Last weekend, I was given a taste of the abuse modern day Nigerian teachers receive. It was not fun.
I have been a volunteer children’s teacher in different capacities over the last 5 years, and must admit, it’s one of the most fulfilling things I have ever been involved in. Teaching children holds a distinct excitement for me, and I have always thought that teaching full time would be a good place to go when I get around to retiring from my day job. That thought however, may have been a rose tinted reaction to the fairly comfortable teaching environment in my current volunteer position, until now. Last weekend, I was given a taste of the abuse modern day Nigerian teachers receive. It was not fun.
A month ago, I gave out an assignment to my oldest class of children, aged 8 – 11. They were simply supposed to write an essay, explaining in their own words, the meaning of Christmas. As a prelude to this assignment, we had done a three week Christmas lesson, explaining the historical and religious origins of Christmas, the celebrations over the years, and current trends. As a finally note, also covered the “Christian understanding of Christmas.” The assignment, as I explained it, was heavily biased in favour of the Christian understanding of Christmas – after all, our little class is a church class, albeit a more contemporary one, where we have lessons on ethics, morality, science, history and current affairs.
The papers started coming in a week after the assignment was announced, and they were very impressive. It was easy to expect a good turnout, because we the prize was very attractive 8 inch device from the guys at Cupertino, however, the quality of work was much better than I expected. I felt rather proud of the kids. All, except one.
It was the only printed paper of the entire bunch that I had stuffed in the middle of my Bible. It was neatly done: the essay was printed in red ink, the name done in multicoloured word art, and the footer adorned with colourful Christmas images. It was also very long – one solid red black of text, covering 70% of the sheet – too much work from an 10/11 year old. Red flag.
I settled on the couch to begin reading.
“Christmas is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ and a widely observed holiday, celebrated generally on December 25 by millions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates…” Red flag. Red flag. Red text. Red flag.
The alarm bells were off as I stopped reading and skimmed the text. By the time I had skimmed down to the bottom of the page, absorbing the detailed note, including parses like “canonical gospels”, “Armenian Apostolic Church” and “southern solstice” there was no argument in my mind that this was copy and paste. I knew it was Wikipedia. I googled the Christmas entry on Wiki and there it was, word for word, save the annotations and flags, which the kid had removed. Only on second read did I find a stray word, which turned out to be an annotation which hadn’t been properly deleted.
I had meant to report the ‘cheating’ to the boy’s mother when I realised it was too late in the evening, so I decided to talk to her after church. When I told her I had a rather serious issue to talk to her about, she was rather alarmed, but a minute or two into my explanation, she cut me short to tell me “Oh, my son has done nothing wrong.” She explained that in their school, they ask them to do their assignments on the internet, print them and bring them to school. In her understanding, the boy was merely doing as he’s used to doing in school, as such he’s not wrong. At this point, the boy began to cry and carry on, that his work was the best and I had given his prize to someone else. He wouldn’t stop even when the mum consoled him with a promise to get him a similar tablet.
At that point, I didn’t want to argue with the parent. I told her I reserve the judgement on what qualifies as a pass in my class, and that I think what the school is doing is wrong. She agreed on my judgement of pass or not, but insisted that her son had done nothing wrong. That topic was over. At least that’s what I thought.
About an hour after I got home, I was told the parent had called while I was inside, so I called back. The call started out civilly enough, but within two minutes, it was clear to me that the matter had a little ways to go. The parent went on to explain again how children getting work from the internet to present as assignment is no problem, and the norm in modern schools. She had her daughter, a younger child in my class, to stand by and collaborate (I found that rather unnecessary). He gripe was that I had called her to report that her son cheated, and she cannot have that, because her son had done nothing wrong. It was a long conversation, but it was not to end without the mother throwing in a zinger of her own – she told me point black that I am not trained to teach, and do not know what applies in contemporary schools, hence had no leg to stand on to judge whether the teaching practice at her son’s school is right or wrong.
Yes. That entered. A true wow moment that honestly got me thinking of resigning my position. In fact I did, for about 2 hours.
In my mind, changes in teaching methods have not changed the fundamentals of what right and wrong are. Changing teaching methods have not changed the dictionary definition of plagiarism, which the upset parent did well to explain to me. According to the parent, if the child had copied out the web page on paper and not referenced the author, it would have been plagiarism. But because the child copied the content of the Wiki page onto Microsoft Word, (editing out all but one of the Wiki annotations), and printed the page out, albeit with his name on the top of the page, the exercise did not constitute plagiarism. Of course this is not the place to debate the differences between writing with pen on paper, and printing from a computer.
More importantly, according to the parent, the fact that current practice in the child’s school is exactly what I saw demonstrated by the son negated any chances that he was cheating in any way. I was saying in my mind, while we were on the topic, that the assignment asked for an essay. Essay. Write and essay! And every other child did just that.
