IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

ISTELive 23: Teaching in 2 Realms — Speak AI, but Stay Human

Former high school teacher and Apple executive Sabba Quidwai advocates a foundation of empathy in the classroom and a design-thinking approach whereby teachers can embrace AI as a partner and even a friend.

AI consultant and former Apple executive Sabba Quidwai standing on a stage gesturing and speaking.
AI consultant and former Apple executive Sabba Quidwai addresses the ISTELive 23 conference in Philadelphia on Monday in a session titled “Speak AI. Stay Human.”
Photo by Aaron Gifford
Sabba Quidwai taught high school history and served as an education executive for Apple before she became self-employed as a consultant who helps schools incorporate artificial intelligence. During her career growth, a pair of first-grade teachers inspired her to make a living with design thinking.

As a Ph.D. student in 2014, Quidwai observed the teachers discussing a book, Catch That Rat, with their students. But instead of asking the kids to make observations about the story in linear fashion, the teachers asked them to empathize with all of the characters in the story before designing a solution for dealing with the rat and sharing those ideas with the class.

A few of the students explained what they thought was the rat’s point of view: He’s just looking for food, not trying to scare people. Collectively, they imagined a technology where the rat could transform into the human characters in the book, and the humans into the rat, so they could better understand each other, Quidwai explained. Nine years later, she asked ChatGPT for a suggestion on how to engage first graders when discussing the same book, and the tool made recommendations similar to those on the slide deck the teachers used in 2014.

“There’s a human spark,” Quidwai, founder of DesigningSchools, told an audience of teachers and administrators on Monday during the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Live 2023 event in Philadelphia. Her presentation was called “Speak AI. Stay Human.”

For K-12 schools, Quidwai said she attempts to alleviate people’s fears about AI while “re-igniting hopes and dreams.” She begins the process by asking educators to list words they wish others would use to describe them. For nearly everyone, “inspired” made the list. When people see that, she said, they get the sense that some human qualities can’t be replicated, and their fears about AI subside.

And while educators still view AI almost like magic, younger children, who have always known technologies that are voice-activated, don’t share that romantic vision. Quidwai said it will be the younger people in the room that remind their elders that technology is not destiny.

“We shape our destiny,” she said.

Quidwai singled out two skills that distinguish humans from machines: our complex communication, and our ability to solve unstructured problems.

“People don’t need more knowledge,” she said. “They need more inspiration and motivation.”

Moving on to the hows and whys of “design thinking,” a human-centered approach to pedagogy, she described the main pillars as steps, structure and scaffolding. If they establish a culture of empathy as the foundation, educators can build bridges of understanding that they can walk themselves and their students across — with the help of AI — in their learning journey.

Quidwai has heard from teachers who work 50 hours a week, but only six or seven hours on the work that matters most. For them, she recommends setting the technology aside for a second and asking: “How do we flip the script?” While AI does not know the students in a classroom and may not understand the teacher’s problems or challenges at an emotional level, it can be a great listener and even a confidant for sharing one’s hopes and dreams.

To illustrate her point, Quidwai displayed a recent conversation between a teacher and an AI chatbot. Instead of just asking for a lesson plan to teach fractions to fifth graders, the teacher added a human quality to her request: What can I make them do to love math as much as I do? The chatbot told the teacher to make learning fun and suggested a “fraction” pizza activity.

“Now, you have a partner so you can focus on implementation,” Quidwai said.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.