Aidan Kestigian, Harvard philosophy fellow and ThinkerAnalytix VP, on using AI to improve information literacy and argument formation

Tanya Sheckley: [00:00:00] Welcome to the EdTech Startup Showcase, an original series produced by the BE Podcast Network. On this series, we spotlight and amplify some of the most innovative, emerging companies in EdTech. We also have the opportunity to speak with a number of the educators who put those tools into action to support student success.

I'm your host today, Tanya Sheckley. I also host the podcast Rebel Educator on the network. Reigniting wonder and reimagining the future of education are among the themes we explore on Rebel Educator, and I plan to bring those ideas to this series as well. I'm pleased to announce today's guest, Aidan Kestigian.

Aidan Kestigian, Ph. D., is a visiting fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University and the Vice President of Operations and Curriculum for ThinkerAnalytix, an education nonprofit organization whose programs are designed to help learning and working communities [00:01:00] build skills for clear thinking and productive disagreements.

Aidan, welcome to the show.

Oh, thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here.

Tanya Sheckley: Excited to have this conversation. I would love to learn more and The company that we're highlighting through this series right now is, and so I'd love to hear how, you know, the background with ThinkerAnalytix and your background in philosophy, how that led into working with and what your role is in that partnership.

Aidan Kestigian: Oh, sure. So I can give a deep historical note and a more a more recent note. So,'s founder, Priten Shah actually met the ThinkerAnalytix. Director when taking philosophy classes together many years ago. You can see we have kind of a philosophy theme going on. And they shared a deep interest in education and the role that technology.

Can [00:02:00] play in, in building students skills in an equitable way and so flash forward something like 10 to 14 years are very happily still, still close with the folks at pedagogue. ai. We work with them really on a daily basis as a real partner in this kind of ed tech space so we, we've got a long history with them.

So one of the things that I wanted to talk about was. campus disagreements and recent campus upheaval has laid bare some significant skill gaps among students and the lack of confidence to engage controversial issues among faculty. So in, in particular, and this is something that we talk about and talk about a lot in our middle school advisory groups is just that people and students don't know how to disagree productively.

Tanya Sheckley: So can talk a little bit about how can AI take a role in moderating disagreements, promoting [00:03:00] student learning, creating productive disagreements? And like, I guess mentioned in our middle school, like we talk a lot about how can I, how can I respectfully disagree with my friends and still keep them as my friends?

Aidan Kestigian: Yeah, absolutely. No, and I love the way you, you asked that question in reference to that that note about middle schoolers, right? Because we think of disagreement, I think, pretty often as a, a social problem or almost like an emotional problem, like something that needs you know, students need a lot of practice with because it feels so heated.

It's, it's just so fraught. And indeed there are like psychological dimensions, there are emotional dimensions to disagreement. But, but one thing I've noticed and I taught at the college level for about a decade is that students are eager to discuss issues that they care about, even controversial ones.

And so the, the, the problem surrounding disagreement, I think that, you know, [00:04:00] there are these psychological dimensions, there are these emotional dimensions. But there's also a skill issue to underlying disagreement, and I'll say a little bit about what that means, what I think that means. So, in a disagreement things break down when there's lack of clarity about what's being said.

Disagreements involve a back and forth of reasons, right? If you and I disagree about where we should go for dinner And I lobby for one restaurant and you lobby for another. We're going to give each other reasons why, you know, I'm right or why you're wrong and vice versa. And students in particular, there's a lot of research that students actually lack those skills, even though schools purportedly are teaching the reasoning and logic skills they need to disagree.

And so where that leaves students is at a place where they are willing to engage. over controversial issues. They're willing to talk about them. In some cases, they're actually eager [00:05:00] to talk about them, especially in the classroom, because that feels like a space where that's important and a space for learning.

But they don't feel like they have the confidence to discuss them and they fear, like, social backlash or even retribution for talking about them, but they also don't have the, the skills to actually communicate through disagreement. And so what our organization does is try to give students practice and training with those basic reasoning skills that they need so that when they get to the person to person disagreement, it can flow a little more.

