Friday, 6 March 2015

The Grubbiness of Plagiarism

Plagiarism. P.L.A.G.I.A.R.I.S.M.  It sounds so grubby doesn't it?  I know my thinking is a product of years of tertiary study, but surely I'm not alone in seeing corruption in plagiarism?

Over the last few weeks I've been confronted by plagiarism in my kiddos' writing. Every Wednesday, following our WBW discussion, the home learning task is to engage in a reflection following one (of two) provided prompts.  Recently I found a few sentences that used structures beyond the grasp of a particular student and made note. Within minutes I found the same sentences sitting in a whole block of similar sounding sentences in another student's response. A quick Google search found the source. The following week a different student handed in a reflection that had been copied word-for-word from an online article.

I was furious! At first with myself for asking reflection questions that could so easily be 'googled'. Then I reread the plagiarised answers and realised that they didn't answer the questions anyway. Phew. (Big lesson learnt though!) Then I was mad with the kiddos for taking the easy route.  I started wondering why they felt the need to take the easy route and whether I'd somehow communicated an expectation of 'right' answers.

So many questions:

  1. Are the reflection prompts not inviting true reflection?
  2. Have I somehow communicated that there is a 'right' answer to these reflection questions?
  3. Am I communicating that about everything we do? 
  4. Why else would they feel the need to take the easy route?
I've been back and looked at all of the reflection prompts I've set over the last year and a bit. There have been a few that didn't ask for reflection but on the whole they do.  I also noticed that my prompts improved over the course of the year and so did the student reflections: we grew together.  This lead to another observation: the reflections from the kiddos who are VRPs  for a second year are miles ahead of the others. Gee! What a surprise! 

I thought back to the early days of last year. I spent a LOT of time reinforcing with the class that there were NO right answers to these reflections. The message I explicitly gave early: I want to see YOUR thinking about our discussions. Once we established that I moved on to expecting them to back up their thinking with reasons, explanations and evidence. This year I've missed giving those messages explicitly. I need to go back and be much more explicit about the purpose of the task and my expectations. I need to be explicit about academic integrity: what it is, why it is important and how to demonstrate it. My kiddos need this.

Much of what happens in our learning space is so widely open that there are as many answers as there are kiddos. I'm pretty sure that I don't set a 'right' answer very often. I often don't even have a set answer in mind!

And the easy route? Well. I think there are multiple ways to look at that.  I know that many of the kiddos are finding the high expectations I have of them REALLY challenging. And I know that they're REALLY trying to do the right thing.  All of the kiddos who copied their reflections from the internet are new to my class this year.  It's early in our journey together; we will get there (wherever there is).  This is the beginning.

Seeing plagiarism on my kiddos' pages horrified me,  but it started a process of reflection that will ultimately benefit us all.  We'll can learn together to clean out the grubbiness it creates.

How do you deal with this kind of thing with your kiddos?

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 5 Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning


  1. It can be difficult for the original team when a large number of new nembers enter the group. Whilst (assuming the existing members are positive cultural custodians) the existing members will form a critical mass around which a new variant of the preferred culture grows oftentimes there are intangible or inexplicit mores which the custodians cannot present to the newbies. In the Johari Window sense these are the important assumptions of which the custodians are not concious and the novices can't understand. Usually when there is an issue which raises (in this case) its 'grubby' presence in such a way as to 'horrify' the preferred culture reflection and review will identify the little pieces which will address the issue. Looks like the VRP's are just like a new team... storming and norming.

  2. This week our Yr10 class completed a source analysis test. One of the questions asked a simple quantitative question (how long did it take the allied forces to storm the Abbey at Monte Casino). For some context - the topic was new to students because the criteria being assessed was critical thinking - not Know &Understand. They were expected to provide their answers based on the 5 sources of information provided to them.
    2 students throughout the test raised their hand with most concerned, almost frustrated looks on their faces, and said with great consternation;
    "Miss, I can't answer this question because they WEREN'T successful in taking the abbey, the information only states that they attacked it several times over 4 weeks". These students knew they were expected to provide the 'right answer', but just couldn't bring themselves to write something that they knew the 'evidence' didn't back up.
    I re-read the question to see if these 2 students had misread the article and missed a pertinent emphasis or tone to the writing, or even one key fact that influenced the section they were using to support their position, but lo and behold...they were right. I hadn't set the test and the answers had been provided for me from the author of the test so I knew what they were 'supposed' to write, but I could also see they had identified a key fact USING THE EVIDENCE.
    I could see this from both points of view. I could see the basic K&U fact the teacher had wanted the students to find in the article (a range of dates for this particular operation) as it was one of the first questions and would have been useful for further questions that required in depth analysis, however....the 2 students were also correct.
    I instructed the students to stick with their answer as it was a perfect example of applying critical thinking and they weren't marked down for providing a different answer from the one intended. The look of amazement on their faces was the reason I love my job. Both of these students can often be in hot water for being rebellious, opinionated and stubborn. I doubt in our majority conformist classrooms that they are often allowed to argue a point and come out 'the winner'. Too often we know what we want them to know and we will stand on the higher ground of 'right' until we feel they have seen an issue/topic our way. I'm not saying we are all training our students to be automated content regurgitators, but we need to continually assess in our design process, the learning intentions, content selection and possible pathways to success for students.
    Next step - schedule a review of the source analysis test and use this as a learning moment in our class discussion next time we meet.