Don’t just chat(GPT): turn on critical interrogation

Critical thinking is often seen as the antidote to generative AI. But what if educators took it one step further back and aimed to encourage students’ curiosity? Giuseppe Cimadoro explains

Giuseppe Cimadoro's avatar
St Mary’s University Twickenham
12 Jan 2024
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Is critical thinking the answer to generative AI?
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Three The Thinker statues around a laptop

Presentations on the use of artificial intelligence in higher education often start with promising titles that convey positive messages about AI’s potential for learning. Discussions may even feature catchy phrases such as “deep learning”, which reflect a hopeful view of AI’s impact and the trend towards embracing this technology in the HE industry. These presentations set goals and provide examples of how AI can foster an innovative, often creative learning environment, one we might describe as “next gen”, borrowing a term from the world of video games.

However, during open discussions, the focus often shifts to ways to combat, restrict or dismiss AI’s role. This appears as a self-defence reflex, even if the initial scope of the discussion is geared towards embracing AI. But what are we afraid of?

Remember the days when students had no choice but to search for the nearest library? You had to work to its operating hours, travel there, request hard copies of textbooks or scientific papers, sift through materials. Then, after all those tasks, you could finally concentrate on the most critical learning content. The world then met the internet, and this process evolved – now scholars can use research-oriented search engines, which significantly optimise our time. Imagine if your educational institution insisted on wasting your time organising these searches – believing that the process taught you organisational and perseverance skills – instead of allowing you to focus on the content you desired to enhance your critical thinking.

In fact, it is the subtle opposition to the bots such as ChatGPT, Bard AI and Microsoft Copilot that is the potential threat to students’ critical-thinking ability. Recognising that the development of critical thinking usually requires effort, persistence and a willingness to face challenges, educators worry that students might perceive AI as offering a trouble-free journey, that they believe AI technology will entirely replace the need for intellectual hard work. The direct implication of this mindset is that students might not only fail to learn adequately but, more significantly, may lack a comprehensive understanding of the tasks at hand.

So the focus turns to adjusting assessments to limit the usefulness of AI (time-constrained quizzes, oral presentations replacing essays, policies suggesting restriction levels at the discretion of programme leads). But I advocate a temporary pause on critical thinking in favour of using AI to explore the prerequisites for critical thinking. I propose my own next-gen version of learning: critical interrogation.

The journey to knowledge, to gain intellectual skills and wisdom, often starts with an inquisitive attitude and a persistent desire to understand. This eagerness to know through questioning is evident in children, and it’s something we should strive to preserve into adulthood. Encouraging curiosity and the search for deeper understanding can be seen as a prerequisite for critical thinking; it is a more complex skill that encompasses problem-solving, synthesised information analysis, reasoned judgement and evidence-based decision-making.

When a student encounters a complex problem, we teach them to break it down, analyse solutions and solve the problem. In light of this reasoning, it becomes apparent that we should explore how to use AI to foster inquisitiveness and generate interrogative conversations. Such conversations can be seen as standalone assessments where the quality of the interaction is evaluated. This approach exposes learners to multiple learning objectives, including asking “why?”, seeking clarifications, breaking down complex theories, rephrasing complex text for better understanding and verifying the reliability of information.

Students are exposed to the positive use of AI: learning how to optimise prompts and create interrogative dialogues tied to curiosity. Also, the interrogation exercise will frequently lead students to discover the limitations of AI, including hallucinations and incorrect claims. As a result, they become aware of the areas in which AI falls short.

Because the bot generally offers the option to save conversations, it can easily be used either as a drafting tool to create a new independent piece of work to be submitted as an assessment or as a standalone assessment where the prerequisites of critical thinking are assessed.

Pause critical thinking, enter critical interrogation!

Giuseppe Cimadoro is academic integrity lead and a senior lecturer in strength and conditioning science in the Faculty of Sport, Technology and Health Sciences at St Mary’s University Twickenham.

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