Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Broken Ladder, Or A Clarion Call for a New Learning Theory in the Age of AI

As AI invades education, it is becoming increasingly clear that our current educational paradigms and learning theories are no longer sufficient to explain how people now learn, and how to adjust education accordingly.

Traditional learning theories, such as those proposed by Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner, have long emphasized the social nature of learning and the importance of scaffolding in cognitive development. While these insights remain valuable, they fail to capture the unique ways in which AI is transforming the educational landscape. Vygotsky's concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, for instance, assumes that learners require the guidance of more knowledgeable others, such as teachers or peers, to bridge the gap between their current abilities and their potential. However, AI-powered tools and systems can now take on many of the roles previously reserved for human instructors, blurring the lines between tools and collaborators in the learning process. Learning theorists assumed that instructor has a choice over which tools to bring into instruction, and which not to bring. Well, AI imposes itself in instruction wether we want it or not.

Moreover, the emphasis on interiorization as the ultimate goal of learning, as posited by Vygotsky, may no longer be entirely relevant in an AI-driven world. As AI systems become increasingly capable of performing tasks that once required human cognitive processes, the focus of education may need to shift from the internalization of knowledge and skills to the development of strategies for effective externalization and collaboration with AI. In other words, the aim of education shifts from an individual learner to a symbiosis of a human and a machine.  

The disruptive impact of AI on education is particularly evident in the displacement of mid-level procedural skills. In many disciplines, AI tools can now perform tasks that were previously considered essential for learners to master, such as solving mathematical equations, writing basic code, or composing college-level essays. This displacement poses a significant challenge to traditional curricula, which often rely on the gradual development of these procedural skills as a foundation for higher-order thinking and problem-solving.

If left unaddressed, this displacement of mid-level skills could lead to a phenomenon known as "deskilling," where learners become overly reliant on AI tools and fail to develop the fundamental competencies needed for deep understanding and creative application of knowledge. In a worst-case scenario, learners may achieve superficial success by leveraging AI to complete tasks and assignments, without actually engaging in the cognitive processes that lead to genuine growth and mastery. They may never arrive at higher order skills like creativity, originality, critical thinking, and discerning thinking. 

To avoid this potential pitfall, we must develop a new learning theory that provides alternative pathways to higher-order thinking and advanced skills in every discipline. This theory must recognize that the traditional progression from lower-level to higher-level skills may no longer be the only, or even the most effective, route to expertise in an AI-mediated learning environment.

Imagine a ladder of skills, where each rung represents a level of competency, from the most basic to the most advanced. Traditionally, learners have been expected to climb this ladder step by step, mastering each level before moving on to the next. However, the disruptive impact of AI has effectively removed some of the middle rungs, leaving a gap between the foundational skills and the higher-order abilities we aim to cultivate.

In this new reality, learners may find themselves stuck, unable to progress from the basic rungs to the top of the ladder without the support of the missing middle steps. Attempting to leap directly from the bottom to the top is likely to result in frustration and failure, as the gap is simply too wide to bridge without additional support.

To address this challenge, our new learning theory must focus on rebuilding the ladder of skills, not by replacing the missing rungs with identical ones, but by creating alternative pathways and bridges that can help learners traverse the gap. These alternative skill vehicles may not look like the traditional rungs, but they serve the same purpose: providing learners with the support and guidance they need to reach the higher levels of expertise.

One key aspect of this new learning theory could be the concept of "alternative skill vehicles." Rather than relying solely on the mastery of procedural skills as a prerequisite for higher-order thinking, educators could design learning experiences that leverage AI tools to bypass or de-emphasize these skills, while still promoting the development of critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. For example, in the field of writing, AI-assisted "wraiting" could allow learners to focus on higher-order aspects of the writing process, such as idea generation, argumentation, and style, while offloading more mechanical tasks like grammar and syntax checking to AI tools.

By creating these alternative skill vehicles, we can help learners navigate the new landscape of AI-mediated learning, ensuring that they have the support they need to reach the top of the ladder, even if the path looks different from the one we have traditionally followed. 

Another crucial component of a new learning theory for the age of AI would be the cultivation of "blended intelligence." This concept recognizes that the future of learning and work will involve the seamless integration of human and machine capabilities, and that learners must develop the skills and strategies needed to effectively collaborate with AI systems. Rather than viewing AI as a threat to human intelligence, a blended intelligence approach seeks to harness the complementary strengths of humans and machines, creating a symbiotic relationship that enhances the potential of both.

Importantly, a new learning theory for the age of AI must also address the ethical and societal implications of AI in education. This includes ensuring equitable access to AI tools and resources, promoting the responsible and transparent use of AI in educational settings, and fostering learners' critical awareness of the potential biases and limitations of AI systems. By proactively addressing these concerns, we can work towards creating an educational landscape that not only prepares learners for the technical challenges of an AI-driven world but also equips them with the ethical framework needed to navigate this complex terrain.

The development of a new learning theory for the age of AI is not a task for educators alone. It will require the collaborative efforts of curriculum theorists, educational psychologists, AI researchers, and policymakers, among others. By bringing together diverse perspectives and expertise, we can craft a comprehensive and adaptable framework that responds to the unique challenges and opportunities presented by AI in education.

The imperative for this new learning theory is clear. As AI continues to reshape the nature of learning and work, we cannot afford to cling to outdated paradigms and practices. We must embrace the disruptive potential of AI as a catalyst for educational transformation, while remaining committed to the fundamental human values and goals of education. By doing so, we can empower learners to thrive in an AI-driven world, equipped not only with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed but also with the creativity, adaptability, and ethical grounding needed to shape a future in which human and machine intelligence work together for the benefit of all.

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