AI, Oh My! A First Foray into ChatGPT and its Usefulness to Math Teachers
by Karen Rothschild
Recently, I’ve been reading a bit about AI—artificial intelligence—the technology that is supposed to change the world as we know it, including the world of teaching. The changes are anticipated to be so momentous that the President issued an executive order to make sure that the development of AI is “safe, secure, and trustworthy.” In the world of education, students are already using AI to do their homework. After all, it can write papers, analyze texts, and solve problems. Some even say that AI might eventually make teachers obsolete. That certainly hasn’t happened yet, and while AI tools can help students cheat, they also have the potential to help them learn and help their teachers develop better lessons that deepen learning.
As I researched what’s available, I found a plethora of AI-driven websites and apps that can be used by both teachers and students. A site called AI tools for teachers has short videos describing more than ten of them. An article from Edutopia describes six others. I decided to start by taking a closer look at ChatGPT. My goal was to see what its capabilities are and whether it might help teachers with their work in planning and implementing lessons—knowing that, while teachers usually begin with a mandated curriculum or math program, we often, for a variety of reasons, look for additional resources and sources for lessons. In other words, is this worth adding to my teaching toolkit? After creating a free account, I thought about what might help me plan math lessons and asked ChatGPT a few questions. Below, I detail three of my searches, ChatGPT’s responses, and some follow-up questions and thoughts.
I’m always looking for problems that have multiple solution routes that might require students to go beyond routine applications of algorithms or engage them in higher order thinking about mathematical concepts. In the space provided for prompts, I typed, “Create three rich problems that will help 3rd-graders explore ideas about multiplication.” Within a single second (I kid you not), here’s what came up:
Problem 1: “The Garden Boxes”
In a community garden, there are three rectangular garden boxes. Each box has a different length and width: Box A is 4 feet by 3 feet, Box B is 6 feet by 2 feet, and Box C is 5 feet by 5 feet. Each box is filled with soil to the same depth. The gardeners want to know the total amount of soil they need to plant flowers in all three boxes. Can you help them calculate the total amount of soil required?
Problem 2: “The Ice Cream Cones”
At an ice cream parlor, there are three types of ice cream cones: small, medium, and large. The small cone holds 2 scoops of ice cream, the medium cone holds 4 scoops, and the large cone holds 6 scoops. The shopkeeper wants to know how many scoops of ice cream they’ll need for a group of 3 friends who order one cone each. Can you find the total number of scoops required for the group?
Problem 3: “The Birthday Balloons”
Sarah is decorating for her birthday party. She has three packs of balloons. Each pack contains 8 balloons of the same color. She wants to create bundles of balloons to place around the room. Each bundle will have 4 balloons in it. How many bundles of balloons can Sarah create using all the balloons from the three packs?
What do you think? Are these rich problems? Are they better than what you might have invented given your limited time? Can they be tweaked and adapted to make them more useful to you? How might you change them to better reflect your ideas about rich mathematical tasks?
I didn’t like the first one initially because you can’t say how much soil you need if you don’t know how deep the boxes are, even if you know they are the same depth. Of course, students could make up a depth, but since most 3rd-graders don’t know about area or volume, the problem seems wrong for this age group. But then I thought that it would be a relevant and rich problem if I actually made some boxes with the same depth and had students fill them with soil (or rice or sand) to see which box took more to fill. They could then measure how many cups of sand were needed for each box. A nice exploration, right?
I thought the middle problem was interesting since there was some choice about the number of scoops each friend could order. I thought that it had potential for different approaches. Some students could use paper “cones” and “scoops” while others might work with pictures or symbols. Students could use multiplication or addition to determine their solutions. I thought that the discussion of the problem might lead to students further understanding multiplication, its relationship to addition, and how to use symbolic notation. I would need to think carefully about that discussion.
I thought the third problem was pretty routine and not a rich problem [MOU1] at all, and I began to feel like ChatGPT might not be entirely reliable, or at least that results would need careful critique.
After asking ChatGPT to create rich problems, I wondered if it could help me work with students who have some challenges in my math class. So I wrote, “How to help a 1st-grade student with memory challenges remember directions for a math task.”