Smoothly and with more clarity. So your question about AI, AI presents a huge opportunity in terms of giving students really targeted and really student centered practice with these skills before they, say, launch into a classroom discussion about something controversial.

Tanya Sheckley: So you talked about, The [00:06:00] emotional and the psychological, as well as the reasoning and logic aspects that all go into disagreements. Do you find that it may also be a lack of emotional intelligence that leads us to not be able to really share well the clarity of our thoughts? Because we're, that you almost become clouded with emotion and then getting those words out in a clear fashion becomes a struggle.

Aidan Kestigian: Of course, yeah, absolutely. I mean, emotion plays such a role and You know, there's been a lot of work especially the secondary level in recent years to really try to build social, social and emotional learning into curricula so that students have those foundations especially when they get into, say, higher education.

And I think part of what we hope to do as an organization, even though we focus on kind of the logic and reasoning. Is to give students tools that they can kind of, turn to and actually [00:07:00] use when things do get heated, when the emotions do run high, right? Having a place to go, something that they can say, Oh, yeah, actually, I know in this situation, I have something in my tool kit I can take out and use.

to, to bring some clarity and a little precision and, and also just slow down things, slow down thinking in moments when, you know, things are kind of feel like they're off and running off the rails. Yeah,

talk a little bit about the way that AI, like you mentioned role playing with reasoning and teaching those skills through AI. Is there also like ways to work on regulating your emotions through role play with AI or can you talk a little bit about those tools that are emerging?

I will say we work less on the emotion side but certainly I think that that could be and it's something we hope to test like an output of this kind of training with reasoning. I think confidence in reasoning and confidence engaging controversial [00:08:00] issues. can lead to some kind of lowered emotion and, you know, remove the fear of, like, disagreement turning into a fight.

But in, so in terms of AI, this is work that we're actually working with on now. It's, it's kind of an emerging project for us. Largely what we're thinking about right now is the way that AI can provide and grade appropriate, but also skill appropriate practice for students in a really robust way.

So think about, you know, the opportunity to get as much practice as you need, given your current skill set. engaging arguments about controversial issues. We've done a lot of work really kind of turning the, the process of disagreeing, the, the, the process of arguing and, what people might call like the art of argumentation into a set of micro skills that students can [00:09:00] practice on their own, asynchronously, autonomously.

And so what AI. Can do is produce, for example, as many practice exercises on a particular skill that a student needs at their kind of age appropriate and grade appropriate language level, for example, or just topic level. And so I think it in terms of like equity and just skill building There are just there's just so much in the way that I can provide that a single instructor or tutor just wouldn't be able to do, especially for a class full of full of students.

Tanya Sheckley: In college I took a class called the analysis of oral argument. And I'm really wishing that I would have paid more attention.

Aidan Kestigian: Yeah, no, I mean, it's, it's, it's coming up more just because I think people are feeling it right now. This, like, the political [00:10:00] climate and social climate. So, yeah, for sure.

Yeah, it's definitely feeling like there is a much more combative nature in the air, just among everyday conversations and coming into another election year. But just among lots of Just lots of anxiety and lots of change. I was talking with someone else about it today and trying to figure out like, is this, is this coming out of the pandemic?

Is this an election year? Is this cultural to where I'm living right now? What's happening with the shift in, in the way that we're connecting and communicating with each other. I don't know if you have thoughts on that.

I don't know that I have a comprehensive picture. I think politics is certainly probably part of it. I think the pandemic and its impact on, like, Gen Z in particular has, you know, It's a lot to do with it, but, you know, I often hear things, you know, phrases like, oh, polarization never used to be this bad, [00:11:00] or, you know, politics used to be a lot more, like, pleasant, or, like, students used to have these skills, what happened?

And it's not clear that they ever did, and I think it's just coming to a point a little bit more now, and it's, you Like, the rubber's really hitting the road, especially in the last, say, like, eight to ten months with international politics on college campuses. I think it's just that, just, That was what kind of sparked discussion about these skills in a way that just wasn't happening before.

