Teaching plagiarism

UPDATED: Saskatoon public schools to eliminate consequences for academic dishonesty

In an educational climate where red pens are chucked for coming off as confrontational and teachers are encouraged to use “brainshowering” over the more violent-sounding “brainstorming,” the Saskatoon Public School Board has gone overboard by eliminating penalties for plagiarism and missed deadlines.

Under a new evaluation method for report cards, Saskatoon public high school students will no longer face penalties for handing assignments in late or trying to pass off someone else’s work as their own. The idea, according to the board, is to shift focus from behaviour to learning. “We’re trying to keep the emphasis on the learning, not on the penalty,” John Dewar, a superintendent with Saskatoon Public Schools told the National Post. And so, students caught plagiarizing may not be penalized with a poor grade, but will instead could be required to redo the assignment.

Related: All your profs are wrong about plagiarism and The great university cheating scandal

Besides the whole—you know—culture of tolerance for fraudulence thing, the program will undoubtedly create unnecessary extra work for teachers. Not only will they have to mark subsequent drafts after detecting plagiarized assignments, but they will likely also face an influx of last-minute submissions if penalties are removed for lateness. After all, why should students aim for the due date if they can hold off handing in their “Principles of Intellectual Property” essay until just before report cards?

A similar, misguided policy was introduced in Ontario in 1999 but has since been reversed under new policy guidelines released this year. Saskatoon, however, is going ahead with its no-reprimand plan. “I don’t give late marks, or deduct marks if students are late,” Katie Kehrig, a Saskatoon teacher who supports the policy told CBC News. “I don’t give bonus marks. I don’t have participation marks. Those are behaviours.”

And so, out the door goes the idea of holistic learning. Kehrig and the Saskatoon school board have essentially deemed behavioural growth, an integral part of a child’s development, simply irrelevant within the classroom context. Students, therefore, are being given the message that they can copy, steal, slack off and lie without any consequences. Granted, a plagiarized assignment may have to be rewritten—but that’s only if the student gets caught.

So, shall we peg our bets on Saskatoon as the next breeding ground for disciplined, honest workers? The city where individuals leave school well-versed in the implications of dishonesty and the discipline to adhere to deadlines?

There’s no tolerance for cheating or plagiarism in the real world, and examples are everywhere. In 1998 a scandal erupted when journalist Stephen Glass was discovered to have fabricated countless investigative features for The New Republic. In 2007, Rapper Timbaland was involved in a plagiarism scandal concerning the motifs and samples of his collaborative track “Do It,” and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced a plagiarism accusation in a 2003 speech he delivered about the US-led invasion of Iraq. In those cases, Glass was fired and disgraced (though he later got a law degree and wrote a novel—go figure), Timbaland’s reputation was tarnished because of the plagiarism controversy and the Tory campaigner who wrote Harper’s speech was compelled to resign in 2008. And yet, the only words of caution we’re giving Saskatoon high schoolers is  ‘Whoopsies, try again?’

In any case, the buck will certainly stop for these students at the post-secondary level. While some university students still manage to get away with academic dishonesty, those caught cheating or plagiarizing are always subjected to some form of institutional slaughter. Whether it’s a failing mark, a spot on academic probation, or expulsion in some extreme cases, professors certainly will not shrug it off and ask a fraudster to try again. Many first-year students already struggle with academic integrity issues having never learned how to properly cite borrowed ideas; not exposing them to the consequences of plagiarism early will only exacerbate their difficulties.

The Saskatoon school board needs to realize it is ill-preparing its students for the real world. Cheating and missing deadlines simply won’t be tolerated, nevermind go without reprimand. So while the public school bubble may be romanticizing this latest win for ‘learning,’ its students, in the meantime, will be clipping posts off Wikipedia.

UPDATE: Plagiarism not tolerated in Sask after all