Friday, June 21, 2024

Can We Learn Without Struggle in the Age of AI?

I've been pondering a question: What if our traditional understanding of cognitive growth is too narrow? We've long held onto the idea that real learning comes from struggle, from pushing against our limits, from grappling with challenges just beyond our current abilities. But what if that's not the whole story?

I'm starting to wonder if growth - real, meaningful cognitive development - might not always need the strong challenges we've assumed were necessary. And this thought has become particularly relevant as we enter the new world of AI-assisted learning.

Many of our theories about learning and development are rooted in the idea of conflict or tension. Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, for instance, emphasizes the space between what a learner can do without help and what they can do with guidance. Piaget talked about cognitive dissonance as a driver of development. These Hegelian/Mamrxist heories have shaped how we think about education for decades.

But here's what I'm pondering: What if growth can happen more... gently? What if it can occur through exposure, through interaction, through a kind of cognitive osmosis that doesn't necessarily involve struggle or challenge? And importantly, what if this gentler form of learning is still deeply social and relational?

There's a lot of hand-wringing in educational circles about AI tools like ChatGPT. The worry is that by providing ready answers, these tools will short-circuit the learning process. Students won't have to struggle, so they won't really learn. I have definitely been expressing these concerns in my previous blogs. 

But I'm not so sure anymore. Let me float a hypothesis: What if AI-assisted learning doesn't dampen growth, but instead provides a different kind of cognitive experience that can still lead to meaningful development? And what if this experience, rather than being isolating, actually opens up new avenues for social learning and collaboration?

Here's an analogy that's been helpful for me in thinking about this. Remember when GPS first became widely available? There were concerns that people would never learn to navigate cities anymore, that we'd lose our sense of spatial awareness. And yet, most of us who use GPS regularly still develop a pretty good understanding of the cities we live in and visit. We might learn differently - perhaps more slowly, or with less detail - but we do learn, without all the frustrations of trying to read the map while driving, or memorize multiple turns (Left, second right, soft left again...). City driving is probably safer, but we did not get more stupid.  

The GPS doesn't prevent us from learning; it provides a different context for learning. We're not struggling with paper maps, but we're still processing spatial information, making connections, building mental models of our environment.

Could AI-assisted learning work in a similar way? Sure, students might get quick answers or produce a quick text with an AI without much effort, which feels somehow wrong (the nature of these feelings is a subject of a special consideration). But that doesn't mean they stop thinking or interacting. They will start wondering how to get better answers, produce better outputs. They will begin to notice patterns in the AI's responses. They will start to question or critique what the AI produces. That's what the human brain has evolved to do. 

Moreover, this process doesn't happen in isolation. Students will discuss their AI interactions with peers, compare outputs, collaboratively explore how to improve results. It becomes a form of social play - experimenting, sharing discoveries, building on each other's ideas. The AI becomes a tool for social learning, not a replacement for it.

In other words, the presence of AI doesn't eliminate cognitive work or social interaction - it might just shift their nature. And who's to say that this new form of cognitive and social engagement is any less valuable than the old? 

Now, I'm not saying we should throw out everything we know about learning and development. Challenge and struggle certainly have their place. But I am suggesting that maybe we need to broaden our understanding of how growth happens, recognizing that it can occur through gentler, more playful forms of social interaction and exploration.

Perhaps there's a whole spectrum of cognitive experiences that can lead to growth, ranging from intense challenge to gentle, collaborative exposure. Maybe AI-assisted learning falls somewhere on this spectrum - not replacing traditional forms of learning, but adding new dimensions to how we can develop cognitively and socially.

This is all hypothetical, of course. We're in new territory with AI, and it will take time and research to understand its full impact on learning and development. But I think it's worth considering that our assumptions about how growth happens might need updating, particularly in how we view the social aspects of learning.

What do you think? Is it possible that we've overemphasized challenge in our understanding of learning? Could AI-assisted learning open up new pathways for cognitive development and social learning that we haven't fully appreciated yet? I am just back from a conference, where we had many early childhood educators. In that tribe, there is a lot more talk about play than about forcing growth. Maybe that's why I am having these second thoughts about growth. 

I don't have definitive answers, but I think these are questions worth exploring as we navigate this new landscape of learning. After all, if there's one thing we know for sure about human cognition, it's that it's endlessly adaptable and intrinsically social. Perhaps it's time for our theories about learning to adapt as well, embracing a more collaborative, playful vision of growth in the age of AI.

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