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Why Generative AI Will Make Rote Learning Obsolete

We’re in the early days of a tectonic shift. 

The idea of artificial intelligence has been around for decades. It’s been through hype cycles and winters, but in the last few years, it seems, the hype is manifesting into something truly powerful. 

There’s no keeping up. Scan today’s headlines and AI is everywhere, in everything, the world over. Some of it good, some of it downright scary. 

However, one place that an AI-induced overhaul could be particularly fruitful is in education. 

For too long people have attempted to learn by drumming facts and figures into their heads, only to forget them minutes later. And even if they remembered them, is that really learning?

For anyone who wants to acquire proper understanding, to learn in the truest sense of the word, this new wave of AI may be the best tool to hit the screen. 

The Problems With Rote Learning

Rote learning is to rely on memorisation through repetition. 

Think of how your teachers might have tried to drill the multiplication or periodic tables, the dates and names of historic events and figures, or important formulas and equations. 

It’s the type of information you put on flashcards, into yes-no and multi-choice quizzes. It’s what you rely on when you are cramming at the last minute for an exam.

It’s a whole lot more difficult to rely on when writing an essay, which is a better reflection of what you’ve really learned. 

Rote learning gets a bad rap, and that’s for good reason when it’s prioritised ahead of more conceptual knowledge—where you learn how systems work and interact, the context of events, and the meaning behind things. 

It treats your brain like a vessel for the accumulation of facts/data/information, rather than a dynamic pattern-recognising, story-telling, and problem-solving tool.

It’s not to be completely avoided—some memorisation is necessary—but critical thinking and conceptual understanding should come first. 

After all, those facts and figures are some of the fastest and easiest things to find with a Google search, but conceptual understanding is a little harder to find and digest—though AI may be here to help with that too.

A Better Way to Learn

Facts, figures, people, and events, all exist within certain frameworks, contexts, histories, and systems. 

If you want to understand how things work and to be able to solve problems, you’ll need a more conceptual understanding of cause and effect, and how all those different variables in question work together.

Achieving this involves not just asking when, who, where, and what, you’ll need many more whys and hows. Why is it that way and not the other way, how does it work or why doesn’t it? 

This is just as true for practical, hands-on skills as it is for the conceptual and theoretical. 

You don’t memorise facts to ride a bike, and while you could internalise a cake recipe, your actual understanding of cookery is very limited. 

Whys and hows are the questions that allow you to solve problems and to think critically, because they’re what generate a proper understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind phenomena. 

For a long time, the most efficient way to learn the hows and whys was to ask someone who knew. They could answer your questions, point out when you have the wrong idea, and help direct you towards new perspectives. 

Or you could pick up a book, and try to figure it out yourself. With the advent of Google and smartphones, we can search through blogs, videos, ebooks, podcasts, and online journals, looking for those answers. 

Maybe Google will give you the best option as the first result, but chances are you’ll need to read a lot, scan a few to find the right sections, chase down follow-up questions, and waste a lot of time and effort.

This is where generative AI can come in handy. Now we have a collaborator and tutor that can answer our questions, day and night, in an instant, and for free. 

Personalised Learning with Generative AI

With access to a generative AI like Chat GPT, you have an educational tool like we’ve never known. 

It can answer questions across virtually any domain, from philosophy to plant care, travel advice to entrepreneurship.  

It’s one-on-one, capable of tailoring its answers to your demands—need a simpler explanation? It can do that. More depth? It can do that too. Need metaphors, story-telling, concrete examples, or links to further reading? 

Just ask. 

It’s always there, ready to answer, and won’t get annoyed by your constant questioning. You can have long, in-depth conversations, piecing together all the world’s knowledge. 

The hows and whys are now as easy to search for as the whos, whens, and wheres. 

Prompting Education

One of the new skills you may have seen growing in popularity alongside generative AI is ‘prompt engineering.’

While the real value of this as a career is debatable, it certainly helps knowing what to ask, and how to ask it, to get AI to answer in the way you’d like—AI can, unsurprisingly, suggest prompts itself.

There’s plenty of detail you could go into with this, and you can find numerous blogs on learning to prompt—again, you can also ask Chat GPT—but here are a few general ideas to help kick-start this new type of education:

  • Create an educational curriculum around [subject], and include a detailed breakdown of the important topics, key ideas, and concepts. 
  • Provide a list of the best books, articles, online courses, podcasts, videos, or other content that explore [subject]. 
  • Test my knowledge of [subject] by asking me some questions, starting with the easier ones and increasing in difficulty. Provide feedback on each answer.
  • I’m having difficulty with this topic/idea, can you simplify it/break it down into manageable chunks?
  • What other ideas and concepts does this relate to? How did it develop? Who was involved and what were their roles? Are there alternative theories or criticisms?  

Setting Some Boundaries

These are the early days, and while what we’ve already seen in generative AI is incredibly promising, there have also been some valid criticisms and issues that you need to consider.

For starters, don’t trust everything AI says. It is capable of getting things wrong, and can be quite confident of itself despite being off the mark. 

These mistakes and errors have been termed ‘hallucinations.’ You’ll need to watch out for them—fact-check dubious claims, consult reliable sources (ask AI for them), and maintain a healthy scepticism.

Secondly, don’t have AI do all the work. Unfortunately, Chat GPT can’t learn for you. 

The goal is for you to learn, and the only way you’ll know if you have is to recall the important stuff and show that you can solve the big problems by yourself.

Some research has found that when people get answers quickly and easily off the internet, they tend not to remember them—it’s too easy, nobody practises remembering and so they forget. 

It’s been termed the Google Effect.

The risk with generative AI is that it won’t be the random facts we look up and soon forget, it’ll be the reasoning, the analysis, the hows and whys. 

Learning still involves an effort to digest, make sense of, and remember. Use AI to help you figure things out, but test yourself, and have AI test you. 

Ensure you know what you’re talking about without darting away to ask Chat GPT again. 

The Future of Self-Directed Education and AI

This is just the beginning. 

Some have speculated that search engines and operating systems will make way for AI. No more documents in folders, or clicking through hyperlinks, you’ll simply converse with your computer to get things done.

Most of what we see today is text and image-based, but video is on the way, and fully-generated digital worlds are on the horizon. Learning might go from conversation to complete immersion in a hands-on virtual reality. 

Life-long, self-directed learning has never been easier, nor more necessary. AI has made its way into a vast array of workplaces, and it will only go further. Change is afoot, and it’s speeding up.

People who learn to use and collaborate with AI will have an advantage. So too will those who adapt, learn continually, and engage in a broad range of interests and skills. 

Whether AI can take our jobs is an important and hotly debated issue, but whether it can help you broaden your knowledge base and improve your problem-solving capacities—there’s no debating that. 

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