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Copy that, good buddy: Plagiarism and the 21st Century Learner

Trucker with CB radio

The educators I follow on Twitter are like a never-ending source of inspiration, ideas, and innovations. However, the conversations are somewhat truncated because of the confinements of 140 characters. I like the boundary, but sometimes I have a bit more to say, or to reflect. This is one of those times.

The topic is plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined by willfully and intentionally “stealing” another’s creative/original ideas, works, products, or concepts. Sometimes it’s unintentional, though, but ignorance of the law is, unfortunately, no excuse.

But teaching these concepts isn’t really working in our communicative, idea-rich world. Ideas, conversations, and concepts fly around like oxygen molecules. I have noticed my students copy/paste without thought, compunction, or ill-intent. Seriously — they do not ‘get it.’ It’s like leaving a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen counter and forgetting to put a sign that says “don’t eat.” I don’t think my population of students is copying/pasting with malice–but they do need some instruction and direction.

compunction |kəmˈpə ng (k) sh ən|noun [usu. with negative ]a feeling of guilt or moral scruple that follows the doing of something bad : spend the money without compunction. See note at qualm .a pricking of the conscience : he had no compunction about behavingblasphemously.DERIVATIVEScompunctionless adjectivecompunctious |- sh əs| |kəmˈpəŋ(k)ʃəs| |-ʃəs| adjectivecompunctiously |- sh əslē| |kəmˈpəŋ(k)ʃəsli| |-ʃəsli| adverbORIGIN Middle English : from Old French componction, fromecclesiastical Latin compunctio(n-), from Latin compungere ‘prick sharply,’ from com- (expressing intensive force) + pungere to prick.’

Here’s what I think is happening:

  • There is so much to teach. The majority of 13/14 year-olds I teach are behind considerably in background knowledge in simply how “academia” works: I remember clearly slaving away over index cards with encyclopedias, informational texts, getting every citation perfect, making sure how to quote passages properly, and giving credit where credit was due. This was in fourth grade. Many of my eighth grade students can’t define “citation, resource, or reference.” (We speed through too much too fast out of necessity, playing educational “catch up” and trying to float all boats by flooding the river…)
  • Working with index cards, pencils, and paper slowed down the thinking process for me; there was time to read, re-read for importance, determine importance, and process–and most importantly: SYNTHESIZE the information. No wonder why students copy/paste innocently: they really think they have done the ‘work.’ I would estimate 40% of my time with students during one-to-one discussion/conferencing is spent re-reading their copy/pasted work back to them and asking them if they understand it. The answer is inevitably ‘no.’
  • In instruction, there are two primary, fundamental, over-arching reading instructional goals for my students:
  1. Help them develop the critical thinking ‘filters’ that help them read with deep meaning and connection.
  2. Help them find their own path to original thinking/creativity. Once they discover that the originality is their inherent human right–there is only one of them in the entire world, then perhaps they will not only find confidence and joy, but value the originality in others, too. Do unto others, folks.

Having spent my adult life in pursuits of creativity, alongside my husband, we value our works, and I honor those of others, too. I think it’s really important to teach every generation about ideas, and create a culture of sharing ideas that incorporate a nod or tip of the hat to others. Twitter does this, Facebook, too; the protocol for acknowledging someone else’s tweet or post is the ubiquitous “@” symbol. And though this symbol is king of the universe now (sorry ampersand; you’re Miss Congeniality in the Punctuation Pageant), we cannot but help bow to its reign. Which brings me to my next idea: although I do think we all need to be very intentional, honest, and direct in our teaching of why plagiarism is not okay, and in fact, seeking the way through material is supremely beneficial, I do think we need to redo the citation/bibliography style guides to be more streamlined. Maybe not as easy as “RT” or “@,” but something to clear that obstacle off the information highway.