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Monday 04 March 2002

High-School Research, and Plagiarism

Background: a high-school teacher in Kansas City has resigned following the school board’s meddling in her grading of 28 10th-graders who plagiarised material for an assigned research paper.

The Kansas City Star has an account that includes this:

Woolley [the parent of an involved ‘A student’] said she believes the district needs to do a better job of educating students about plagiarism. She said her daughter is not sure now how much she needs to rewrite research material before she can use it. [emphasis added]
    Well, there's the problem.  The students -- or this one, at least -- see their task as "rewriting research material".  They misunderstand the purpose of their work, possibly because the official stated purpose of it is nonsensical.

In my school days, a lot of micromanaging was done by the Missouri department of education. One of the state requirements was that the major year-end project in 11th grade English class was to write a “Research Paper”. (The people in the K.C. Star article are in Kansas, but the Kansas D. of E. probably does the same thing.)

This paper — required to be the mind-boggling length of fivepages, double-spaced — was harped on all of 11th grade, and most of 10th. “You think this is hard, kiddies, wait until your Research Paper!” etc. The explanation of the requirements for this paper took at least a week of class time. “Research” meant two or three weeks of the English class meeting in the library for an hour a week. There were then three weeks to “write” the thing, whereupon it was handed in and counted for most of the second-semester grade for English III.

Notecards were explained, and MLA style, and margins and footnotes and bibliographies oh my. But I don’t think there was ever any discussion of the purpose of writing such a paper, namely to express some novel thought or to find some original connections between facts in the materials researched. That is, that the purpose of the Research Paper was scholarship, i.e. synthesis of knowledge.

It’s probably not reasonable to expect much original research from

high-school students in a five-page paper, but it’s also not reasonable to

expect them to play at research unless they have some knowledge of the

purpose of what they’re playing at.

In the 80s, my class wasn’t really given much of an idea of what we were really supposed to do with the Research Paper; I think that most of my classmates just re-worded entries from the Encyclopedia and left it at that. Since respect for the high-school intellect seems to have declined even more since then, I doubt that things are better today.

I still think that the kids copying their material should be failed. But I think that a good deal of the problem — in this case an in a lot of the other school-plagiarism cases you read about now — is due not to that reliable bugbear, the Internet, but due to the assignments being presented as procedural training, hoops to be jumped though, rather than as actual intellectual exercises.

Posted by tino at 13:19 4.03.02
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