We need to slow down at school. There is a trend for "slow fashion" and "slow food", it is also time for "slow school".

Videos or chatbots can be a gateway to the garden of knowledge, but to open it, it is important that the child has the right key. The teacher has to guide the students on how to talk to the AI so that it makes sense. That's the paradox of the situation: to use such a tool effectively, you need to have the knowledge that the tool is supposed to help us build," says Lech Mankiewicz, PhD, Professor at the Centre for Theoretical Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Ambassador of the Khan Academy in Poland.

TVP WEEKLY: You are one of the pioneers of digital education in our country, as a 'language advocate' of the Polish language version of the global educational platform Khan Academy. Your latest offer is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the education of children and young people, it has a specially reformatted ChatGPT called Khanmigo. How is a child supposed to benefit from it?

PROF. LECH MANKIEWICZ:Any such initiative from the USA must be viewed with an understanding of the realities of the education system there, which differs from that of Europe. For them, it is crucial how ChatGPT is used to save time and money and therefore profit in the organisation. Every dollar is a highly coveted and hard-earned commodity. When Khan Academy showed up in American schools, the immediate reaction from the superintendents there, who maintain the schools out of local taxes, was to cut teacher salaries because the computer takes some of the work off their hands and the students do more themselves. In Poland, that would never occur to anyone. The second problem is the enormous social inequalities, which are unrivalled in Europe.

An AI-based tutor called Khanmigo is an overlay on the famous ChatGPT that does not suggest ready-made solutions, but tries to show the way. At the moment, this tool is only available in English in the USA, for a small fee of around 10 dollars per month. This will not change any time soon, as it is a pilot project. It seems to me that it's more useful in the US than elsewhere, although it may turn out to help such a small number of students that it's not economically viable. Because as always, you have to have a need to learn and interact with AI. At the moment, as in the early days of ChatGPT, the internet is awash with a wave of screenshots where Khanmigo simply gets it wrong - that is, a child makes a mistake in a simple multiplication, for example, and the chatbot doesn't realise. This is because it is also conceptually wrong, which the bot notices.

I also use ChatGPT at work and it suggests a lot of answer variations that I already knew but had forgotten or didn't have structured in my head. So it's useful as a synthesiser or concentrator of information who has a limited repertoire of responses to a child's possible behaviours simply because it doesn't know them. For it to know them at least as well as an attentive human teacher, it would need to be in frequent personal contact with the child. The robot would have to accept reasonably and empathetically that this child needs more time and effort and another less, that each child has a differently structured imagination and can therefore be reached differently. It must also respect the child's autonomy. br>
And also to know that one child is supervised by a parent involved in the process and another is not....

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My impression is that parents who are not vigilant in this way are the majority. This is therefore,a level completely out of reach for ChatGPT or Khanmigo. Perhaps not by a long shot, although we might be surprised. The American system forces learners to constantly keep up. If it turns out that you're just too weak for certain maths challenges, the chance to master them (at least in public school) will be forever closed to you at this very, often quite early stage of your education. So I'm sure this can play a positive role. Because it will support students who are motivated but not able to jump the hurdles in this race for the future on their own, or children who are objectively neglected, regardless of the wealth of their parents

On the other hand, this must be distinguished from a breakthrough. We attribute human intelligence to chatbots because they can "chat". However, this is still 'big data science' software that philtres large amounts of data and combines them into the most likely combinations. And many children simply need human intervention. In the four years I've been teaching physics at a primary school, I've only had one student who discovered on his own that he was seriously behind, that no one in his family cared about him, and who started to work on himself systematically. For him, Khanmigo could have been a blessing. But that was an isolated case, and dozens of students had already passed through my hands by that time. I therefore assume that this is the objective effectiveness of Khanmigo: a few per cent.

  As for the use of AI in education - desirable and appropriate - the important thing here is to learn to ask questions. In my experience, these 'thinking machines' are extremely sensitive to how we formulate our thoughts, especially questions. It's quite an art to have a sensible conversation with chatbots. They still work quite schematically, but you can see that these are not bad patterns. They can help children master the difficult art of asking questions and framing issues or their own difficulties in a way that is understood as intended and therefore gets a correct and relevant response. Consequently, realistically helpful.