Tanya Sheckley: yeah, that makes sense. Definitely. But you, you talked about, you know, how reasoning is a skill set and just like learning an instrument or a sport. It's something that we need to practice to get better at and how the AI can micro skills and so that you can actually work on specific micro skills within an argument to get better at crafting a disagreement or get better at understanding the logic of disagreements.

Can you talk a little bit about the micro skills or the different skills that are involved in the [00:12:00] larger skill of disagreement and productive discourse?

Aidan Kestigian: Oh, of course. Yeah, that's a great question. What's interesting about communicating in a disagreement and in a disagreement, what I mean is a situation where two or more people are making arguments back and forth to each other. And by argument, I mean Just communication that's founded on reasons. So giving reasons to believe, say, where we should go to dinner, or who you should vote for in the election.

What's interesting about that is that argument is a particular kind of communication, right? Reasons are really important in arguments in the way that they aren't. When you're, say, reading a book report, or you know, reading, like, a news article that's purely descriptive, just describing events. And what's interesting about students is not all of them actually know that an argument is special in that way, that there's something special [00:13:00] happening in an argument that isn't happening in other kinds of Writing or, or speech.

So in terms of a micro skill, the first one we teach students is just what is an argument? What are the components of it? What is a reason? when should I think a reason is a good reason? What are the qualities that I should look for? So each of those questions points to like a specific skill that can be practiced.

So after practice, students can look at a text and determine if the point of the text is to give reasons to believe something or something else, if the point is something else. With a lot of practice, they can also start to pick out, like, what that ultimate point is. What is the main conclusion or claim the author is trying to make?

And there's some pretty shocking research that students in college cannot do that consistently well without practice. In fact, there's this really interesting study that 40 percent of college students can't pick out the main [00:14:00] thesis of an essay. And in fact, a large proportion of those students picked a thesis that is the exact opposite of what the author actually said.

So not only are we not good at picking them out, we actually tend to err in pretty, pretty clear ways. So each of those is like a micro skill that we can craft. exercises for put in front of students to practice. And what's exciting about AI is that it can make lots of those, give feedback, And look at what kinds of errors are made and provide more practice that really targets those specific errors.

Not to say that instructors can't do that. They can, it's just in the quantity that we might need for a global education system and a global workforce is just, it's, it's a lot.

Tanya Sheckley: Do you know how relatively new or how that statistic has changed over time?

Aidan Kestigian: That's a pretty new statistic. I think it's from like [00:15:00] 2017 or 2018. The, the one about reading and picking out the,

Yeah, picking out the thesis.

Yeah, I could send you the article. I think it's 2017. And it was on a pretty large set of students at a university in the U. S. So it's a pretty robust, like, finding.

But yeah, it's just, it's a little startling.

Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, it's I recently read an opinion piece by a professor who was saying that students can't read essays right now like they don't have the attention span to sit down and read a two, three, four, five page essay where we used to give homework that would be, you know, chapters of giant thick textbooks and now like a five page essay is.

a lot and students can't get through it. So it, it makes me wonder about the role. I mean, I, I run an elementary and middle school, so it makes me wonder about the role of earlier education or like you mentioned, not being able to pick out a thesis sentence or is it persuasive or is it narrative, right?

Is it trying to make you think something or is it just sharing knowledge? [00:16:00] What is the point of it? So when we think about that and we think about earlier learning, can you talk a little bit about how the role of. Mastery learning might come into play with that and, and that connection in the age of AI.

Aidan Kestigian: Sure, I'll, I'll do my best. So we um, We make programs for students largely student facing programs where they get this kind of practice that we've been talking about. Till now, we've worked largely with college students, high school students, and some middle school students. Every group, though, that we've worked with has said, I wish I got this earlier.

I wish I knew how to reason well earlier. Why didn't anyone tell me that this is a thing you can practice? In an explicit way, right? Of course, like, Educators believe that this is supposed to be a result of teaching, right?

Is that they become good at reasoning, but it just doesn't get taught in an explicit way. And that's kind of what, what our organization does is teach it [00:17:00] in a really explicit very, just like kind of transparent way that, that that's the goal is to learn how to reason. So in terms of those earlier years focusing on just the vocabulary, right?

