To the Editor:
Regarding the recent Commentary on cheating by Christopher L. Doyle (“All My Favorite Students Cheat,” Sept. 1, 2010):
That student cheating is endemic is undeniable. That teachers make it easy, or even marginally acceptable, is also undeniable. Oh, I don’t mean that we look the other way, are less than vigilant, or lack cleverness in identifying the myriad old-fashioned or high-tech strategies employed. The fundamental problem goes deep.
Almost 100 years ago, in his presidential address to the Mathematical Association of England, Alfred North Whitehead identified the root problem. “The second-handedness of the learned world,” he said, “is the secret of its mediocrity.”
We give assignments that send kids off to the library or the Internet to read what someone else has written and then say it in their own words. When we do that, we’re asking them to sharpen a skill, but it’s a far lesser skill than the one we should be promoting, and it invites plagiarism.
What should concern us isn’t the originality of student words, but the originality of student ideas. When kids are told to look up expert opinion and write a paper based on it, what they produce has little or nothing to do with their ideas. They’re simply turning secondhand ideas into thirdhand ideas.
There’s an easy way around the problem. Don’t send students to the Internet or the library to look and then write. Send them out into the real world. What they produce will be so idiosyncratic there’ll be no doubt about its authenticity.
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as How Schools Invite Students to Cheat