Mark makes an interesting point about the messages we send (it’s OK if you don’t do your own work) when we intend to send another (education is so important, we really want you to get good grades and get into a good college etc.). I had a rather bizarre take on this, extending his insight to the classroom itself:

When we lecture at students and they write down what we say, we are doing their thinking for them. When we give them an exam on which they are expected to repeat what we said, aren’t we sending the message that one is rewarded for reciting the words of others?–indeed, since the best score one can get is 100, that there’s no reward whatever for doing your own thinking? When the exam asks students to replay a recipe (such as plugging values into a formula), is it a lot higher-order thinking than just repeating official truths? Would the lesson be much different if they carefully footnoted the exam to the course lectures and the textbook?

When we spend hour upon hour listening to ourselves talk, therefore can’t really have any clue what the students are thinking or how they think, and demand they respect us for it, are we modeling a kind of behavior we want them to emulate, say, in the workplace? When, and how, do they figure out that while school mostly has them practice being in a room with someone who knows The Truth, no-one will ever pay them for that skill? How much being told truths does it take to make someone good at finding and telling truth on her own?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “Plagiarism”

  1. Education should be about learning how to ask questions, not learning facts. At least, that's what my dad taught me. He was rather socratic, and berkeley disappointed me deeply because nobody there, with the execption of maybe three professors, attempted to teach me how to ask better questions. And why not, when professors aren't rewarded for asking questions either, at least not ones the academy isn't interested in hearing. Which are the most interesting.

  2. There is a lot of space between parroting and the most demanding type of critical thinking. You need to know a lot of facts (cultural references, vocabulary, formulae) before you can understand even slightly sophisticated lectures. You generally need to really understand the substance of the lecture in order to repeat it in your own words. Similarly, you can't apply a formula to a different situation without understanding how it applied in the presented example. Obviously, everyone reading this blog has great respect for critical thinking – otherwise we'd just read the AP wire. But sometime those of you who operate at the highest intellectual level take for granted the huge store of truths and recipes you have at your command. It take a lot of work to built up those tools – and it's more work for some than for others.

  3. "When we lecture at students and they write down what we say, we are doing their thinking for them. When we give them an exam on which they are expected to repeat what we said, aren't we sending the message that one is rewarded for reciting the words of others?–indeed, since the best score one can get is 100, that there's no reward whatever for doing your own thinking?"
    Lectures are predicated on the idea that the lecturer has information that the student does not yet have. One cannot "think" at a higher order until one has a mastery of the basic facts of the subject at hand. Yes, beginning students in a subject area need to learn the knowledge already established in the discipline. While it goes against the entire grain of the blogosphere, one's thoughts are meaningless and irrelevant without a basic knowledge of the subject matter. After some mastery of the facts, then a sudent's informed opinions become relevant and need to be incorporated into the learning process (independent projects, essays, discussions, etc.). Someone who lectures only, particularly beyond introductory classes, is a bad teacher.
    One must be able to take "The Truth" as you called it and use it to think critically and act responsibly in the work arena. College is not a vo-tech school, but rather a foundation for a lifetime of learning, working and productivity.

  4. Lectures don't have to be one way. When attending a lecture, the listener has the obligation to think critically about what they hear. Try to reach the conclusions before the speaker, or contradict in their mind. Just like we don't have to believe everything in your weblog. Even if we do believe it, we should know why. Mere stenography we should leave to the White House press corp.
    As a lecturer, you need to give chances (not just at the end) for listeners to question and contradict. Don't present the results as final, and show the uncertanties, and the controversy that was there during discovery.
    It's hard work, but no lecture should be approached as a information dump.

  5. This is probably the most important reason why small class sizes are important. These allow for discussion, which encourages students to come up with their own ideas (presumably inspired by the material). Lectures don't allow for this, so regurgitation becomes the order of the day. This has unpleasant implications for the typical 1000+ students classes that are so common now in our large state universities.

  6. We know that education is most easily accomplished by prerecording lectures and then playing them ad nauseum for who knows how many semesters. The instructor/professor doesn't even need to be present except for question/answer periods, minimised if the overall advantage is to be gained. The system of education has not been changed or challenged much since the advent of the sermon, with everyone in the audience/congregation sitting passively and quietly while the head guy/minister/priest/rabbi/clergyman/whathaveyou delivers his inspired lecturing. The only difference is the state-run institutions don't give the lecturees a chance to sing songs and thereby recharge their consciousness, removing conscientiousness by ensuring everyone stays on the same page and (hopefully) in tune.
    In today's World, this is brought to full force by the advent of television and radio, one-way communications that are intended to lecture/sermonise/preach to the audiences in order to effect some sort of persuasion. Audiences are not able to directly respond or challenge material, even if they do keep notes or recordings of the proceedings. The government uses this to great effect by mandating laws and policies as well as programmes that affect millions of people while operating under relative impunity or invulnerability to those who they supposedly "represent." The only means of response is either through periodic voting (with only around 50% of the Voting Age Population (VAP) participating) or through polls (none of which have I ever been involved), then the truthful realities of the system overtake or overwhelm the "will of the people." And then, there's the InterNet.
    One prime example of this is the USAPATRIOT Act which was voted on and passed with nary a CongressPerson having read the thing. The system is therefore affected or corrupted at all levels, relying on dictation to the masses, small and large, with the attendees merely showing up for the test and hopefully regurgitating the correct information.
    A solution to this is to present — advertised in advance — slightly flawed information and requiring the listeners to provide the corrections or more detailed elaborations in order to ensure audience participation and activity. THIS is where the current batch of plot hatchers has actually benefitted the system by allowing those in knowledgeable positions to challenge and defy "conventional wisdom," even to the point of being dubbed "conspiracy theorists." The basis of reality is the scraping away layers of paint and veneer to determine what is the underlying (or "undertruthful") substance.

