Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Dealing with Plagiarism: Proactive, or Punitive?

October 11, 2006

I have clear memories of sitting in the living room as a ten-year-old boy in 1965, on the couch with our family's volumes of Compton's Encyclopedia around me. I had been assigned the writing of a "report," and it had to be, let's say, two pages long. Because I was not invested in the work, I saw the real assignment as being required to fill two pages with relatively competent language that would be accepted by the teacher.

And so I utilized my two classic tricks of the trade: writing as large as I thought I could get away with, and taking text out of the Compton's and sort of rewriting it in my own words. Being a creative kind of kid, I saw it as a sort of challenge to see how easily I could complete the assignment. Was this the right thing to do? No. But, in short, "Hello, my name is Jim, and I have plagiarized."

Plagiarism is a complex human issue. But it is one all schools have to come to grips with in clear and consistent ways. I encourage educators to consider the specific tasks assigned, and avoid the assignment of tasks that have been done gajillions of times. If you assign the plain old President Report, or an Element Report, in 2006, I really think you are asking for it.

I advocate for real, community-involved project-based learning, but when you have to assign something along the lines of a President Report, how about making it something like this:

"Your former president has recently moved to our community. Making clear that you know your former president well and also have knowledge of our community, please answer the questions that follow in the form of a newspaper column written to tell the community about the arrival of our new, and most famous resident. Where has the former president chosen to live in our community, and why? How will his experience during his term(s) in office benefit our community? How might he get involved to make this a better place to live and work? What specific local issue will our former president choose to get involved in, and which side is he likely to take? On that issue, what arguments will he make, and, again, based on his term in office and other life experiences, why?"

How about in your classroom or school? Have there been changes in the types of assignments being made? How are you creatively dealing with plagiarism, and helping students understand the importance of intellectual integrity in a world where it is just so darn easy to copy and paste (and download)? Please share.

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