Here’s the very long reply I got back—again, almost immediately:
Helping a 1st-grade student with memory challenges remember directions for a math task requires patience, repetition, and the use of various strategies to make the directions more memorable. Here are some strategies to assist a 1st-grade student with memory challenges in understanding and remembering math task directions:
- Simplify Instructions:
- Break down complex instructions into simple, step-by-step directions. Use clear and concise language, and avoid using jargon or unnecessary details.
- Visual Aids:
- Use visual aids like drawings, diagrams, or pictures to accompany the verbal instructions. Visuals can provide additional context and make the directions more accessible.
- Repeat and Rephrase:
- Repeat the instructions several times in different ways. Rephrasing the directions can help reinforce the understanding of the task. Encourage the student to repeat the directions back to you.
- Use Mnemonics:
- Create simple mnemonics or acronyms to help the student remember key steps. For example, in a math task about addition, you can use the acronym “S.A.L.T.” to remind the student to “Say the numbers, Add them, and Find the total.”
- Chunk Information:
- Present the instructions in smaller, manageable chunks. Ask the student to focus on one step at a time, and once they’ve completed it successfully, move on to the next step.
- Hands-On Learning:
- Incorporate hands-on activities or manipulatives, like counting blocks or number cards, to engage the student in a concrete way. This can make the task more interactive and memorable.
- Use Color-Coding:
- Color-code different parts of the instructions to help the student associate specific actions with certain colors. For instance, use a blue marker for addition and a red marker for subtraction.
- Provide Visual Cues:
- Use arrows, lines, or other visual cues to indicate the order in which the steps should be carried out. Visual cues can serve as a roadmap for the student to follow.
- Verbal Reminders:
- Offer gentle verbal reminders during the task. For example, if the student is working on a word problem, you can say, “What do we need to do first?” or “What comes next?”
- Reinforcement and Practice:
- Offer plenty of opportunities for practice. The more the student practices similar math tasks, the better they’ll become at remembering and following directions.
- Short Breaks:
- Allow short breaks during the task to prevent information overload and to help the student stay focused and attentive.
- Positive Reinforcement:
- Praise and encourage the student for their efforts, even if they make mistakes. Positive feedback can boost their confidence and motivation.
- Home-School Connection:
- Communicate with parents or guardians and provide them with information on how to support their child at home. Consistency between school and home can be very helpful.
- Individualized Education Plan (IEP):
- If the memory challenges are persistent and significantly impact the student’s learning, consider discussing the possibility of an IEP with the school’s special education team. An IEP can provide targeted support and accommodations.
Remember that every student is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Be flexible and willing to adapt your strategies based on the individual needs of the 1st-grade student. Additionally, working closely with the school’s special education team and seeking professional guidance can be beneficial for addressing memory challenges effectively.
What do you think? For me, the length of the list reminded me that there can be so many reasons for apparent memory problems. For example, a student may have difficulty remembering directions because they didn’t understand them to begin with, because they may have limited capacity to hold onto the directions while working on the task, or perhaps because they may have difficulty retrieving the directions from long-term memory. Indeed, the important paragraph at the end of the ChatGPT list makes that point. Once again, I found that the results gave me stimulating ideas, but would require further thinking on my part. I was also reminded that not everything that ChatGPT produces makes complete sense, as in in the mnemonic SALT in list item #4, which doesn’t seem to match the sentence it’s supposed to represent.
Finally, I wondered whether ChatGPT could write an entire lesson plan. So I asked for one. I wrote, “Write a lesson in which grade 1 students work to discover how to add 10 to a two-digit number using practice standards 1 and 3.”
ChatGPT generated this lesson:
Lesson Title: Discovering How to Add 10 to Two-Digit Numbers with Practice Standards 1 and 3
Grade Level: 1st Grade
- Students will learn how to add 10 to a two-digit number.
- Students will apply Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards 1 (Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them) and 3 (Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others).
- Large number cards (0-9)
- Whiteboard or chart paper
- Counting manipulatives (e.g., counters, cubes)
- Place value charts (optional)
Duration: Approximately 45-60 minutes
Introduction (10 minutes):
- Begin the lesson by reviewing the concept of two-digit numbers. Write a few two-digit numbers on the board (e.g., 23, 45, 67) and ask students to identify the number of tens and ones in each.