  7. This is why (at another UC campus) I have really tried to get away from the grading mentality I have always hated-that you start perfect and then get downgraded for mistakes. I instead try to weigh papers and problem sets by what is there in terms of creativity, good analytical thinking as well as by what is no there (did they not include a key viepoint they should have.) It takes a lot more time to formulate the grades and problem sets.

  8. "When, and how, do they figure out that while school mostly has them practice being in a room with someone who knows The Truth, no-one will ever pay them for that skill?"
    I take it you've never worked under anyone who refuses to suffer contradiction.

  9. As someone who has taught university courses both large & small, with essays & exams required in various combinations, it seems obvious to me that it is possible to design lectures & exams that require students to put information together rather than merely regurgitate it. And even in the large lecture course I'm teaching this semester, which is graded primarily on exams, I am requiring a five-page reflective essay at the end of the semester. And, yes, I will read all 78 of them.

  10. The tests you give can determine wheather the students can think for themselves. My profs always had a portion of our grades dependant on our un class discussion. Both multiple choice and essay should be on any good test.
    On another note, I taught my children to think critically and they found many inconsistancies with the way their high school was run. Their observations were not appreicated at all. My opinion is that high schools around the country must start teaching critical thinking skills not just rote memory exercises.

  11. I think lectures are a radically sub-optimal format. I teach philosophy, and that's on one extreme end of the spectrum, so I'm not sure to what extent I can generalize from my own experience…
    But, ideally, you have a small class, students do the reading carefully on their own, and class time is reserved for discussing and analyzing the material.
    In actual fact: most students don't read, or can't be convinced that they must read carefully (the rule of thumb in philosophy: read it three times or don't bother), so class has to be used to go over the basics…which bores the students who DID read, and coddles those who didn't. But if you don't do it that way, students fail in droves (see below).
    There's no time for original thought on exams, but I can't give papers to my lower-division classes anymore because cheating is rampant and I can't spend the extra days for each exam tracking down the cheating…and I know I'm not catching them all anyway.
    I teach at a far-above-average but non-stellar regional university in which at least a very large minority and probably a majority of the students are firmly committed to partying and getting good jobs upon graduation–and little else. Most of them want to know just what's going to be on the exam, and they expect 'A's and 'B's for mediocre work–which the faculty is all-too-eager to provide (70% of grades in general education courses are 'A's or 'B's).
    I don't put all the blame for this on the students. Having been raised in a resolutely anti-intellectual, acquisitive culture, many of them simply haven't been exposed to the right kinds of ideas.
    I buck the system, but it's a LOT of work, and it pisses off a LOT of students. Because it's a lot of work, my publishing suffers as compared to some of my colleagues who haven't re-thought their lectures since they copied them down verbatim from their prof.s in graduate school. Because it pisses off lots of students–the ones who want to memorize a catechism I recite to them verbatim in lecture and get an 'A' for getting it largely right–I spend a lot of time writing comments and dealing with unhappy students…something my colleagues who just give everyone 'A's don't have to do.
    Incidentally: my classes are considered among the best in the department. I'd not mention that except to preempt the sour grapes charge.
    Where I am–and I think we're representative in many respects–we're fighting an indolent, career-oriented, grade-oriented student culture, an administration with a corporate mindset that thinks that the "customer" (a term they actually use) is always right, an anti-intellectual culture at large, grade-inflation brought on by a number of factors too large to enumerate here, large class size, the Power Point mentality…oh, and don't forget about this one: because many, many faculty (untenured faculty, temporary faculty, and especially part-time teaching slaves (who teach over 20% of our courses) live and die with their teaching evaluations, many of them just cave in and pander to the students.
    Um…so, given that so many students are passive and disengaged, class sizes are so large, etc…well, catechismic lectures just seem to have been selected by this academic environment.
    Oh, hell, I don't know.
    What was the question?

  12. Students should learn critical thinking skills long before college.
    I had no problem with the lecture format. I didn't want to be forcefully engaged in converasation on deep or complex topics with a bunch of know-nothing kids. I wanted the prof to tell me stuff I din't know, and to give her/his opinion on what the facts mean.
    Then test on the facts. And require papers that demonstrate the student's ability to reason from them.

  13. I would just bat this one back across the net and say "What's with the straw-man format? What kind of curriculum are you teaching?"
    If you're taking very many exams where you are just expected to regurge opinions handed out in lecture, change majors or change schools. You're not getting your money's worth.
    Maybe I was spoiled by attending a large land-grant school that had 50,000 people on the campus on any working day, but our professors were seldom seen- they were busy keeping a healthy mix of exams, papers, projects, clinicals, lectures, seminars and just plain hard work in the curriculum.
    The question as posed resembles "Shouldn't corn flakes deliver more balanced nutrition?" And the answer is "Not unless you want to travel down that path to the point where you're eating kennel-rations three times a day." A prospect that would make anyone a dog in the manger.

  14. When, and how, do they figure out that while school mostly has them practice being in a room with someone who knows The Truth, no-one will ever pay them for that skill?
    I'll go Daen one better. Lots of people will be paid lots of money for exactly that skill. Unfortunately.

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