Friday, April 29, 2011

A discussion here and this post shortly after got me thinking about just exactly what the purpose of education actually is. (Sure, to enlighten people, prepare youths for the world, etc. And more generally it depends on what part and what kind of education you're talking about, and whether you're talking about what the purpose is or what it should be, etc. etc. etc.)

While I was in college or maybe just after, I spent a little time as a substitute teacher. My dad was a high school principal and my college's school year ended more than a month before his school's did, so subbing was a job I could start the day I got home while I looked for something for the rest of the summer.

As temp jobs go, it wasn't that bad. I was called in for a few days to sub for random teachers who were taking sick days or whatever. But then I got called for an extended job: a teacher had to move for some reason before the end of the school year, and they wanted someone who could fill in on a full-time basis for the remaining three weeks or so, working off of lesson plans the previous teacher would leave behind, and I fit the bill. It was a computer or communications-type class. The final project was a PowerPoint presentation, intended to test their skills with MS Office, Internet research and public speaking, and the first most of all. There was a plagiarism policy (don't do it), which I had explained to the students in advance. I checked that by Googling key phrases from the presentation and found that one kid had copied most of his presentation verbatim from some Web site, so I gave him a failing grade for that.

Should I have?

Let's assume for a minute that the plagiarism policy really was adequately explained, was strict but not unreasonably draconian, and that I stuck to it. This was six years ago if not more; I wouldn't swear to any of that from memory, let alone all of it. But right now I'm not wondering whether I covered my ass or was too lenient. The thing is, does a strict plagiarism policy make sense in a high school computer class?

It makes sense in college, where I had just come from, in an academic environment where professors and would-be professors live or die by their Academic Integrity, and where in some fields there's a lot of money riding on who really did certain work. (Not in my field, of course, but, you know, biotech or computer science or something.) And it makes sense in journalism and writing in general for the same reasons.

But in high school? There's the obvious problem when a student copies something else and passes it off as their own original work; if it's cheating to copy off someone sitting at the desk next to you, then it's cheaping to copy something off some stranger in a book or on the Internet.

I guess the thing is, that's the one case where enforcing plagiarism doesn't matter too much - where the student isn't getting graded on original work - but such a situation is rare enough that it might make sense to continue to prosecute it seriously in all other cases. So I guess I argued myself away from the strong "who cares about applying standards of high academia to other contexts?" position that was my gut reaction to the Unfogged discussion.

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