I was directed to Patrick Ross' blog via Nick Carr today and Patrick describes his 11-year-old daughter's methodology in producing a school paper on Jesse Owens, the African-American track-and-field star who won Olympic gold medals in the 1936 Games in front of Adolph Hitler.
A few months ago my 11-year-old daughter was researching a paper on Jesse Owens for social studies. She didn't go to the library, pull down reference books and fill up 3x5 index cards. She went onto Google. She found plenty of materials. But when I asked to read her completed paper, it was nothing but a cut-and-paste job from various web sites on Owens; she even included, quite randomly, part of a press release about some recent celebration in his honor.
My daughter's work ethic may not always be what I'd like it to be, but she's bright and can write more than sufficiently for a 5th grade social studies class. Yet she seemed flat-out baffled when I explained to her that the paper wasn't acceptable. "Is the information wrong?" she asked. "Did I leave something out?" No to both. But she hadn't written her own paper, and more importantly, she hadn't learned anything, as was clear when I began to quiz her about the content in her own "paper." Hard to transfer knowledge in the two seconds it takes to select and move.
His story reminded me of my own childhood in the 1960s, and in particular a paper I wrote about Native Americans in the 2nd or 3rd grade. I spent a great amount of time scouring books and writing passages from them longhand onto lined tablet paper. As I recall, it took me a long time not just for the research, but to craft a 'paper' longhand to turn in for my assignment. And yes, most of my prose was lifted directly from the texts I had researched, and I was quite proud of my supposed diligent and scholarly research and insights on the subject.
I recall being surprised and miffed at the same time when our teacher returned our graded papers to us and I received a 'C' for my work. After class, my teacher very patiently and kindly explained to me that I had to present my findings in my own voice and insights, and not to directly lift (plagiarize is/was a bit much for a 3rd grader to understand, at least back then) most of the work from the texts of others. She also stated that she could have given me a failing mark, but she appreciated the time and diligence I spent researching the topic. I never wrote any paper like that again, either in school, university, or afterwords in my professional career.
What's the difference between what Patrick's daughter did and what I did back in the Sixties? There is only one that I can think of: in order to copy the material longhand, I had to read and comprehend the texts before I wrote the paper. In essence, I still learned something even though I'd plagiarized most of the content. And I learned a much more valuable lesson from my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, in the process. Perhaps that's why I got a 'C' on the assignment rather than an 'F.'
Patrick doesn't tell us how his daughter's assignment eventually turned out, but had I been him, I would have let her turn in that assignment and hope (and perhaps pray) that her teacher would have bounced it back at her with an average or failing mark for precisely the reasons he cites in his post. If he made her do it over after quizzing her, that's fine too, but there is no greater motivation than having the teacher or judge say the things to our children in these cases that we would say. My folks could have intercepted my work and made me do it over, but I learned far more from Mrs. Johnson's 'C" on that paper than I'll wager she even realized at the time.
Of course, this assumes that our educational establishment comes down as hard on work presented in this fashion as it did back then, but somehow, I'm not that optimistic about it, and even less so when Google-ized cut-and-paste children, teenagers, and young adults ascend to positions of responsibility in society.
Such as schoolteachers and college professors.