The classic response from students to an 'Ask ChatGPT anything' request is to type in a topic for an essay they have recently been given as homework. The second classic request - the most well-read person in the class asks the AI about the meaning of life. So here it is essential that the teacher guides the pupils on how to talk to the AI in the first place so that it makes sense and delivers a concrete result. In addition, the children need to have a foundation that builds on their own thinking and feeling. That's a bit of a paradox about the situation we find ourselves in - because to use a tool like this effectively, you have to have the knowledge that the tool is supposed to help us build.

AI is the present looking to the future, - and how did its mother, the Khan Academy learning platform, come about?

It was born when Sal Khan, the son of immigrants and a recent graduate of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard (maths, computer science and MBA), was asked to help his numerous, much younger cousins who had made their way to the US from India and Bangladesh. And he did... over the phone, which was quite frustrating. One day, when an important professional meeting fell through, he decided to record one of his lessons as a YouTube video. His cousins liked it because they could pause and rewind the video, watch it over and over again, and his uncle wasn't annoyed. He decided to make a series of videos. To get feedback and know what the children didn't understand, he added tests that they could do voluntarily after watching the video. Based on these experiences, he wrote the bestseller 'The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined' - the book was published in Polish under the title "Szkoła bez granic" /'School without Borders'.
Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, speaks at the 2011 TED conference. photo by Steve Jurvetson -, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia
What period are we talking about?

2005 - 2006 Sal Khan quickly secured sufficient funding for his project from various donors and decided to devote himself entirely to the development of the Khan Academy. He invited some extremely capable friends from his studies, who are now on the boards of Google etc., to join him. This developed splendidly. His talk at one of the TED science conferences entitled 'Videos revolutionise education' quickly became very popular and Bill Gates wrote that he was his children's favourite teacher.

Then came the time, it was probably 2011, when my child heard about fractions for the first time at school and couldn't do her homework. She didn't understand that it was a different way of writing division. Only the day before, my now deceased colleague Jacek Kupras had sent me a link to the Khan Academy website, saying, "Lechu, you'll be interested in this". After watching it, I realised that fractions were indeed beautifully narrated, as Sal had a fantastic ability to talk about maths in an interesting and understandable way at the time, and most importantly, he touched the core.

So I started translating, added subtitles (the institute I was running at the time received a small grant from Google for this) and we started recording audio tracks. Then we realised that it was better to record the films locally under licence. Today, Khan Academy has 3980 films in Polish on the portal and probably another 500 whose original English versions have been taken off the portal but are still available on the YouTube channel. It's growing, there are exercises for teachers to assess students' learning progress and a system of tools such as a teacher portal to manage lessons, see what and how students are working, etc. "Khan" has become a popular brand in our country.

Popular for whom? Home education?

Slowly for everyone. We are not breaking any records, but we have a reach of 10 per cent of all Polish students in a month. There are 6 million pupils and students, and we see 600,000 hits. A few years ago, we parted ways with the Khan Academy Foundation because it turned out that there weren't many students in the US who wanted to learn independently via the Internet. At that time, it became clear that at this stage of development, the assumption that it was enough to put high-quality educational material online for free and a large number of students would use it was not true. Therefore, Khan Academy in the US had to undergo a profound revolution and adapt to the minimum requirements of the US curriculum in order to become a tool for teachers. For some time now, Khan's films have not been as interesting and structured as the stories with the profound reflections that Bill Gates admired. After all, most students aren't looking for intellectual depth, just a hint on how to do their homework.

Yet you have followed the depth of Khan's material....

The most important thing for me at the time was my daughter and her needs when adding fractions. And that was at an age when the parents were no longer the authority, so the material had to come from outside. The teacher probably told them about this division at school, but the child didn't hear it. The success of the "frontal" teaching method depends very much on concentration, which can vary in the classroom.

