Changing Definitions to Avoid Responsibility

UPDATE: While my original concerns about adult attitudes still stands, the teacher I quoted below, Steven Maher, commented in this post and kindly pointed me to the original transcript of his full interview. Clearly, Frontline made an effort to edit his interview to the greatest effect. I’ve added the additional parts from his interview below that clarify his remarks.

Reality check. I’m currently watching Frontline‘s latest episode, Growing Up Online. I’m less concerned about what I’m hearing coming out of the kids’ mouths and more what I’m hearing from the adults. If you haven’t seen the show, go here and select Chapter Two, skip to 3:47 and listen to what a supposed adult (a teacher no less) has to say about cheating, or sorry maybe it’s not cheating:

Steve Maher: You take it as a given that they’re gonna take stuff from Sparknotes and from other sources like that. The question is how we react to that. And we can react and say, “Ok, this is something we have to fight against.” The other way to react to it is to accept it as a reality and say that’s how the outside world works. If I can find someone who’s working in advertising and who knows how to push a product and they can collect information from other sources and borrow and steal and put it together and reshape it, isn’t that a skill that I want them to have?

Interviewer: Are you saying cheating is ok?

Steve Maher: I’m not saying cheating is ok. {Sidenote: At this point I’m yelling at the television, “Yes you are!”} (Update: Sigh…comments taken out of context…I was wrong.)

Steve Maher: I’m saying that cheating is something you have to look at closer to say what is cheating, what’s not cheating.

[Full text from original transcript: I’m not saying that cheating is OK. I’m saying that cheating is something you have to look at closer to say, what is cheating and what’s not cheating? Copying another student’s answer on a multiple-choice test is cheating. The way to deal with that is not to put a book between them and say, “Don’t look at that other student’s test.” The way to deal with that is to replace the multiple-choice test and say that you’re going to do something else that you can look at other people’s projects, but the way I assess what you’re doing is going to take into account that you’re going to look at what other people are doing. Your work still has to be original, but to get inspiration from other people and to craft your work in response to theirs or alongside theirs is not something that’s necessarily a problem. …]

Huh? If borrowing, stealing even, doesn’t meet this teacher’s definition of cheating, then what does? Going beyond that, I’m listening to these parents wigging out about how immersed kids are in technology and the “dangerous” Internet. Here’s a suggestion: if you’re worried quit buying the technology. Yes, they may access it at school, a friend’s home, or Internet cafe, but don’t aid and abet then toss your hands up in dismay.

One kid had two monitors plus a flat panel television in his room. Then, his dad comes on screen shaking his head over how he always feels like he’s intruding or interrupting his son when he goes into his bedroom. Maybe you shouldn’t have purchased all the expensive gear. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this particular kid bought his toys with an allowance buoyed by inflation. Same thing with the cell phones. Parents can’t believe how the kids refuse to separate themselves, even when on vacation. Sigh. When did parents stop being parents? To clarify, I’m not advocating against technology. I am advocating for a little common sense.

Perhaps I’m stuck in a time warp, but I always felt that I had boundaries growing up. I knew what was acceptable and what would create consequences. I never had a computer in my room, and I didn’t get a cell phone until I turned 16, and only then because I was driving back and forth to basketball practice and games during early mornings and late nights. Based on the interviews that I saw this evening, I want to shake some of these parents. You’re buying the cell phones, putting computers in bedrooms, then wondering why your kids have created such separate lives that appall you. I keep hearing the argument that everyone’s doing it. That’s the same argument I used growing up, too, and it got me exactly no where. I must have missed when that logic suddenly became acceptable.

As part of the show, they also interviewed danah boyd, one of my favorite social media researchers. She makes the very valid point that the Internet and these other technologies are a part of daily lives. They aren’t going away, so adults need to learn and kids need to be taught how to deal with the issues surrounding them. However, she also advocates that individuals need to be responsible about their participation, something I didn’t hear from many people in the show.

Please watch all of Growing Up Online because I think it has revealed as much about the adults as it does about the kids. The language used blows me away. The rationalizations by some, and this idea that parents and other adults don’t play a role in what’s happening, is ludicrous. For example, allowing kids to believe that analytical thinking and reading can be replaced by technology or that it’s somehow a benefit to know how to borrow and steal does them a disservice. The words adults use, regardless of what kids may say, do register at some level. Changing the definitions, because we want to avoid the fight, isn’t the answer.




