- Some are concerned that new inventions will cause students to cut corners and inhibit learning.
- All healthy humans are born to learn, create, and bond with others without being forced to.
- This natural motivational tendency is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development.
Let’s talk about the newly famous invention “Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer” (or ChatGPT for short), which is sweeping the internet and capturing our imaginations. For those unfamiliar, it’s a program that’s meant to mimic human conversation. It’s free, and I recommend trying it out. It’s capable of generating text that mimics some sophisticated thoughts people might share casually and can also generate long-form essays or stories.
Many are reflecting on what this could mean for how we approach teaching in schools, with the concern that students could use ChatGPT to produce written work (basically a new form of academic dishonesty). Some are lamenting the possibility that with this new technology, masses of people would never read any books that are typically taught in school.
Other writers on this website have similarly suggested that “artificial intelligence” technologies like ChatGPT will upend our notions of creativity, facilitate dishonesty, and put professionals out of work.
But let’s pump the breaks for a moment and deeply consider this. Why do humans seek to learn in the first place? Why do we read books or solve math problems? Why do we write creative pieces like fiction or poetry? Why do we form friendships and romantic relationships? Are digital technologies really threatening our ability to do those things?
A Theory of Human Motivation
Ask any psychologist familiar with the self-determination theory, and they’ll tell you that all healthy humans in any culture around the world are intrinsically motivated to learn, create, and bond with others. These psychological needs are labeled as competence, autonomy, and relatedness. What’s remarkable is that humans will routinely strive to acquire knowledge, master new skills, and form meaningful intimate relationships even when there are no rewards or incentives for doing so.
I’ve written about this before, as have others on this website, like evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, one of my personal heroes.
Knowing that humans have this fundamental tendency, why would we worry about technology disrupting the things people enjoy doing anyways? Maybe it’s because we’re confused about what motivates our behavior. We’ve come to believe that young people won’t study important topics unless they’re forced to or that students won’t read books or write essays unless they’re required. Of course, this is undermined by the fact that adults will routinely do those things in their spare time, just for fun.
Here are some personal examples from my life. I’ve taken adult education language courses since 2015 because I desired to learn my wife’s native tongue. I paid for the privilege to learn and never cheated on any assessment. That would defeat the whole purpose and undermine my own goals! I also belong to a monthly book club, and each time we meet, I’m excited to talk with my friends about that month’s selection. I even honestly admitted that I didn’t finish our most recent book (a whopping 630-page deep dive into the 1980s AIDS crisis).
I love reading and writing for their own sake, whether it’s this blog or a private dream journal. There’s no incentive for me to fake any of that. I’m doing these things to satisfy my basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Learning Based on Motivation
Our ideal model for education at all levels would be based on fulfilling these same psychological impulses. Ask any student in a mainstream school how they feel when they hear that their classes are canceled. Do they feel happy? If so, then there’s a problem. Students should want to come to class, read books, write essays, and learn about topics like math and science. If they don’t, it means the school system we’re using is undermining their motivation.
By removing the unnecessary and unhealthy bureaucracies associated with schooling (like GPAs), we would empower students to learn for learning’s sake. This would eliminate the incentive to cheat on an assessment or lie about reading. We would see students take initiative to read what interests them and then voluntarily gather and talk about ideas they’ve encountered, as well as put thoughts to paper and further develop their logical and creative thinking. Folks would freely engage in learning because it scratches an itch. Say goodbye to AI plagiarism!
On a recent episode of Very Bad Wizards, the hosts were talking about ChatGPT. Tamler Sommers posed the question: will ChatGPT be a monumental and irreplaceable technology, like the invention of the Internet itself, that has revolutionized the way we live our lives? Or will this be more like some underwhelming computer-based communication inventions (like Alexa or Siri) that are kind of fun but that ultimately we can live without?
My thinking is that ChatGPT is more the latter (underwhelming) than the former (revolutionary). But I think it’s worth pretending otherwise as a thought exercise to help us calibrate our expectations from technologies and other people, including those we work with or have relationships with. Ask yourself: would you mind if a student submitted an essay that was written entirely by ChatGPT? Would you mind if your spouse or friend sent you a text that was written by ChatGPT? Would you mind if your President made a speech written by ChatGPT? Why or why not?
Human Nature Keeps Me Optimistic
I’m not worried about new inventions causing disruptions to learning or social relationships because I remind myself of who humans really are. At our core, we are born to do those things. It’s just our nature. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, two seminal researchers on this topic who have had a major influence on the field. They always cheer me up.
Humans are curious, interested creatures, who naturally seek out novelty and challenge, enjoy learning, and actively internalize new practices and cultural values from others around them. Humans are endowed by evolution with a strong propensity to learn. It is not a motivation that must necessarily be taught or prodded.
From birth onward, humans, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious, and playful creatures, displaying a ubiquitous readiness to learn and explore, and they do not require extraneous incentives to do so. This natural motivational tendency is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development because it is through acting on one’s inherent interests that one grows in knowledge and skills.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2013). Toward a Social Psychology of Assimilation: Self-Determination Theory in Cognitive. Self-regulation and autonomy: Social and developmental dimensions of human conduct, 40, 191.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.