Understanding How AI Can Change K-12 Education

I have spent hundreds of hours mentoring middle and high school students on their writing. My key observation? They conflate eloquent writing with complex vocabulary.

I was guilty too. In fourth grade, after reading the dictionary for fun in my free time, I went slightly overboard with the thesaurus. My teacher called my mom asking, “Did you read Audrey’s latest story?” She hadn’t. He explained I’d replaced “exclaimed” with the archaic “ejaculated.” Little did I know that this actually exposed the limitations of my vocabulary…

What I tell my mentees is that good writing stems from clear thinking. When students struggle to articulate ideas, I say “Pretend we’re chatting over coffee. Don't fixate on how you sound. Just tell me what you think!”

This reveals whether they have a firm grasp on their idea, as it usually results in two different scenarios: 1) students telling me a clear idea in plain English. 2) students mumbling their words because they actually have no clue what they’re trying to say in the first place.

So I empower them to start with clarity of thought and once they have a conviction in what they want to communicate, then we’ll polish it.

This approach - nail the core idea, then polish the delivery - enabled me to publish research (that took much longer than the writing itself) in Stanford's history journal.

Communication has always been a strength, but writing still takes time. Sometimes I enter a flow state and bang out something brilliant. Other times I have the great ideas down but agonize over how to perfectly word each sentence.

Recently my ability to output my ideas has accelerated at a speedier rate than ever before. Why? How?

I’ve found the most effective writing sidekick: AI.

As a non-techie female founder who never saw myself as a STEM student nor an entrepreneur at Stanford, I felt doubt.  But I leaned in. I committed to using AI daily to elevate my work and our startup's goals.

It’s 8 months later and I now use AI (Claude, ChatGPT, or Bard) at least once in every hour of my working day. As a startup founder, I work 12-14 hour days.

My individual productivity has skyrocketed. Beyond my individual output and capacity, it has made what others previously described a starry-eyed vision to scale personalized learning and 1:1 mentorship from a faint possibility to a very concrete, almost within the grasp of our hands reality.

Having uncovered how AI has changed my life, I’ve been grappling with how it’s going to change things for other working professionals and the professional world as we know it.  But most near and dear to my heart, of course, is how it will affect kids and the future of K-12 education.

To demystify AI and share my passion, I hosted a workshop for moms. Some teens joined at the last minute.

As I began going through my hacks on how to use AI to blaze through inundated email inboxes or to prepare thoughtful agendas, I felt discomfort. I created this for parents. But seeing the teens, my concerns felt visceral. Would they never craft an original email?

Stop catastrophizing, Audrey. I refocused on the agenda where I emphasized three core principles:

  1. AI is a coachable sidekick. Emphasis on coachable.
  2. AI is a starting point or final touch, not an end-to-end solution.
  3. AI enables human amplification, not replacement (I credit Rob Reich for this clarifying framework).

One parent pushed back, are we all going to lose our personal voice? I explained that you have to coach it on your tone.

Another mom inquired, “Now it feels like more work to write the very clear prompt than to just write the email!” AI is your coachable sidekick. Yes, management takes time!!

I told the group: "Think of AI like a GPS navigation system. If you just tell it you want to go 'somewhere fun,' it might take you anywhere from a park to a museum. But if you tell it you want to go to a children’s amusement park that’s kid-friendly and within 10 miles, you’ll get a much more precise destination."

The kids who didn’t even check their emails got bored and departed for pizza as the moms experimented with my prompts and asked more questions. As more questions came in I returned back to my most foundational principle when helping kids write: Good writing comes from good ideas.

And in real time I added principle #4: Harnessing AI's power rests on a foundation of clarity and intent.

Whether you are a working professional or a high school student, you must know what you’re trying to say to write well, and you must know your goal with clarity to leverage AI effectively.

So how does this impact the future of K-12 education??

When I champion the integration of AI into education, it's not at the expense of foundational skills such as arithmetic, writing, and solid grammar. These basics are the bedrock upon which AI-enhanced learning stands. The landscape isn't radically different from what we're familiar with; it simply has a higher potential.

Imagine de-coupling English, history, and writing into separate communication and critical thinking courses.

The communication course teaches public speaking, essay writing, email etiquette - focused on effective communication skills. Use AI to generate ideas, but write assignments yourself to build skills.

The critical thinking course values creativity, independent thought, and thinking outside the box. Use AI to refine and polish, but be evaluated on originality of ideas.

AI becomes a tool to enhance precision and mastery, not to replace human cognition.

Reimagine history not as a chronicle of dates but a deep dive into causality. Inspired by Marcus Garvey's words, “A people without their history is like a tree without roots,” my passion for history has never been about mere dates. It's about threading events to comprehend the present. Whether identifying what moment set of WW1 or any other epochal event, the focus is on understanding, not rote memorization.

As Einstein wisely stated in a pre digital era, "Never memorize something you can easily look up.” To repeat: Einstein said this before the ubiquity of the internet, yet in today’s world this wisdom has never rang more true. This underscores the longstanding need for learners to cultivate true learning skills, rather than just memorizing facts.

K-12 education has always taught kids what to think. Yet, in an age where AI provides limitless information, it’s imperative to teach students how to think. It's the quality of questions, the depth of critical thinking, and the spark of curiosity that matter most.

So while some may foresee a dystopia of machine dominance or unprepared youth, find comfort in this: Our greatest asset is not the tech we create, but the resilient human spirit we cultivate.

Fears that emerging innovations will displace fundamental skills are common, but often unfounded. Have faith in human potential. If we focus first on fostering time-tested abilities like critical thinking, communication, creativity, and curiosity our students—and society—will thrive in this new frontier.

Audrey Wisch is the Co-founder & CEO of Curious Cardinals. As an emerging thought leader in the K-12 education space, Audrey shares her insights and tips on the Curious Cardinals blog, social media, via podcasts and live events, and CC's weekly newsletter. Sign up so you never miss discussion on timely topics like this.

Want to share your thoughts about this piece? Leave a comment below! We love hearing from you.

Leave a Comment