As artificial intelligence (AI) and automation has continued its steady march across the professional landscape in recent years, it has given rise to much anxiety over the vanishing need for certain skills in our workforce.
This anxiety has proved far-reaching, permeating even those ‘creative’ industries, such as writing, once thought beyond the reach of a computer.
Spellcheck is certainly not a new phenomenon, however, grammar programs and apps such as Grammarly have taken writing automation to a new level where anyone can produce near-perfect writing.
Even predictive text functions on our smart devices are completing sentences, oftentimes before we have even thought of them.
With writing technology growing in accessibility and accuracy, the question of which skills will be required in the workforce of the future has reached down the chain to the education sector.
A 2021 article published on The Conversation by Lucinda McKnight from Deakin University argued that growing AI writing tools would put less emphasis on basic writing rules and structure, and more on creativity, problem solving and social intelligence.
Fundamental literacy skills
Edith Cowan University Senior Lecturer Dr Helen Adam specialises in children’s literature and literacy education and said the issue was more complex, pointing to a need for children to also master writing fundamentals as the foundation for creative and expressive writing down the track.
“Firstly, for very young children, reading, writing, spelling, word use/vocabulary and handwriting are intrinsically intertwined and inseparable,” she said.
“For example, the broader and deeper a child’s listening and spoken vocabulary is – the more they can recognise these words when they read them, use these words in their speech and writing and communicate effectively.
“These skills are foundational to being able to think, reflect, work and communicate creatively and critically – which are the skills needed for the 21st Century in order for them to become adults with the critical, creative problem solving capabilities McKnight refers to.”
Dr Adam said regardless of how advanced AI and spell check became, young children still needed to grasp phonics and spelling skills to read, write and to grow their vocabulary.
“We don't want young children leaning on artificial intelligence because they need to. It may actually stop them learning to read in the first place,” she said.
“Children's understanding of what we call the alphabetic principle, is really critical and is linked to their ability to spell, recognise words when they hear them, use them in this speech and then to be able to use them in writing.
“So if people think it's not important to teach skills such as spelling, they are going to undermine children's ability to learn to read, write and put texts together.”
Writing skills and creative expression
Dr Adam said writing skills and creative expression must both be considered in teaching methods, regardless of advances in technology.
“The problems arise when the focus is one-sided,” she said.
“Some like to think we can simplify this debate into ‘back to basics’ or ‘forget the spelling and grammar, AI can do that’ – these are two ends of a spectrum and being solely at either end is dangerous.
“At one end we see formulaic writing based on a set of rigid ‘grammar rules’ which result in inauthentic, almost mass-produced texts.
“Whereas at the other end, if writers don’t make clever use of words and creative, clear expression it can result in good ideas lost in poor or incomprehensible writing.”
Dr Adam emphasised how language was constantly evolving and that children needed to be encouraged to take risks and be creative.
“If you go back and read texts from 100 years ago, the way we use language, the way we spell and sometimes the vocabulary choices, has changed,” she said.
“The way we use language continues to change especially if you look at poetry and literature – these don’t follow rigid sets of rules.
“We still teach children, what is a simple sentence? What is a complex sentence? What is a compound sentence? How can we play with these and vary these to get our message across.
“It's encouraging children to risk-take with their writing and to play with grammar.”
Demands on teachers
Edith Cowan University Senior Lecturer Dr Pauline Roberts specialises in early childhood education and AI and said the teaching of these new technologies in the classroom faced its own obstacles.
“This is a difficult space for teachers to navigate,” she said. “Often they are learning alongside the children about technology while balancing the opposing views of too much use and needing to prepare children for a tech future – while not really having the time to fully explore the options.
“Tech is another thing on top of the other demands that teachers need to understand and adapt to so they can use it effectively.”
Dr Roberts said teaching advanced AI tools and programs in classrooms could also unfairly disadvantage students who did not have access to these technologies at home.
“Current debates still remain about how much time young children should be spending using technology."
"The conversation needs to be about how they are using it and what they might gain from it – especially if they are collaborating and communicating with others,” she said.
“The other critical consideration here is the widening gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. There is focus on the advances and the changes to the future workforce for Generation Alpha who use technology, but what happens to the large number of children who don’t?”
The future of AI in schools
However, Dr Roberts said the pandemic and rise of online learning could open the door to more AI technologies.
“Increased use of AI has not yet fully been explored in schools but recent moves to online learning through the pandemic may lead to some teachers exploring additional uses,” she said.
Ultimately, Dr Adam expressed the need for children to regularly read and engage with texts regardless of what was happening with AI.
“The ability to think, including flexibility of thought and application of ideas, is developed through children’s engagement with texts," she said.
“People who read show stronger empathy, theory of mind, stronger communication skills, emotional intelligence as well as better academic outcomes.
“If we want children to be critical and creative then we need to develop a love of reading and writing.”