Perhaps you have heard a story something along these lines: the teacher assigns a task, some students submit their work only for the teacher to find out their submissions have been taken directly from www.yourhomeworkdoneforyou.com without the tiniest change.
Or perhaps you’ve heard this one: the teacher assigns a task, the students duly submit only for the teacher to discover that a chunky proportion of the students have exactly the same content, including the grammar errors in sentence 4, all probably copied from Phoom – the star student of the class.
These are the sorts of stories that make a teacher’s blood boil and indignation index rise. Who is to blame, and what can we do about it?
Cheating and copying
Teacher’s complaints of plagiarism are almost universal. It has been an issue in American Universities and high schools. It was an ‘epidemic’ in England in 2016. There is a whole website dedicated to it here. There is also software dedicated to finding out whether a piece of writing is plagiarized, like this one. To see whether this kind of software works, I submitted the text of one of my previous blogs (on giving candy in class) to duplichecker to see whether it was plagiarised. It duly reported that I’d copied the text from a blog on www.ajarn.com by a guy called Steve Louw.
Plagiarizing is something students need to take seriously. Students can be kicked out of academic courses, reputations can be wrecked and lives ruined. Remember Melania Trump’s speech in 2016 and the stormy response that got? Or how about Joe Biden’s serial plagiarism that is said to have cost him the presidency in 1988.
Right, so it’s not just our students that copy and cheat. But does the fact that this is a worldwide phenomenon exonerate our students, and why is it so common for us to see copying and cheating in our classrooms?
Let’s start with this second question. From a pedagogical perspective there are quite a few reasons why students might copy:
- The students may lack the linguistic resources to complete the task without support.
- The task’s answer is easily accessible somewhere (on this point, when I was doing my bachelor’s degree, there was (and most likely still is) a busy trade in such documents as the CliffsNotes, which included guides to our English literature courses. Buy the notes, went the happy undergrad slogan, so you don’t need to actually read the book or go to course lectures; passing the exam virtually guaranteed!)
- The students are under pressure from ‘more important assignments’ (whatever that might mean),
- They don’t care (this reason is problematic and one would hope students haven’t got this far)
- The task is tedious (this is far more likely, in my experience),
- The grade is more important that the process of learning (if you’ve studied anything yourself, especially as a teen, you’ll have to accept this as a reality) and so on. How many reasons do we need?
Now, to the first question: can our students be exonerated for their plagiarism crimes?
For this, allow me to explore one particular line of reasoning about our students in Thailand which is worth some consideration. To do so, I need to digress a moment – stay with me.
The process of mastery
Martial arts are a fascinating area of study, even if you aren’t interested in killing marauding enemies. Take Aikido. There are three stages to the mastery of Aikido (and other disciplines, such as the ancient Chinese game Go). First is Shu (守), which is obedience.
As you are learning the fundamentals in the stage, you are to repeat faithfully the forms that you are learning. There is no deviation. After this comes Ha (破), when you are allowed to deviate from tradition and express yourself through innovation. In the final stage, Ri (離), comes creativity and transcendence from tradition.
As a beginner, there is no creativity or innovation until after the apprenticeship of Shu. Following the forms and moves during Shu is not just copying, it’s an invaluable part of taking the path that leads to mastery.
You’ll have experienced classical Cambodian ballet if you’ve been to any tourist sites in Cambodia. The Cambodians are very proud of it, and rightly so because it’s mesmerizingly elegant.
It can also be pretty monotonous once you’ve seen it a few times. That’s because this kind of ballet is highly ceremonial and stylized. Each dance tells a story, and the minute gestures, like the flick of the wrist, are highly specific. The combinations of these gestures create meaning, thoughts and concepts which are conveyed through the dance.
The dancers’ job is to convey these to the audience with exactitude and precision. Straying from the precise prescriptions for each dance is disrespectful to the original meaning of the dance. The Apsara dance is, therefore, very different from the sort of dancing you’d expect at parties where everyone is expressing their individuality through creative gyrations.
There is a long tradition in Asian mastery that disdains a beginner’s creativity, and instead encourages respect to tradition by meticulous copying. We see it with Buddhist chanting, Japanese Shodo calligraphy, Korean Phansori storytelling, and Indonesian Wayang shadow puppets. Asking a beginner to come up with a unique, personal, uncopied version is anathema.
So, back to your students and their homework. How are these traditions of Japanese martial arts, and Cambodian classical dance relevant? You’ll forgive me if it seems like I’m making excuses, but the fact that our students are Asian seems particularly relevant. Does this exonerate them? Perhaps. When we ask students to regurgitate information that has previously been presented by the masters, they may have no real reason to stray from the well-worn and mightily respected path of mastery.
Solving our plagiarism conundrum
There could be a way around this problem. I’ll take a fairly random but obvious example to demonstrate. Our imaginary teacher gives the following assignment: Write about a country of your choice. This assignment seems reasonable – it allows the students some choice, and gives them the opportunity to do some research, thus including reading and writing into one assignment. I’m his student, and my choice, for argument’s sake, is Rwanda. At home after school I find there are around 400 million websites about Rwanda. I’m not kidding. Look.
What is there that I can write that hasn’t been written somewhere else on this topic? As a student, there is a very strong temptation here to just copy what the masters have already produced, to show my respect to them, and produce for my teacher a very respectable assignment.
A slight twist of the instructions, though, changes the task: Write about a place you have been. Now, as a student, I can express my own version of the world. I’ve been to Rwanda, and I can tell you about my visit to Nyungwe and how amazing the Igishigishigi canopy walk is, and how disappointed I was not to have seen the chimps that it’s so famous for. I don’t need Uncle Google for this because I actually have quite a lot to say about it.
Tweaking tasks to allow for a personal response is one way. There are tons of other ideas for how to get students to stop copying. This site, for instance, has games to teach students about plagiarism and why it’s important.
Since it’s us teachers/professors/lecturers who have such an issue with plagiarism in our classrooms, I guess we should take the responsibility for helping students to understand why we think it’s so important and to find ways to help them to avoid it.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.