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School Stories

Intellectual Excellence in the Age of A.I.

By Josh Cobb, Head of School
This year, for my wife’s birthday, my son gave two birthday notes. One, without my wife knowing it at first, was written by ChatGPT. It was fine, a little general and superficial, but adequate for a mom who is happy to receive any acknowledgment from her twenty-year-old son. At the end of that note, my son revealed the actual author and asked her to flip the sheet to reveal his own unique letter, much more personal and poignant. It was a moment that has stuck with me as I often consider the question, what will humans need to differentiate themselves in this automated world? It is a crucial question for us all and mostly for educators who are attempting to prepare children to thrive in school and in life.
My son’s clever two-faced birthday card, computer on one side and human on the other, is an indicator of the hybrid world we are currently living in. David Brooks recently addressed this in an opinion piece entitled, “In the Age of A.I., Major in Being Human.” In this piece, Brooks focuses on character attributes like empathy and advocates studying literature and history so that “you can learn about what goes on in the minds of other people,” an ability that machines do not currently possess. He also stresses the importance of presentation skills, stating, “The ability to give a good speech, connect with an audience [...] seem like a suite of skills that A.I. will not replicate.” Finally, he emphasizes creativity, specifically, “a childlike talent for creativity.”

Here at Graland, we have numerous children with a talent for innovation, which was on display at the recent Gates Innovation and Invention Program Expo. Over twenty years ago, Charles C. Gates prophetically knew how precious this creativity was and wanted to unleash that talent through the program he initiated and endowed. Since that time, we have refined the program and also brought its concept and spirit to the Lower School in the form of Tinker Time while focusing on six innovation skills: empathy, critical thinking, creative thinking, grit/perseverance, experimentation, and collaboration, all of which we believe separate us from machines.

Years before David Brooks’s commentary, Daniel Pink, in his 2008 book “A Whole New Mind,” presciently elevated six “senses” that he believed would become more and more essential in the time of automation: design, symphony, story, meaning, empathy, and play. These senses, though uniquely titled, echoed many of the innovation skills listed above. Pink argues that we need “not just function but also design” and that “it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.” Understanding the emotions of others is critical for design and also leads Pink to elevate another sense, empathy, one of the five character attributes from Graland’s character framework. He writes, “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.” This skill is key to designing an invention that meets a need and to developing a compassionate character that can bring more unity to society.

In addition to attributes found in our innovations skills and our character framework, Pink introduces new traits to consider as essential for the future. Symphony relies on “synthesis–seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole.” In addition, Pink, like Brooks, emphasizes the importance of communication in his sense, story, “The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability to also fashion a compelling narrative.” Fortunately, Graland’s tradition of “stand and deliver” moments from the Kindergarten Rodeo to the Grade 8 Capstone presentations gives us a great opportunity to foster the sense of story and the intellectual competency of effective communication.  

While Pink argues that human beings need to develop “high concept, high touch” competencies in the future, David Epstein, in his 2019 book “Range,” expands on this argument by focusing on the cognitive abilities that will help us solve wicked problems. He defines kind problems as the ones that play by the rules in a clear, formulaic way. He explores chess as a kind problem and reveals how computers now dominate humans in this type of arena, specifically describing how the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated one of the greatest chess grandmasters of all time Garry Kasparov in 1997. Wicked problems, conversely, do not play by the rules. Whereas computers can excel at kind problems, they struggle with wicked problems, which is where we come in if we have the skills to meet the complexity. 

To solve wicked problems, Epstein suggests that we must: apply knowledge to new situations, make connections, experiment, try new tools, and ultimately, be a generalist. He writes, “Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.” To prove this point, Epstein tells another chess story about “freestyle chess.” This tournament pits teams of humans using multiple computers against the top chess supercomputer, as well as teams of grandmasters using computers. The winning teams, comprised of chess amateurs, were able to use the technological tools most effectively by “synthesizing [...] information for an overall strategy.” In this example, the victorious humans had attributes that helped them use  A.I. tools like ChatGPT to succeed. Later in the book Epstein discusses another one of these attributes of success, adaptability, which is also referenced in our character framework. He stresses the importance of learning to drop your familiar tools and choose new ones. Finally, he recommends that we stay curious, avoiding falling into the traits of a “hedgehog,” firmly entrenched in one big idea. Instead, he says to be like a fox: “roam freely, listen carefully, and consume omnivorously.”

Curiosity is the bridge between two elements of our mission, achieve intellectual excellence and build strong character, as it is fundamental to both. Curiosity, a love of learning, will propel our students to foster many of the skills mentioned above, intellectual attributes that are essential to thriving in the future. Over the coming year, we will, in a similar manner to the Character Task Force, begin to develop an Intellectual Framework. On our recent professional development day in February, our Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Kerstin Rowe, led all educators through an activity that inspired them to first brainstorm necessary intellectual attributes for our graduates and then prioritize those attributes by comparing them to their colleagues and ultimately selecting their top five. From those top five lists, we entered them into a word cloud, and five intellectual traits manifested:

Curiosity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Experimentation, and Problem-Solving.
Interestingly, the trait that was selected by the most groups was curiosity, also a character attribute. Throughout the creation of the character framework, we always saw curiosity as the bridge between the two frameworks, which have to work in concert for a student to thrive. Educators also referenced the finalized Character Framework by listing perseverance (grit/resilience), adaptability, and empathy in their top ten intellectual competencies. Growth mindset was also frequently mentioned, an approach related to agency and self-sufficiency. Over the next year, we will finalize this Intellectual Framework by refining this list to the most important intellectual attributes, aligning them with our guiding principles, and completing our portrait of a graduate (the combination of the Character and Intellectual Frameworks). This north star for our educators will guide them as they develop the dynamic learning experiences necessary for our students to refine the skills that make them uniquely human. Then they will not only be able to write a better birthday card than a computer, they will be able to thrive in school and in life. 

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.