The Confident Creator is the Anti-Copycat

by Mariel Goddu
November 18, 2010

This past August, the New York Times released an alarming article about plagiarism in U.S. higher education. Citing statistics from a Rutgers University study of 14,000 undergraduates, it reported that over 40 percent of students admitted to having copied text directly from the Internet. More frightening still, 34 percent said they did not consider plagiarizing from the Internet “serious cheating.”

As college professors, high school teachers, and parents become increasingly exasperated with a population of copy-and-pasters that fails to see the harm in a practice that the academic community deems utterly unacceptable, the question arises: How can we ensure that the child of today will not plagiarize in her tomorrows of high school, college, and beyond?

The lesson series entitled Respecting Creative Work — one of many free online resources in Common Sense Media‘s Digital Literacy and Citizenship in a Connected Culture curriculum for grades 6-8-outlines the following guidelines:

1.  ASK. How does the author say I can use the work? Do I have to get the creator’s permission first?

2. ACKNOWLEDGE. Did I give credit to the work I used?

3. ADD VALUE. Did I rework the material to make new meaning and add something original?

Although they’re written with older kids in mind, these three rules outline the basic skill set-both conceptual and mechanical-that every child must acquire along the journey from kindergartener to expert term-paperist. If their meanings are abstracted slightly, however, these three, easy-to-remember rules are applicable to children of all ages.

1. ASK: Who made this?

Before they learn how to produce citations, children must learn the concept of idea ownership. This requires an abstraction of more concrete ideas about ownership (“Just like you own this toy, you own your ideas, too”) and an appreciation of history (“All ideas come from people”).

As groundbreaking research on children and plagiarism at Yale’s Social Cognitive Development Lab suggests, notions about idea ownership may develop early. Studies found that children as young as five years old express significant dislike for a person who copies another’s work versus a person who creates an identical copy by coincidence. Teaching children about idea ownership is then simply a matter of explanation, broadening the “No fair, copycat!” reflex to include the online world and compelling them to think about their feelings of ownership over their own ideas when considering those of others. Common sense suggests presenting pictures of authors and artists alongside their work, helping children remember to consider the creator.

2. ACKNOWLEDGE: Did I give credit?

This tenet deals with mechanics. As Stanley Fish noted in his philosophical response to the original August 2010 Times article on college plagiarism, learning to use the conventions necessary for avoiding plagiarism is not unlike memorizing irregular verbs in a second language. Becoming comfortable with the rules takes time and practice, so as soon as kids start learning how to research (another excellent lesson series in the Common Sense curriculum), they should start practicing citations (readwritethink presents a kid-friendly guide for grades 3-5 here).

3. ADD VALUE: Did I do something interesting?

This final point deals with originality: iit asks us to teach children to value uniqueness, innovation, and creativity over the easier alternative of copying others’ work. While this seems perhaps a daunting goal, it may actually be a property that arises naturally when children are creative in groups.

Providing children with environments that allow them to experience the social value of their work empowers them as creators. Anne Dyson, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has spent years researching the ways in which kindergarteners talk and share ideas while writing stories in their classrooms. Dyson argues that these organic, early forms of creative collaboration-planning imaginary birthday parties, for example — are the experiences through which children come to understand literacy as a social act.

When the context of creation is within a community of peers, temptations to copy entire works are surpassed by the desire to present novel, interesting material to the group. Individual creativity, originality, and innovation is thus at the heart of all the most exciting creative collaborations and participatory cultures, whether kindergarteners, hiphop artists, or academics are the creators of content.

Giving children experiences with informal intellectual and creative collaboration may be our most powerful strategy for preempting plagiarism. Encouraging children to become practiced and confident media producers will help them prefer the satisfaction of creation to the dullness of plagiarism, even as recent trends in crowdsourcing and content sharing blur traditional lines of idea ownership. The child who experiences the satisfaction and confidence that accompany acts of novel creativity when he is still clutching crayons will grow into the young adult who prefers his own work to Command + C.

Mariel Goddu is a senior at Yale University.