What is an argument or focusing on questions like why believe this claim? Why should I believe? that we should go for Thai food tonight. What reasons can you give, right? Those are questions that earlier, younger ages could could tackle so that all of the training doesn't happen, say, when they get to essay writing later on in their years, which I think is a lot of where the Kind of a lot of the reasoning practice seems to have been hidden in secondary schools.

But yeah, I think there's certainly a lot to be done there. And that's, that's kind of a future frontier for us is to tackle that in the earlier, earlier grades.

Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, it's interesting the way that you described it that, you know, educators feel like it's something that just kind of [00:18:00] happens like reasoning is a byproduct of their education without explicitly teaching. reasoning, which I think is absolutely true, especially as someone who's currently teaching middle school humanities and has a group of students writing persuasive research papers and talking through like, you need to have at least three reasons.

But taking a step back from that, like we, we haven't looked at what a reason is now that you mention it. And I think that that's probably really common. You know, thinking back to when my kids were young and my own parenting, it's something we've done with our kids since they were little. Like they'd ask us for a cookie.

I'm like, well, I'm not going to say yes or no, but can you give me three good reasons why you should be able to have a cookie? Like, what have you accomplished today? What, and you know, Back when they were three, sometimes it was like, I colored a picture and I'm cute and I want one. Like, well, those are three reasons.

Like, you did the, you did what I asked. Here's your cookie. But starting [00:19:00] out, you know, even at that age and having, having students and having kids come up with those, you know, what is my, what is my persuasive argument? Why do I want this? And then you also mentioned the flip side of that, bringing in critical thinking when I'm looking at something else and I'm reading a paper.

If I do get to the right thesis and then I understand what the author is trying to tell me, well, are those reasons good reasons? And I guess that's, that's kind of my next question is around critical thinking. And do you, do you see that coming into the tools that you're building or how do you see that playing a role in the, the reasoning and argument and persuasive and logic puzzle?

Aidan Kestigian: Yeah, that's actually where most of our focus is, is on giving students the tools to critically evaluate what it is they're reading and hearing. I think for a long time, the practice of [00:20:00] analyzing argument was almost like relegated to logic classes. Which I mean, I taught for a long time. I don't want to diss on logic.

I think it has, it's, it's important. But what we try to do at ThinkerAnalytix and in collaboration with pedagogue. ai is build tools where. The practice, like the stuff that students are seeing are real world arguments. They're not proofs. They're not academic journal articles. They're not, you know, these kind of high, high level you know, materials.

Instead, it's like, arguments about the election, arguments about current events that we've written to really target the micro skills that we were talking about earlier, right? Asking like, what are the reasons in this argument? Can you pick them out? Are they true? Are they relevant? Right? So teaching them how to really critically read and assess on their own in a really authentic [00:21:00] way what they think about what's being said or written.

you give an example of one that like teachers or students are currently using that's. I guess for lack of a better word popular right now or what, you know, what they've been using most in, in the classroom and then in your product.

Yeah, so, we have this online platform that we built with the team at pedagog. ai called Think Arguments. thinkarguments. org. It's a website that has these sort of micro skills laid out where students work through practice at their own pace. So pedagog. ai helped us build this.

This platform that can take a student without the need for an instructor to be there guide them through the skills, give them lots of practice, instructional videos, and feedback, and really targeted feedback so they know how to [00:22:00] where to go back and practice when they need more. And that's where the mastery learning that you mentioned comes in.

We set a pretty high bar. Students need to achieve a 90 percent on the skills in order to move on. It's a very high threshold, but with this sort of guided, coached really like cheerleading system they can do it and there's enough practice and we're going to be using AI to even augment that practice more so that any student with whatever their starting skill set can jump in and get involved.

But I'd also be happy to give you an example of an argument, if that's what you were asking about.

Tanya Sheckley: Sure, that'd be great. I'd love to hear an argument.

Aidan Kestigian: Yeah, let me try to find one.

That is a sentence I don't say most days. I'd love to hear an argument.

