How discussions about AI can engage English language students

Huan Yang-Williams
16th July 2018 at 09:04

Subject Genius, Huan Yang-Williams, How discussions about AI can engage English language students to develop their communication skills

If you’re teaching in a school like mine, you’ll soon find out that learning English in Japan, and in probably most other countries across Asia, involves rote memorisation of vocabulary and grammar. My students are very dedicated but they get worn down by the same repetitive tasks from a textbook, and even I find lessons a drag at times. 

In a conversation with my head of department, I asked him if he thought books and chalkboard for every lesson were an effective way to teach English. He replied: “No, it doesn’t work. They fall asleep or lose interest.” I then asked him what we could do to improve this situation and make them more excited about English. He replied: “That’s what I’ve been asking myself, too.” 

Now, the English teachers at my school do a superb job of laying down a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding of the English language. The students learn a lot of grammar and vocabulary but they also need opportunities to apply the language they’ve learned. 

During their course of study at school, my senior high 2 class have become quite competent in their English level. And since I teach double English with them once a week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to introduce deeper topics to them and use it as a discussion point for them to create presentations around. For one of the presentations, I decided to use artificial intelligence as a topic. 

In the first double lesson, I showed the class a 2013 film called Her. In this film, the main character, Theodore, installs a state-of-the-art, artificially intelligent operating system (OS) called Samantha on his computer.

So imagine this OS to be like Apple’s Siri, but OS Samantha in the film responds in a much more personal and intuitive way whilst developing itself at an exponential speed, aligning itself according to the user’s needs.

Sparking debate in English lessons

As the film progresses, Theodore begins to develop a friendship with his OS and eventually a more serious relationship. His OS becomes his companion, his girlfriend and it fills a void in his lonely existence. However, Samantha eventually out-develops Theodore and decides to leave him, so Theodore once again finds himself in a lonely place. 

After watching the film, I gave a handout to each student including a plot summary, vocabulary list and five questions of discussion to consider for homework. They were:

  1. Is love between a person and AI real?
  2. Can AI be a cure for loneliness in the world?
  3. Why do people like Theodore want relationships with AI?
  4. Should Theodore try to find a relationship with a real person?
  5. How would the film Her be different if the main character was female?

In the next lesson, we dissected what AI is and how it presents itself in our daily lives now. Again, I created handouts with activities for students to complete so they would have a collection of notes and resources to refer to when writing their own presentations. 

These included spider diagrams and pros and cons charts. Working in pairs, students discussed the various forms of AI that we encounter, such as Siri and Gmail smart reply. They filled in the spider diagram with their brainstorms, and each pair presented one of their ideas to the class at the end of the activity. Many students had interesting responses, such those involving online purchase recommendations and self-driving cars.

I then showed them a short video about the development of AI and how it might impact the jobs market in the future. The students were very engaged with the video. As the video was all in English, using more advanced language, I played it with Japanese subtitles to help the students understand. 

After the video, I asked students to work in pairs and complete the table in their handout with their ideas of the advantages and disadvantages of AI in relation to what they had just watched. They could write in key words, phrases, sentences or even in Japanese if they really didn’t know how to express it in English. The important thing was to get their ideas and thoughts down on paper.

Enthusiastic students 

Once that was complete, each pair presented two of their ideas and, working as a class, we improved the English or translated the Japanese into correct English sentences. However, the students were very enthusiastic and many were able to explain their ideas quite coherently. 

Having watched the film and discussed the pros and cons of AI in our society, the students then had to choose one question from the list of five which were given to them in the previous lesson. They had to write a two-minute presentation or speech answering their chosen question, taking into account all the things they had learned in both lessons. 

They started preparing their presentations in class with my help and finished it off for homework. In our next class, each student presented their speech and shared their thoughts with the class.

The most popular question was "Is love between a person and AI real?", and many students responded with respect and support for such relationships like Theodore and Samantha’s. They said that love is pure in its own form, regardless of what it’s directed towards. If the machine could respond like a human, then the emotion should be valued. Other students thought otherwise and had the more practical concern of how a person could have children, even if their love for AI were real. I hadn’t even thought of this so they certainly taught me something. 

Whatever their views might be, I was certainly very encouraged to find how invested the students were in this topic as they gave very mature and considerate answers. It helped me to understand them as insightful individuals with compassionate and intelligent views.

The students not only practised their speaking skills but they also had the opportunity to use English to express their own opinions. This will be a very important skill for their university application later on, whether in Japan or abroad. At the same time, they gained a more rounded knowledge of the global discussions around the issues of AI. With technology being a significant part of our lives, the students understood its role quite well and also had plenty to share.

Therefore, I truly believe once students have reached an intermediate level, we should encourage them to communicate more in English and learn about other topics in English for this language to be useful and accessible to them. 

Huan Yang-Williams teaches English as an additional language at a private school in Tokyo, Japan