On the issue of education or scholarly experience, by some long storied freak chance, I happened to attend two years of grad school courses, and one year in PhD studies, both online. The one year of doctoral studies was spend doing scholarly research classes only. In those classes, if I learned anything, it was what plagiarism is, and how seriously academic institutions take the subject.
Whatever it is I had to say about my education, my academic credentials were in question. So I thought if I needed to find a definition for plagiarism and how it is viewed in academics, it was best to do so from more respectable authorities. I did a quick google, and found the following paragraph on the Duke University website:
“Plagiarism occurs when a student, with intent to deceive or with reckless disregard for proper scholarly procedures, presents any information, ideas or phrasing of another as if they were his/her own and/or does not give appropriate credit to the original source. Proper scholarly procedures require that all quoted material be identified by quotation marks or indentation on the page, and the source of information and ideas, if from another, must be identified and be attributed to that source. Students are responsible for learning proper scholarly procedures” - http://library.duke.edu/research/plagiarism/index.html
I will detail the key elements in the paragraph above. First one is that a student is guilty of plagiarism when there is an attempt to deceive. If a student got work from the Internet, did not indicate that the ‘work’ was from the internet, that’s plagiarism. If such work is not properly credited to the author or source of the ‘borrowed’ work, it’s plagiarism. If the ‘quoted’ material is not identified by quotation marks, it’s plagiarism. Another important detail is that the responsibility for knowing what constitutes plagiarism is the student’s. The teacher does not need to know if the student understands that they are plagiarising or not.
I felt a little lucky after finding the Duke paragraph, so I tried Havard, and found this peach:
“If you copy language word for word from another source and use that language in your paper, you are plagiarising verbatim. Even if you write down your own ideas in your own words and place them around text that you’ve drawn directly from a source, you must give credit to the author of the source material, either by placing the source material in quotation marks and providing a clear citation, or by paraphrasing the source material and providing a clear citation.” - http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page342054
Let’s say the complexity of plagiarism for scholarly work is too nebulous a scale to measure an 11 year old’s work against, and the citations were merely to disprove the assertions of an unknowing parent. We could also say that the little boy meant well, and actually did good by going on the internet to find material for his work. That could be acceptable under explained circumstances.
However, if the child took his time to edit out every Wiki notation on his page, except one (which I suspect escaped his notice), then there was potential intent to deceive. Also, by typing his name on the paper, without at any point indicating that the entire body of this work is lifted from Wiki, or explaining this to the teacher (until it was announced that he was in trouble), then that qualified as cheating – whether implicit or otherwise.
So did my pupil plagiarise? Or should I use a more basic term, cheat?
Again, we must remember that a teacher’s job is not to judge the intentions of the heart of a pupil. As such, a teacher cannot be blamed for declaring a pupil’s work as plagiarised, whether that was done wilfully or not, as long as the evidence in the body of work match the definitions for plagiarism.
This long winded discourse on plagiarism brought me back to the parent’s explanation, that “that is the way it is done these days” and that “that is what is done in their school”. I am hoping that a teacher, or similarly qualified professional working in the school system would help me clarify this issue, but in my thinking, if a teacher encourages students to lift material from the internet and present as theirs, is that not legalising, or at the best, sanctioning plagiarism? What will happen to these children when they suddenly find themselves in the wider world, where academic rigour is standard? Aren’t we supposed to train up our children in the ways which they should go, so that when they grow up, they wouldn’t depart form it (that was Solomon, by the way, in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs 22:6)?
I suspect that as a means of encouraging academic research, school teachers could have asked kids to go find answers from the internet, print same and bring to school as evidence that they did do the research. They could also have been taught to copy text to MS Word to save ink. I however disagree with the submission that teachers allow kids to copy web pages wholesale, and present them as their essays. I disagree because if this were true, it would be preposterous, an absolute travesty. Teachers who institutionalise this reckless cheating routine should be jailed, because the future of our children are too important to be be toyed with by unscrupulous teachers.
Last Sunday, I went up a rostrum to appeal to parents to take more interest in their children’s school work. I am doing so again, through this medium. As parents, we are the first frontier (strange that I now find myself in that ‘we’). Parents are the first and maybe last schools their children should attend, and no one can teach a child better than a parent – no one should. Parents cannot abandon the job of educating their children to schools and teachers. Education is expensive, and parents are having to pay over the odds for a chance at decent education for their children, but that still does not excuse the parents from their jobs – parents must review their children’s school work, assist with homework, and generally be part of their children’s academic life. It is only then that they can spot inconsistencies and miseducations that may exist in the classroom.
If parents accept all that teachers hand out to their kids, and indeed their methods, as gospel truth, they may miss out on the grand prize of providing that valuable education they seek to provide for their kids. And if you are a parent, and you feel your child is not getting a decent enough education, do not go be an embarrassment to creation by abusing your child’s teacher; walk to a mirror, stare for a moment and lay your lashing on the person in that mirror, you.