Yeah, I know, exactly. Alright, so here's an example of an argument that we ask students to analyze. And by analyze, I mean break down into its component claims and actually visualize. [00:23:00] So we teach them how to really break down a text to really see through.

We like to use the phrase x ray vision to understand how all the pieces fit together logically. The U. S. should not have a mandatory national service. It would violate the Constitution given that the 13th Amendment states that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist. And a mandatory national service would be involuntary servitude.

Besides, we already have enough volunteers for the military, seeing as about half of the military forces are in reserves. So, that's an argument with, let's see, three sentences, but something like seven actual component claims, like individual statements being conveyed, and students have to decide what are the reasons, like, what is the hierarchy?

Which ones are reasons for reasons? We teach them how to really lay it out in space, so that they really can see and [00:24:00] understand the structure. So that's one where it's pretty advanced. They have to break it down themselves and visualize it.

Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, it's, it's fascinating to me that this hasn't been taught in schools and not even so much that it hasn't been taught in schools but the amount of people that aren't picking this up or aren't getting it or aren't understanding it through the amount of reading and writing and practice and things that are taught in schools.

Aidan Kestigian: Yeah, it's pretty advanced. It's hard and I can try to give an explanation of why that might be, I think, you know, in general, educators are overburdened, they've got curricula, existing curricula that, you know, places demands on time, you know, and also writing was, I think there's some discussion of this now, with the advent of AI you know, the primary way of judging uh, educational growth Also, the tools that we're teaching, you know, this argument visualization, a lot of the research is pretty new on it, so [00:25:00] I don't, like, judge folks for not having picked it up.

It's sort of a kooky thing if you've never seen it before. We're this, like, renegade non profit trying to get it in everyone's hands but their research is pretty compelling that it does in fact improve students reasoning skills if they get this very kind of targeted micro practice with all the skills and engage real world arguments like they, you know, see the things that they're gonna see when they go out in the world.

Tanya Sheckley: So what, what haven't we talked about that you're really excited about that you want to share that is maybe something that's coming next or that you're working on?

Aidan Kestigian: Oh, great. Yeah, what we're really excited about Is actually very tied to what you just asked. We're, now that we've got this kind of Think Arguments program, it's in a bunch of schools, like over 10, 000 students used it last year at various levels. The goal is really to spread it and it [00:26:00] in a way that works really well for educators at different levels.

The program I mentioned, you know, it can be assigned like homework, educators can use it in class with students but what we're trying to do is coalesce a network of faculty who have been using it already and have been teaching mastery learning and argumentation with this kind of nifty tech platform to help support and mentor other educators.

And really just get it in as many students hands as possible. I mean, we're a nonprofit and it's really in our hearts. Our mission is that students need these skills, not just for academics. not just for careers, but also just for like our civic and social life kind of depends on it. And we think that students are ready and willing to try engaging controversial issues, but they need the tools and they need the confidence and the practice to do it.

So that's really where we're moving next is just trying to get as many folks eyes on this stuff as [00:27:00] possible and give us critical feedback. That's how we work. You know, we are kind of from. Academia at heart. We love the critical arguments, the feedback that people give us and yeah, and continue to, to just use technology as it, as it continues to evolve to help as many students as possible and Pedagog.

ai is, is at the forefront of that.

Tanya Sheckley: Amazing. Well, fascinating work that you are doing. Thank you so much for your time today and sharing the background and your ideas. And I've learned so much. I hope that all of our listeners have as well.

Aidan Kestigian: Oh, well, thank you so much, Tanya. It's been a pleasure.

Creators and Guests

Tanya Sheckley
Tanya Sheckley
Rebel Educator®, Founder, Edupreneur, Keynote Speaker, Author
Aidan Kestigian
Aidan Kestigian
Visiting Fellow, Department of Philosophy, Harvard University; VP of Operations & Curriculum at ThinkerAnalytix
Pedagogy.Cloud | AI in Education
Pedagogy.Cloud | AI in Education
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Aidan Kestigian, Harvard philosophy fellow and ThinkerAnalytix VP, on using AI to improve information literacy and argument formation