Using AI Without Losing Ourselves: A Critical Media Literacy for the 21st Century

Chris McNutt
September 25, 2023
We must be proactive in teaching students how and when to use AI while taking a critical lens to how it works and its potential pitfalls. 

Header image: Paulo Freire fighting a robot. Watercolor. Generated in Midjourney.

In the 1960s, educator and founder of critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, established an inventive literacy program for the marginalized working class of Brazil. His “cultural circles” were unique as they weren’t solely spaces to learn how to read and write but spaces of political awareness and democratic thinking. Freire resented the idea that knowledge transmission – rote facts and skills – was the sole means of education, but acknowledged that literacy was paramount to fighting for a better future. As he wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed,

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the "rejects of life," to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.

Literacy is one of the most important skills to navigate the world. We don’t want students to simply be literate enough to make ends meet, but understand the context, perspectives, and critical dialogues that are shaping society around them. A critical consciousness (conscientização) is paramount. Without it, our world faces an immense threat of easily propagandized people who are subjected to the latest exploitative market trends and nefarious political opportunists.

Over the past decades, Freire’s critical literacy has expanded to a critical digital media literacy. Just as fundamental as reading and writing, using and browsing the Internet is a central part of our society. Everyday, people are accessing biased news reports, YouTube videos, memes, advertisements, and more which shape their worldview. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with any of this media having a perspective, but young people need the skills to recognize these perspectives, have nuanced opinions, and know how to spot misinformation and propaganda.

ChatGPT (and other large language learning models, often broadly referred to as “AI”) is now a ubiquitous topic across education workshops and conferences. From fears of the end of education as we know it, to adopting policies to quickly supplant or ban it, to finding easy ways to lesson plan – a pedagogy-for-AI has been interpreted in myriad ways. We must recognize like any other literacy that AI is a skill students must know how to use, while taking a critical lens to the implications of AI on our classroom and the world more broadly. As Dr. Meredith Broussard, data journalist and author of More Than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender, and Ability Bias in Tech writes,

Tech is racist and sexist and ableist because the world is so. Computers just reflect the existing reality and suggest that things will stay the same - they predict the status quo. By adopting a more critical view of technology, and by being choosier about the tech we allow into our lives and our society, we can employ technology to stop reproducing the world as it is, and get us closer to a world that is truly more just.

Artificial Intelligence & Large Language Models

Before we outline our suggestions for AI in the classroom, we want to preface what large language models (henceforth referred to as “ChatGPT”, as it’s the primary tool driving AI conversations) and image generation software actually do.

First off, ChatGPT and image generators are examples of narrow AI. They only understand how to do one specific task. They are not sentient machines, they do not understand what they’re doing – they are complex computational statistics that predict best answers. They are extremely far away from WALL-E or HAL 9000.

Wolfram Alpha has produced an in-depth analysis of how ChatGPT functions. Models are trained (sourced) from hundreds of thousands of data points (e.g. Wikipedia, digital archives, Reddit) which are cross-referenced to determine a best probable answer. 

To break this down into simple terms, we can start with a basic probability question. If we ask a language model: “The best animal to own is…” – we may receive a series of responses depending on the most probable outcome of various sources. For example: Dog (30%), Cat (25%), Bird (5%), and so on. The AI will respond with the most probable information from its dataset unless told otherwise by the user.

In this case, we have a simple question -> answer formula. If user requests X, then say Y, a linear formula: 

A linear graph showing an example of predictive text. Wolfram Alpha.

However, AI models run prompts through a mass of different computational statistics to cross-reference grammar, phrasing, themes, and multiple types of answers, well beyond what any single person could do on their own – in mere seconds. The final product could be visualized as a 3D graph with many axis and networks that synthesizes into an answer:

A web of networked ideas. Vasturiano

A basic understanding of this process is important for educators and students because it demystifies the “black box” of how AI models operate, helping us recognize that AI doesn’t actually understand what it’s doing. When we acknowledge this, it’s much easier to dissect how and why AI should and can be used, while knowing its limitations.

Tools, Not Systems

A random Twitter post on the transformative nature of ChatGPT.

ChatGPT has been making headlines and dominating social media, with entrepreneurs touting "10 NEW and AMAZING ChatGPT prompts to REVOLUTIONIZE your LIFE." While recent advancements in artificial intelligence are undeniably impressive and awe-inspiring, it's crucial to recognize that AI is a tool intended to enhance our lives, rather than a substitute for the systemic changes that are necessary.

Numerous innovative tools have been introduced into classrooms, including calculators, the Internet, tablets/smartphones, e-books, video conferencing, and online Learning Management Systems (LMS).

A calculator serves as a valuable aid in mathematics, but it does not render mathematics obsolete, nor can it singularly address the pedagogical challenges inherent in a math class. Similarly, Wikipedia is an excellent resource for research, yet it cannot replace all other forms of online research. The core nature of math classes and school research assignments remain mostly unchanged. To tackle significant concerns—such as curricular standards, student assessment, adequate school and teacher funding, children's rights, and disciplinary policies—systemic changes are still imperative.

And despite the introduction of these tools, the fundamental structure of education remains largely the same. (Not to mention that debates persist about whether students should be permitted to use calculators and Wikipedia, let alone AI in the classroom.)

Likewise, we can’t outsource strong content or pedagogy to tools themselves. Technology is often placed on a pedestal as the way to make education more efficient, but efficiency is often at the expense of student learning. We could simply put kids on computers and have them learn from an AI tutor all day, and students may in-turn learn facts much more productively. But they will not have the critical consciousness to navigate the world with this knowledge alone. There is immense value in having a democratic classroom filled with peers and a professional teacher guiding the way. The edu-tech arms race toward making the perfect AI tool cannot make us lose sight of the purpose of education.

Proactive, not Reactive

Channeling the spirit of Paulo Freire, we must ensure that students are able to understand and wield AI to navigate today’s world, while simultaneously using it to make the world a better place. There is no doubt that young people are already using AI in school (whether it’s banned or not) and nearly all facets of media and enterprise will incorporate AI in some way.

Merely prohibiting the use of tools does not address the crucial need for instructing students on how to responsibly and appropriately utilize these technologies. Again taking Wikipedia, for instance; it is often the initial online point of reference for most people. However, many lack guidance on when, how, and why to employ Wikipedia as opposed to other sources, especially since it is frequently barred as a valid citation. Because many have not been provided the necessary contextual information for the proper use of it, many people simply presume that academics are disconnected from reality and use Wikipedia unquestioningly. This practice persists, despite the very real risks associated with relying solely on it. The same proactive versus reactive line of thinking could be said for posting personal information on TikTok or critically evaluating the claims of an Instagram post.

Therefore, our goal is to provide a list of ways to get started using AI in the classroom while not losing our humanity in the process. AI is not meant to replace people, but – like Desmos or Wikipedia – is a tool that expands our capabilities. If our students are to understand a future with AI, we need to see through the exaggerated hype and look past the doom-and-gloom to see these tools for what they are. We must be proactive in teaching students how and when to use AI while taking a critical lens to how it works and its potential pitfalls. 

Interested in learning more? Check out our free Edufuturism Series, where we dive into many use-cases of AI, or schedule a quick call about HRP workshops on AI at your school/institution.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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