That was my idea, wasn’t it?

There has been some discussion in our schools about students using online “citation tools” to format footnotes and bibliographies. While that discussion is important in the sense that it begs for some consensus, in many ways it obfuscates the real issue. How our students take responsibility for attribution in a cyber world where everybody’s ideas and positions are revealed is the challenge. Very simply, is there much that our students could propose that has not been set forth by somebody else? If the answer is no, then should students be citing everything they write? Furthermore, when students recount information in their work, where do we draw the line regarding what is common knowledge (cataloged in an encyclopedia?) and what is not? As teachers, is it necessary for us to teach kids information they could easily obtain elsewhere or should we focus our talents on higher order learning skills? The problem with this inquiry is that the more you think about the topic, the more questions are raised. As we begin to recognize the complexity of these questions, think about the stress these questions might cause our students as they deliver papers, projects, and tests to us.

Image representing Creative Commons as depicte...

Image via CrunchBase

The problem today is that the sphere of common knowledge has expanded if we define it as anything that can be found on the web in ten seconds or less. So when a student writes that “John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, TX,” and cites Wikipedia as the source, I tell that student “no citation necessary – common knowledge.” Does that mean everybody knows the answer, sort of like the sky is blue, or does it mean that the answer can be obtained online in less than ten seconds? Alternatively, if the student says “the British Empire declined, in part, due to its lack of tolerance for those living in the British colonies,” and cites Amy Chua‘s recent book, Day of Empire, am I satisfied with the reference? Does it matter that Chua’s idea is not original, and the student should have picked up the footnote in Chua that gives prior attribution to Niall Ferguson? And did Ferguson steal the idea from Edward Gibbon?  This is a slippery slope, you say. Perhaps we should just leave it alone and be thankful our kids are citing sources at all. Food for thought. I would suggest, however, that there is considerable scaffolding necessary before we can begin to develop some 21st century guidelines for attribution. When we are finished developing a framework, we will have completely undressed the idea of intellectual property in the digital world, and some of us will be very unhappy with the result. Imagine donating all of your original work and ideas to the “Creative Commons.” Is this a conversation we should begin or should we sit back and let higher education do the heavy lifting?

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About jbackon

I'm a history teacher and curricular technology maven who loves to think out loud.
This entry was posted in 21st Century Learning, Across the Curriculum and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to That was my idea, wasn’t it?

  1. pcaginalp says:

    A couple of thoughts for you Joel:

    “Very simply, is there much that our students could propose that has not been set forth by somebody else? If the answer is no, then should students be citing everything they write?”

    The answer to this query must be yes. Students should be proposing original ideas in their work. If we become satisfied with students pushing papers to us that have nothing new, then we might as well just grade sparknotes for all that they put on the web. We can all go become something other than teachers. The extend of human knowledge has been reached, and students can read about it online.

    Students need to trust that their ideas have value, and that they can originate Ideas. I’m not sure that students believe that they have this ability, but it is an essential ability. I view a lot of my job as helping students believe that they have the ability to originate good ideas and work. My job as a teacher should be to tune the student’s ability to make new ideas, not help them find old ideas in a google search. Too often students think of research papers as relaying what others think rather than researching to support their own ideas.

  2. jbackon says:

    Hello (I don’t know your name, but your handle is pcaginalp). Essentially, I agree with almost everything you wrote, which is why you might have misunderstood the post. My point was that, at least in history, it is difficult for students to come up with an original interpretation of a historical theme or event because they are not familiar with the historiography, and there are so many interpretations documented. You mentioned Spark notes, so I am guessing you teach English. I agree that if students are reading other interpretations and spitting them back to you in papers, then they are not learning anything. My question related to the idea that high school students do not have the knowledge and experience to develop consistently original thinking, no matter how smart and self-directed they are. That is why I am questioning the citation issue.

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