A New Writing Process? Exploring the 5 Space with ChatGPT

There is a lot that ChatGPT can do, but can it help scholars theorize? Here is one case study about exploring theory with ChatGPT as a thought partner.


Note: It feels good to be back. Though we haven’t written here in a while, we have continued to write and think about design in education. Here’s a summary of an article that Melissa, Punya, and I are currently writing about our Process of bettering the framework.

There is a lot that ChatGPT can do, but can it help scholars theorize? Can it actually shift our patterns of interrogating ideas and generating knowledge? Can it help professional thinkers think? Here is one case study about exploring theory with ChatGPT as a thought partner.

 The 5 spaces

Though we’ve been developing the 5 spaces for design in Education framework for many years, we never feel done. From time to time, we feel good enough about the 5 Spaces for Design in Education to share (See our writing about it here and find links to videos here). However, with a little more reflection there always seems to be something to change.

Figure 1
The 5 Spaces for Design in Education

The five spaces for design in education framework

Defining “Culture” Better

In this case, we needed to better define the term “culture” in our framework. We came to realize that our use of the word culture encompassed two different meanings of the term: 

  1. A narrow definition, as in the culture of a group, classroom or  organization 
  2. A wider definition, as in broader human culture

Though fixing a framework is fun, often it can’t be done without provocation. It’s often easy to see the cracks, but harder to see the potential solutions. Sometimes, we find that provocation through our own writing process. As novelist Stephen King eloquently explained, “I write to find out what I think”.

Writing is typically considered the process of taking ideas in our heads and converting them into language that captures these ideas. For us, writing is often better described as a space for playing with and expanding ideas. A place where half-formed ideas test their mettle against precise language. Writing is a process that invites iteration and with it thought. However, the way we write is changing.

With ChatGPT and other Large Language Models, generating comprehensible language is no longer that challenge it used to be, but the iteration of ideas is still there. Is this comprehensible? Where did these ideas come from? Do they have merit? How do they fit with my own thinking? They provoke good thinking. They inspire further exploration.

And they are fast.

So we used ChatGPT to provoke us by prompting the tool to write an essay about our problem (we did this a few times). 

I want you to write me around 500 or so words on how they can bridge this difference.

The answers that came out of the oven were notably, not gourmet meals. But they included some interesting spices that we hadn’t thought about using.

Specifically, ChatGPT suggested we sprinkle in another theory about interconnected environmental influences: Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory. Though we hadn’t thought about borrowing from an older paradigm in the human development space, there was a piece of the way it was organized that made sense. 

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, which proposes that human development is nested within interconnected environmental systems, can serve as a potent lens to address this tension (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). By assimilating this theory, Warr and Mishra’s framework can be contextualized within layers of influence: micro, meso, exo, and macro.

Why not break up culture into a micro, meso, exo, and macro? Upon further reflection, maybe just slice our “culture” space into exo and macro? So while we wouldn’t actually use the theory, we would, in fact, borrow from the structure.

What we Learned

Authentically, ChatGPT was a good thought partner because it generated comprehensible ideas that diverged from what we would’ve gotten elsewhere. Though ChatGPT genre-mashes in ways that expose a lack of genuine understanding, it does it anyways with conviction.

And though many decry the funky responses (like applying a human development theory to a design framework). As an theorist, those are fun to detangle. And, in that detangling, some ideas can emerge.

So, instead of detangling ideas during the process of forming a sentence, we detangled ideas in the process of making sense of an imperfect output. And, despite the imperfection, the output is still provoking. There’s an inelegance to it, but it still provided us with words that influenced our thinking. And that is no small matter.

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