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AI and Social Studies—Working Together!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
August 21, 2023

Artificial intelligence (AI) has captured the curiosity of many in academe. Teachers are wondering what to make of it—whether it should be embraced, rejected, regulated or generally avoided in the classroom until someone else can make sense of it. My carefully considered opinion (in other words, first blush) is that AI is here to stay—therefore, we must investigate it, work to understand its capabilities and begin to ponder how it can help students in their quest to acquire knowledge. I currently serve as a high school social studies Department Chair and teacher so this article will focus on thoughts concerning how AI can be used to supplement instructional materials and strategies to teach social studies.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) defines social studies as:

“…the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence…the primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines AI as:

“the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages.”

AI reminds me of other smart algorithms and programming strategies that I learned about when I was doing a lot of coding as a computer science student at Boston University. One of those that we considered higher-order and “cool” was recursion. Recursion solves problems by using functions that call themselves from within their own code. In other words, a block of code that knows enough to “call itself” from within itself, acting on intermediate results on the path to a final result.

AI makes recursion look like a crude, prehistoric tool in comparison. AI is a computer executing code designed to allow it to make many decisions that were previously made by humans. These decisions are very fast, given the processing power that we have today, and they are based on a lot more data than common apps or application programs could handle. It then adds that newfound knowledge to its internal data and pointers such that it can get smarter as it continues to solve problems. It learns in much the same way that we learn.

OK, enough of the techy stuff—so how is it being used in the social studies classroom today and how could it be used? Currently, students are using text-based AI tools such as ChatGPT to research topics, help to write papers or occasionally, much to the dismay of teachers, write whole articles and turn them in as if the student wrote it. That doesn’t help students learn much. It’s fairly well known among educators that a complete sleep cycle is required for new information to enter into the student’s long-term memory. AI does not enable learning by generating an answer in a minute or two. It simply operates as an instant answer machine—that’s it.

We can increase the utility of AI in the social studies classroom by making knowledge exploration a two-step process. First, introduce a topic for discussion and ask students to write a one-pager delineating the main discussion topics and their thoughts. Deny them the use of electronics for that first step. The next day, employ the same topic but have them use AI to generate a lot more information and some analysis. During a final step, compare the first one-pagers against the AI-generated information and talk about the similarities and differences. This provides opportunity for the students to engage in critical thinking—something we want them to do. For example, if a social studies teacher is teaching the events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, he/she would have the students write all they know about that as a first step. The next day, students would let AI do the task. AI produced a five-paragraph, complete and beautifully written account of the attack on the U.S. Capitol along with suggestions for three or four other related searches.

AI summarizes information. Learning happens when a student assimilates new knowledge and becomes capable of re-teaching or communicating that knowledge to others. A student will usually do that in the context of his/her own life, making appropriate connections between current / past events and what’s happening in the student’s own daily experience. Therefore, social studies teachers need to extend the summarization capabilities of AI into students’ individual learning experiences. AI strives to adopt a very factual tone—mostly what happened. Students should not stop there—they must offer reasons why the facts are what they are—in their own words. That’s what I look for in their papers. All in all, I look forward to future ways that AI can beneficially affect social studies.

Author: Dr. Robert Brescia respects the wisdom of generations, promotes the love of learning, teaches ethics to university students, government & politics to AP seniors, and leadership to organizations. He is a candidate with the National Board for Certification of Teachers (NBCT) at Stanford University and serves as Social Studies Department Chair at Permian High School in Odessa, TX. The Governor of Texas re-appointed him to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) for a six-year term. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected].

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