So how do you teach children? Because as well as being a scientist, physicist and astrophysicist, you are also a teacher. And this is at primary school level, where pupils are just beginning to learn physics. Yes, I decided to see what it was like to teach at a school - and I would recommend that to other academics at the end of their career, because it's good to still feel like you're doing something worthwhile. You have to understand that it's our job to fulfil the children's expectations, not their job to fulfil ours. So how can I increase the children's concentration? Sometimes I even feed the children chocolate if I feel they are tired because it is their sixth lesson or they have come after an intensive training session. The pupils should take something away from the lesson after 90 minutes or at least be inspired. If I see that they don't get anything out of the lesson, I don't consider my job done.
And what is Polish education like today? Since before the pandemic there weren't enough students who wanted to learn online.....

I have the impression that there simply aren't enough pupils who want to learn at all. I've been a teacher for four years, I'm in primary school two days a week and I have the impression that Polish schools are badly organised. The abolition of middle schools was a mistake - I used to be against them, but I was convinced when my child went to middle school and grew up quickly. Children in 7th and 8th grade start to mature intensively, but they still play the same roles as before. A fresh start at this time could be salutary so that they can step out of their previous roles. They should let themselves be driven by their intellectual ambition and not strive to remain the class clown because this puts them in a higher position in the group.

Secondly, you need to adapt the way you tell the story to the students' abilities. I prefer to teach less, but with more depth. My teaching goal is not to "review classical physics", but to explain the scientific method to them so that they understand that it is worth - and why it is worth - trusting scientists. Even if it goes against their own intuition. Thirdly, only seventh and eighth graders are capable of abstract thinking, and you have to help them open up to it. Because before that, they only take in what they can see or explore with their senses. Nowadays, physics is no longer taught from the 4th grade onwards, then there is so-called science. The children at our school have practical lessons on this, they go into the forest with tweezers and magnifying glasses, collect and observe various exhibits, the school has its own small botanical garden... It turns out that what stays in their heads is the ability to observe and measure, to describe with numbers what they see. But the fact that light oxygen molecules in the atmosphere move with the same gravitational acceleration as a released tennis ball cannot be analytically deduced from looking at leaves, flowers, mosses and ants. Children of this age are not physiologically capable of drawing such conclusions. They can only deal with abstract concepts and relationships when their brain is capable of doing so, and that is precisely in the 7th and 8th grade.

At this point, however, I would like to point out - and you can see this if you use the English-language version of Khan Academy - that the introduction to algebra in the USA begins in the 6th grade and not in the 7th grade as it does here. I would suggest that we should also try to teach it earlier. In physics, for example, it would be useful if students were familiar with the concept of rate of change in time from the beginning. So that the child understands that a cause is responsible for the rate of change, e.g. of speed. This is an elementary and classical equation of mathematical physics. In Poland, however, the maths curriculum still includes: speed, time, distance, and the rate of change is not mentioned, it is not explained that there is a fundamental principle behind it that has a universal character. In American schools, this rate of change in relation to various quantities is "hammered" into students' heads so that they remember: there is no effect without a cause. So these are errors in didactics and in the arrangement of the material..

And beyond that?

And beyond that, there's too much of everything. I really try to make sure that the stories I tell aren't like the 'Tales of 1001 Nights' - each chapter a different story, but that they're somehow connected. I've built a couple of these 'chains' where you can see at the end that the concepts we were talking about before suddenly come together. I can test this with the students in experiments and show that the conclusion that follows from this reasoning can be tested by experiment. My aim isn't to pump a lot of facts into their heads, but to introduce them to the method of arriving at concepts and conclusions. So that they understand the tedious linking of dots to form a whole.

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How can this experience be put into practise? Schools are often poorly equipped...

