Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Year 8 during Conversation time about the importance of academic integrity. I spoke to the students about how fortunate they are to live in such an intensely interconnected world where the computing power in their pockets allows them to connect with people across the globe in real time. The power of the internet is that it allows us to share ideas, to find others with the same (sometimes niche) interests and to access information instantly (not to mention the sheer pleasure of cat videos). For our young students however that power also requires a level of responsibility that they are not always ready for. In terms of academic integrity young people need to learn the difference between sharing, collaborating, drawing inspiration from a variety of sources and plagiarism.
Creativity is somewhat of a buzzword at present and schools and educators are clamouring to teach these so-called ‘soft-skills’. In December of 2015 The Atlantic published an article entitled ‘Why Robots Should Be More Like Babies’. In it they quoted Andrew Meltzoff, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and a co-director at the school’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences who quipped “Humans are the most imitative creature on the planet and young kids seamlessly intertwine imitation and innovation”. Meltzoff hit the proverbial creativity nail on the head because what is creativity if not exposure to a diverse range of influences and perspectives, a process of looking at the world anew and combining the pre-existing “building blocks in novel ways to invent new solutions.” Learning is often about imitating what we like. The budding author falls in love with a writer and imitates the style, a singer might try to recreate the sound of another. Music is an interesting example given an entire genre has sprung up around the art of sampling.
DJ Mark Ronson gave a TED Talk about how the practice of sampling has transformed music in which he spoke about the fact that musicians take something they love and build upon it. He gives the example of a piece of music he created by mixing the work of a blind virtuoso pianist and a spoken word poet from Somalia. Two wildly diverse sources brought together in order to create something new. I asked the students who they thought the creator of the work was in that instance. We agreed that it was Ronson but made the important distinction that Ronson credited his sources, he didn’t try to pass off the individual parts of the song as his own.
At Loreto we primarily use the Harvard system of referencing which emphasises the importance of crediting the sources of ideas and language. One of the difficulties in an interconnected and dare I say it ‘cut and paste’ world is that sometimes we plagiarise without intending to. When students are moving back and forth between websites it can be easy to collect a lot of information and later forget where their ideas began and ended. We spoke about the importance of good note taking during research which can be as simple as including a link to the website in the research grid for cross referencing later. Interestingly, bibliographies include everything the student read in conducting research even if the sources are not directly quoted in the final work. This is of course because our ideas are often shaped in unseen ways. The library regularly encourages students to use a citation builder which makes the system of referencing simple (for those of us who remember having to reference manually citation builders are a wonder).
If you can remember life without the internet as well as its early days you are likely to practice a healthy scepticism towards the reliability of websites. Our students however, can sometimes be very naive around the fact that anyone can publish whatever they like on the internet. We always encourage students to use the library catalogue and databases as the first port of call in any research project (public libraries are also a wonderful resource). This is because paid subscriptions vet the sources and don’t allow things like Google adwords to influence the sites that rise to the top in a web search. Also, the Loreto library regularly updates the collection in order to reflect the curriculum and subscribes to some wonderful academic databases for students.
While there are many practical steps we can take to help our students navigate academic integrity there are also some underlying issues worthy of examination. Indeed, I spoke to the Year 8 cohort around some of the reasons why students might plagiarise. There were two main questions I posed to Year 8.
- Is our view of what it means to be successful too narrow?
Recently I attended an evening hosted by Wenona School where journalist Lucy Clark spoke about her new book Beautiful Failures. She told a frank and poignant story about her daughter’s painful experience at school, an experience punctuated by crippling anxiety around an apparent failure to fit the narrow mould of ‘success’ at school. Her message was clear, we need to change the narrative of what ‘success’ looks like in schools.
In many ways our own anxieties as parents and caregivers feed into our aspirations for our children. We want the best for them, we simply want them to be happy. One of the unfortunate by-products of this focus on happiness however is the tendency to conflate happiness and economic success. The pressure to be successful, to earn (and let’s face it to buy a house in Sydney), trickles down to our students replacing the thrill and joy of learning for learning’s sake with rampant competition and a fear of failure.
Loreto Normanhurst does much to combat a narrow view of success through its FACE curriculum which is geared towards the development of the whole child. Faith, academic, community and extracurricular are weighted as equally important components in a well-rounded education. Clark, in her book, pens a checklist of sorts where she notes down what it is that she considers success and I encouraged the students to close their eyes and do the same. Unsurprisingly we found that things like perfect scores were secondary to feeling as though you had done your best and that numbers were far less important than healthy relationships. Last year the ABC’s 4 Corners aired a programme entitled Our Kids– Why are they so stressed? which investigated why when Australia as a nation is healthier and wealthier than ever before our children are feeling so anxious and stressed. House prices in Sydney aside, it is strange that children as young as twelve and thirteen are overly focused on doing well in school so that they can “get a good job” and provide for a fictional family somewhere down the track.
Interestingly, the idea that academic success is not always solely responsible for success in life has come to the fore in elite universities.The Harvard Crimson (the college’s newspaper) reported that the class of 2019 only accepted 5.3 percent of applicants but according to the Good News Network who wrote about a report from the Harvard School of Graduate Education called ‘Turning the Tide’ “the best way to succeed for students who are applying for college is to relax and be nicer to your family and neighbours.” The students and I had a good laugh about this but I think it gets to the heart of something that anyone who has worked with a student as they undertake the HSC knows, studying is just one part of the puzzle, students must not forget that they are still part of a community, still a contributing member of their household, still a good friend. Richard Weissbourd, Senior Lecturer at the graduate school said, “Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.”
- Are we too afraid of making mistakes?
During the Assumption Mass at Loreto Father Michael spoke to the girls about the fact that each and every one of them has their own unique gifts and talents. As educators and parents we know this to be true, each child is different. Parents of multiple children often remark that they cannot quite believe how two children born of the same parents, raised in the same family can be so different. Difference is good. Each one of us will tackle the same problem slightly differently but when a student plagiarises they deny themselves the opportunity to use their own gifts, to bring their own perspective to the issue. Even sadder, they deny themselves the opportunity to learn from the experience.
Why then would someone with a good brain, their own brain take someone else’s words or ideas and pass them off as their own? Could it be that maybe, just maybe we want to be ‘successful’ so bad that we are unwilling to make mistakes? I left Year 8 with the very wise words of Neil Gaiman:
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.”
Ms Elizabeth Green
Knowledge & Learning Strategist