6 Responses to “Changing Definitions to Avoid Responsibility”

  1. 1 Steven Maher
    January 28, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Please read the complete teacher interviews included at the PBS Website and you can see how careful editing resulted in a confused message. Maybe this was helped by a little inarticulateness on my part as well.

    Perhaps the problem here is the difference between cheating in the form of handing in work that was written by someone else, and cheating in the form of looking up facts. I would suggest that carefully constructed assignments would require the latter while making the former obsolete.

    As I wrote in defense on my own blog:

    “Yes, I do want students to have experience finding, evaluating and critically thinking about information. It is a skill more applicable to their real lives in the real world. How many professions insist on denying resources to their workers when they are doing their job?

    Sure if I am producing a film, I want the screenplay to be original. But if I am defending a copyright infringement, I want my lawyer to have read dozens of other briefs and legal arguments before we walk into court. Do you want your doctor to “cheat” and use some other doctor’s medical procedures if they have been proven successful?”

    Please take a look at the column written by John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems at Forbes.com. He points out that in order for education to valid, “we may need to explore things that make us uncomfortable.”

  2. 2 Britt
    January 28, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    @Steven: Thank you for taking the time to comment. One of the hazards of liveblogging is overlooking actual transcripts. After reviewing your full interview(), I agree that your take was much less extreme than I had originally determined. In fact, your interview as a whole was more enlightening than a good 50% of the original show. I hope you’ll forgive me for basing my original analysis on what was clearly a very small portion, and a highly edited one at that, of your interview.

    One of the things that worries me, and this issue was only addressed briefly in your interview, is this idea that we need to make it harder for kids to cheat. I’d love to see a conversation about how the stigma of cheating appears to have lessened significantly. When, if that’s the case, did this shift in attitudes happen? Why did it happen?

  3. 3 Steven Maher
    January 29, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Thanks Britt. You’re right, its tough to tell kids they can’t represent someone else’s work as their own when Jayson Blair, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose profited from it. Could it be that the stigma from wrong-doing is deteriorating everywhere? It seems all to easy for people to just step forward, state they take “take full responsibility” and then go back to their lives as if nothing happened.

    We have had some success with turnitin.com, but found that some students if given the chance, may even use the service to check their essays. They use it as a gauge for paraphrasing, which seems like more work in the long run.

    Thanks again for your comments, something tells me the directors used me for a purpose other than what I understood it to be.

  4. January 30, 2008 at 10:30 am

    My thought about this (cheating or not cheating) is that we should let the technology win out; it’s more like us, it’s what people do. By that I don’t mean CHEAT, but yes, we must change our perspective on what it means to be using the internet to copy and paste. Everything has been said before, done before, and the internet lets us know that. High schoolers just aren’t ignorant.

    There’s a guy I work with (speaking of being 40, your most recent post) who has just joined Facebook for the second time: he kept getting in trouble with his girlfriend for having friends she didn’t know about. He’s rejoined, but deleted much of what happened on his “wall” because, well, messages from a girl he used to date. My take on that was that he should probably either avoid FB completely, or let the online communication win. Furthermore, its his mistake that it takes his “wall” for his spouse to discover things.

    Overall: the internet owns us. Deal.

  5. 5 Britt
    January 30, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    @Steven: You’re dead on. Kids aren’t the only benders of the rule, and they’ve seen people in authority get away with a wrist slap for behavior that carries the threat of expulsion. We’ve even changed how we treat “taking responsibility.” Consequences seem to be few and far between. In a way, I feel sorry for the kids who don’t have a clearer sense of what they’ve lost. I’m not convinced that what they’ve supposedly gained is better.

    @t h rive: Playing devil’s advocate, are we really past the point of having no control over the Internet as it relates to our individual behavior? To me, there’s a difference between the “copy & paste” issue and lifting someone’s work and slapping your name on it. Are we really ready to say that there’s no more original thought to be produced, that all we have left is a mash culture?

  6. January 31, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I think you’re quite right, actually. Especially your point to Steven, “…kids who don’t have a clearer sense of what they’ve lost…”. Then again, what they’ve lost, hell, they might not need. Soon computer spell-checkers will be able to catch the difference between “your” and “you’re”, and “there”…etc…

    Nothing kills me more than that (on a tangent).

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