and essays. However, it’s crucial that with all this automated capability, we also prioritize the development of independent thinking and problem-solving skills. This can be achieved through careful implementation and monitoring, and provide opportunities for students to reflect on their use of the tool and its impact on their learning.

AI is here, so we’re going to have to learn to live with it. The genie is out of the bottle so to speak, and it’s rapidly growing in its sophistication. We have to impress upon our students the value of learning versus reliance on tools to think for them. Given the growth in connectivity, it’s highly unlikely a day will go by that they won’t be able to access AI tools one way or another. It has suddenly become critical that we ensure that our students are not relying on these tools to supplant their education, but rather using them as a supplement to their learning.

Let’s consider AI in teaching. Yes, it may also be used on that side of the desk as well. It will undoubtedly revolutionize teaching as we know it. One example is the automation of grading and assessment. Give ChatGPT a term paper and ask it to grade it. In less than a minute, it will not only have a grade based on the parameters provided, but it will also throw in robust feedback and comments for good measure. As a former English teacher, I will attest that it’s right on the money with its assessment. Thinking ahead, I can envision lesson plan design, individualized instruction, monitoring classroom engagement, tracking skill attainment, and parent communication are right around the corner. AI won’t just simply save time for educators in the near future, it will completely change the level of individualized service provided to each student. What I fear is that this super-teaching capability could ironically come at the cost of human interaction, creativity, and relationships in the learning experience. You know, the “soul” part.

As forward-thinking parents and educators, it’s important that we are aware of our concerns and take steps to mitigate them. This can include providing opportunities for students and teachers to reflect on their use of AI in their teaching and learning, as well as promoting a culture of critical thinking and reflection in the classroom. Additionally, we should work to ensure that the use of AI in education is thoughtfully implemented to harvest its benefits while filtering its detriments. 

I understand if you still have reservations about ChatGPT. It has only been available to the public for a few months, and most people haven’t played with it yet. For your amusement and perhaps to make a point, I asked ChatGPT to write this article. To be clear, I asked it to read my 28 previous blog articles to mimic my writing style, then write about the concerns of ChatGPT and its effect on teaching and learning, and to make it more personal, add fictional examples from my childhood. It completed that task in one minute and 14 seconds. I must admit, I was impressed with the result. For nostalgia, I rewrote approximately half myself. I’ll leave it to you to deduce which half. 

Enough about the future. Let’s go back to my 3rd grade classroom. My teacher understood that I needed to know long division because I would be building more complex math concepts on that foundational skill and knowledge. She innately understood that all learning works this way, and that if humans simply turn to a machine for an answer, they will never grow their intelligence. All they will accomplish is a growth in their dependence on a machine for answers. This concept is more important than ever today. If we get to a point where we allow, if not welcome, machines to do all of our thinking for us — humanity be damned. Of course, that’s a lost concept to a bunch of cackling 3rd graders…but I never forgot the real meaning behind long division and dead batteries.