Friday, September 08, 2006

Teaching With The Electronic Word
Part 1: The Cut and Paste Mentality

In the 1995 book The Future Does Not Compute, author Stephen Talbott identifies what he called the "keyboard paradigm" -- that is, the way in which writing with computers affects the quality of both writing and thinking:

For example, the ease and rapidity with which I can cut and paste enables my hands to keep up much more closely with my mind, but also encourages me to reduce my thinking to the relatively mechanical manipulation of the words I see in front of me. To edit a text, then, is merely to rearrange symbols. Existing symbols and their "self evident" relations, [and] not the thinking that makes symbols, becomes almost everything. (Talbott 186-187)

It's not just you. A decade later, as the first true digital generation hits our classrooms, we are seeing the results of that paradigm, and it's not always pretty.

Our students cut and paste without thinking more often than we'd like to admit, rearrange where they should rewrite, and -- as a result -- have increasing difficulty telling the difference between their own words and those of others.

The "cut and paste mentality" is part of why we've seen more plagiarism this year than last year. It makes it difficult for students to understand when, how, and why to cite and acknowledge the work of others. And the paradigm may underscore what some of us see as a gradual downslide in overall writing quality at our grade level.

Luckily, we're here to help.

Today, some classroom strategies for addressing plagiarism, proper citation, and just plain helping a digital generation develop better writing and research habits.

  • Make your expectations clear. Will you accept printed pages when you send students home to find a definition, or must they put those definitions into their own words? It may seem obvious to us that a printout isn't okay, but our students genuinely think differently after years growing up with computers. Making these expectations clear early and often avoids confusion.

    Also, of course, clarifying boundary lines makes everyone's life easier. In your class, what counts as plagiarism? Academic dishonesty? District expectations are laid out in the agenda, but our library and information specialists are always available to help work with your students on these issues in the classroom, and/or as part of their library or lab activity.


  • Help students understand why. Clarifying your expectations for appropriate use in the context of larger issues (such as the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and the ideas of intellectual property and authorship) helps students research with more confidence, gives them a clearer sense of what is required of them, and reminds them that understanding an idea or concept is at least as important as phrasing and presentation. More, it helps them make connections between their academic life and their social use of technology, such as music downloading and online communication, which empowers them to better create and share ideas in all areas of their lives.


  • Keep prewriting. Type 1 and Type 2 Collins writing generally don't include high-formal language. Seeing formal language in type 2 writing assignments, for me, is a hint that students may be copying right from a source.


  • Consider requiring handwritten early drafts, homework, and other informal assignments. It may seem counterintuitive to require handwritten work in a digital age, but the keyboard paradigm as Talbott presents it includes a scary thought: students may not edit their work as much when it LOOKS formal on the page as they type. Since computer fonts look more formal by their very nature, students may not even think as much when they type as they do when they write by hand!

    There are many benefits to requiring more handwritten work. For example, if students must actually pass their thoughts from page to screen as they rework and rewrite, they are more likely to think through the material...and thus more likely to produce better writing in the end.

    Handwriting has added benefits to student development, too. Students who have more practice handwriting for your class are more comfortable handwriting in testing situations. Students are also less likely to be multitasking (such as IM-ing their friends) when doing their homework for your class if they are doing so away from the computer!


  • Learn how to identify "cheating sources", and let your students know you can! For example, I always show my students how I can type an exact phrase from a paper into Google to find almost any plagiarized source...catching cheaters in seconds never fails to impress! (See previous blog entry Mastering The Googleverse: Searching by Key Phrase for more on how to do this!)


Got more ideas to share? A relevant anecdote from years gone by? Questions? Comments? A wonderful lab activity, or a request for classroom instruction on today's topic? Leave a comment below, email Joshua, or stop by a library or lab to plan your activity today!

2 Comments:

Anonymous TeachTeach said...

Good ideas. However, I think requiring students to accomplish rough drafts by handwriting them might be handicapping some of them.

For example, while I grew up handwriting all my essays, I now routinely compose at the keyboard. Why? Because I can type faster than I can write, and it is much easier for me to get my thoughts down quickly before they scamper away.

Likewise, when I was in the classroom, gradually some of my students requested the option of typing their rough drafts. At first, I resisted, but ultimately, I allowed it. The key is to require multiple drafts, with evidence of revision, whether those drafts are handwritten or typed.

Further proof that handwriting alone doesn't kill plagiarism--my stepson had plagiarized a school assignment, which I discovered by Googling a sentence. I required him to rewrite the assignment in his own words. His response? To handwrite the very same plagiarized sentences he had originally cut and paste.

9:01 AM  
Blogger boyhowdy said...

I disagree that it would necessarily handicap students to require a change in medium between one draft or another.

Note, though, that while the other suggestions are presented as "rules", this one is presented as "consider." It is the movement from one medium to another which I believe best supports the widest changes in thought between drafts -- the best true reworking and rewriting, that is. Certainly, typing first, but requiring that students edit with pen on a printout and then REtype, would have an equivalent (but not equal) effect.

It is a much harder sell, though, to have them hand-edit and truly REtype, rather than just reWORK on the same word document, after typing. And it is impossible to require. Whereas it is certainly possible to require handwriting first, and typing afterwards, and believe that (except in very wonky excceptions) the students are truly rethinking every phrase before moving on in the drafting process.

Especially for middle school students.

As for the plagiarising anecdote you offer -- I would never say that handwriting kills plagiarism. Having taught for ten years, and taught teachers for almost as long, I can honestly say that despite all concerns from everyone (self included), I have yet to see or hear of a student copy a full paper down from a digital source, but it certainly used to happen before computers, and surely it happens still.

But my own experience and that of every teacher I've ever asked says that plagiarism "by hand" is MUCH rarer, and thus more an exception, where the cut-and-paste paradigm -- the tendency to manipulate instead of truly rewrite -- is something I see almost weekly, and have for years. (It is also, by the way, not always or even often plagiarism, either.)

As for speed -- truly, I am not at all concerned about production speed in middle school. These kids can't think in formal language, and need to SLOW DOWN their thinking more often than not.

So -- again, for most kids, in most scenarious -- I continue to believe that it is risky to let them produce in ways that re-present their words as formal to thmeselves when their language itself is absolutely not formal.

When our kids are adults, and can THINK well that fast, then yes, typing will be a great thing. But then, if we have truly taught them to pick the best medium for the job, and to be adept in as many as they can be by then, then they will also be able to decide, for each given assignment, which medium will best support what they want to do right then and there.

Certainly, the most literate adults I know use both handwriting and type, but pick their medium carefully for a given task, at any rate. I respect that. But it is harder to teach kids to write than it is to key, these days, so it is that which we must "push" if we truly believe that a diversity of habit and communication choices is best, and will lead to "better" best practice choices and literacies.

5:43 PM  

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