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Teaching Kids to Cheat

Tingley-021 color webIf there’s a point to assigning a term paper in secondary school, I don’t know what it is.

During my tenure as the academic dean in a private school, the policy was that all eighth graders had to write a term paper.  The reason for this folly was that the school board believed the assignment demonstrated to parents and to the public that we had high academic standards and that our students were intelligent and motivated.  What was actually demonstrated, of course, was that kids discovered that the only way to complete this pointless and endless task was to plagiarize.

Despite these dubious results in eighth grade, the silliness of writing term papers continued throughout high school.  As a result, most of our students were able to take with them to college sophisticated and formidable plagiarism skills.

It turns out that in college, however, these skills may be unnecessary, as some students can skip the whole charade by hiring someone to write the paper for them.  In his new book The Shadow Scholar:  How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat, author Dave Tomar reveals that he made over $50,000 in 2010, his best year, by charging $100 to $120 per paper.  He estimates he wrote over 4,000 papers during his “ghostwriting” career.

The subject of the paper really didn’t matter, he says.  Like many high school and college students, he usually started by “researching” the subject on Wikipedia.  He’d use the traditional 5-section format – intro, background, review of lit, discussion, conclusions – and tack on a list of references which, I know from experience, are rarely checked.  His process was to write the conclusion first and then find a few quick references to support it. 

Basically, I suspect that this process isn’t very different from what savvy high schoolers do.  Tomar says he didn’t proofread the final product to make it look more “authentic.”  Good choice.

Copy-paste-550x327The book should give all high school and college teachers pause.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe that
students as young as eighth grade are capable of thinking about a topic, coming up with a thesis, and researching it online or in a bricks and mortar library.  The problem is that we don’t do a good job of helping kids understand what research is, how it’s conducted, and why we even bother with it.  And by the way, this aspect of education hasn’t changed since term papers were written with real books and notecards.  We love the idea of a term paper; we don’t love teaching how to produce one, and we don’t love reading them nor grading them.

I propose that instead of a research paper we limit the project to 3 – 5 pages.  We do one together.  We help kids come up with a question they really want to answer.  We show them how to find out what other people know about the subject.  We teach how the paper has a beginning, middle and end – and intro, thesis and support, and conclusion.  We do it in two weeks, not a semester.  In other words, we demystify it; we defang the monster.  We help kids learn to think and produce a succinct piece of independent work they can be proud of. 

That way no one can make a living out of helping kids cheat and profit on a book about how they did it.

 

 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.