- Explain that today, they will be exploring how to add 10 to a two-digit number.
Main Activity (30 minutes):
- Number Building (10 minutes):
- Select a two-digit number (e.g., 36) and show it on the board. Discuss the concept of adding 10 to this number.
- Model the process by breaking down the number into tens and ones on a place value chart (3 tens and 6 ones). Then, show how adding 10 means adding one more ten without changing the ones.
- Discovering Patterns (10 minutes):
- Display a series of two-digit numbers (e.g., 25, 48, 72) and ask students to think about what happens when they add 10 to each number. Encourage them to work in pairs and look for patterns.
- Sharing and Discussion (10 minutes):
- Have students share their findings with the class. Encourage them to explain the patterns they observed when adding 10 to two-digit numbers. This is an opportunity to apply Practice Standard 3 and critique each other’s reasoning.
Independent Practice (10 minutes):
- Provide students with a set of two-digit numbers and ask them to practice adding 10 to each number independently. They can use counting manipulatives, place value charts, or mental math.
Conclusion (10 minutes):
- Class Discussion (5 minutes):
- Review the patterns and strategies that students discovered while adding 10 to two-digit numbers.
- Reflect on Practice Standards (5 minutes):
- Discuss how Practice Standards 1 and 3 were applied in the lesson. Ask students how they made sense of the problem and how they critiqued their own and others’ reasoning.
- Observe students’ ability to add 10 to two-digit numbers and identify the patterns they’ve discovered.
- Evaluate their participation in class discussions, focusing on their application of Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards 1 and 3.
This lesson encourages 1st-grade students to actively explore and discover how to add 10 to two-digit numbers, promoting a deeper understanding of number relationships and place value. It also emphasizes problem-solving and reasoning, aligning with Practice Standards 1 and 3.
What do you think? Would you use this lesson as is? If not, how would you adapt it? How does it compare to the lesson provided in your mandated program? One thing I found myself wondering was whether it would be a good idea for students to verify that adding “a ten” gets the same results as adding “10 ones.”
Overall, I thought that ChatGPT provided useful information and was a very helpful stimulant to my own thinking. However, like every other tool available to teachers, its responses always seem to need editing and adaptation to fit my own particular goals and the students I teach. In addition, I should note that on a few occasions, ChatGPT actually made mathematical errors. In one search when I asked for a task about dividing fractions, it declared that the answer to ¼ ÷ ½ is 2. Another time, I asked for a lesson about proportion, and it described an art lesson about keeping objects in a drawing in proportion. From that I learned that I need to be specific about what I ask for.
With those caveats in mind, I highly recommend trying out ChatGPT. I had a lot of fun playing around with it and I learned some things, too. It’s easy to do:
- Go to https://chat.openai.com/ and sign up with your name, email, and a password.
- Verify your email and then you’re ready to go.
- When you sign in, at the bottom of the page you’ll see a space that says, “Message ChatGPT”. Type your question or prompt there and watch the answer appear almost instantly. You can ask about anything. I even asked it for brisket recipes and ways to solve the crisis in the Middle East. I will probably try out some of the recipes. The ideas about the Middle East were thought-provoking.
If you try to use ChatGPT for math lesson questions, I offer the following tips:
- Make sure to vet all responses. Sometimes AI generates real errors.
- Use the “Regenerate” button that appears at the end of every response. That makes the program prodouce alternate responses to the question. I found that sometimes the second or third version of a response was better.
- If you haven’t used the question page for a while, it may say that it can’t answer your question. Just refresh the page, and it will work fine.
- Be as detailed and specific in your prompts as you can. Use grade levels, topics, types of pedagogy, types of activities and problems, and refine your questions several times if you don’t get what you want. I found it helpful to use descriptive math terms like open-ended, open middle, and rich problem.
- Be on the lookout for possible assumptions and biases that may creep into responses. ChatGPT creates what it writes from sources on the Internet, which vary widely in their attention to issues of equity and diversity. Of course, make sure your prompts are as free as possible of assumptions and biases as well.
If you do try ChatGPT, tell us about your experiences with it or with any of the other AI programs mentioned above. What did you try? What did you ask? What did it answer? What was helpful? What mistakes did it make?
The contents of this blog post were developed under a grant from the Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.
This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.