Mine is richly equipped, albeit with very basic gadgets - the most expensive gadget I have cost $20 on Amazon. All the others are homemade 'toys', often inspired by what other teachers post on YouTube. The internet is a very valuable source of inspiration, and I watch a few channels all the time. For example, there are great channels - from a teacher from the US and from Novosibirsk, where they show different experiments that can be done with a simple 'MacGyver-style' method. I have plenty of such material so that the children (there are a maximum of 18 in the class) can carry out experiments independently in pairs. I also prepare videos of experiments that can easily be done in class.

It's time to slow down a bit at school. There is a trend for "slow fashion", "slow food", let there also be a fashion for "slow school". In such a school, the teacher would choose the subjects with which he or she can work best, and necessarily in such a way that they are adapted to the abilities of the individual pupils. And so much for primary school. Secondary school should not take on the role of universities. It should be a school that develops independent thinking and constant training of the grey matter. And if someone wants to become a specialist in a particular field, that's what universities are for. However, it is not good to come and be so qualified at the beginning that you can "let go" of the first semester, because then the awakening can be painful.

You use the rich resources of the internet. The question remains: How do you individualise this content? Because I think that's exactly what Sal Khan's actions were about - he also individualised these videos.

My students use the content available on the Internet, but I also create it for them myself. Because I know them. For the Khan Academy materials, we really choose specialists who can explain and reach the audience. However, when using pre-made materials, I have found that when a lesson with a video gives a different explanation than the one we discussed in class, the students have difficulty understanding the subject matter, even if the two explanations are completely equivalent. In the mysterious process of nesting abstract concepts in the brain, this phenomenon has proven to be one of the most important. Therefore, after each lesson, I record videos summarising the material "in our own language", which can be viewed on the school's YouTube channel. The children are expected to complete their notes each time, as processing and internalising knowledge is very important. I also try to revisit previously covered content in different new contexts.

What would the reform of our education consist of in this context? Does it have to be a revolution?

Digital resources bring a lot to education, but using them is more difficult than many people think. Sal Khan has triggered a revolution in education, but that has already happened. To build a meaningful framework on top of that to help children learn, a lot more effort needs to be put in than just presenting a film. I am a big sceptic of these proposed revolutions in Polish education, but I don't want to get into any more verbal arguments on social media about it. The interlocutors are probably too often people who know everything better, but unfortunately at least some of them have not been in the classroom for a long time.

Any changes in school should focus on exactly what was mentioned above - that the teacher must act in such a way that the student comes out of the lesson with something concrete. There is a lot of talk about relationships in school, and rightly so, although there are exceptions. Of course, it's better if there's a cool atmosphere in the classroom and we tend to smile at each other, and I never push them too hard. The problem remains how to get the children to develop in THIS SPECIFIC subject. Pedagogy doesn't care, because pedagogues don't graduate in maths or physics. Films can be a gateway to the garden of knowledge, but the child must have the key with them..

And here the very use of the language of numbers or symbols to describe something is a breakthrough (algebra is only introduced in Year 7), which instils fear in the children, an atavistic distance to the unknown. Dealing with this is the whole point of the job of a maths and science teacher, not whether I have managed to go through all kinds of tasks with them. In this respect, even the best teacher-student relationships are not particularly helpful. They are necessary, but not sufficient.

In other words, the methodology of how to successfully teach certain subjects remains mysterious.

We have some achievements here, but they have nothing to do with digital education.

– interview: Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Cezary Korycki

Dr Lech Mankiewicz, Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Physicist and astrophysicist, as well as populariser of natural sciences, for over 20 years associated with the Centre for Theoretical Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, which he headed in 2007-19. He is strongly involved in international educational initiatives as the Polish coordinator of the EU-HOU programme (Hands-On Universe, Europe) or as the person responsible for the Polish language version of the global educational portal Khan Academy. His contribution to the dissemination of astronomical knowledge (e.g. the possibility for students and teachers of Polish schools to conduct their own regular observations of the cosmos as part of the EU-HOU programme) was awarded the Zonn Medal by the Polish Astronomical Society in 2011. Thanks to a suggestion from students participating in the International Asteroid Search Campaigns, the main belt asteroid (279377) 2010 CH1 was named Lechmankiewicz.
Main photo: Photo by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay
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