What do we learn from copy/paste?

Responses to my earlier post about Google-proofing essays made me think about the purpose of “research” assignments in the primary grades. James Ford mentioned that when he was 8 years old, he would copy text out of an encyclopedia. I did, too. Of course, we were handwriting, so we engaged in a low-tech copy/paste.

Reflecting on this practice got me thinking about the purpose of the assignments: report on the state of Kansas, for example. I remember I needed to find out what the capital of Kansas was, the state bird, state flower, and a map. Report is important here. There’s no room for synthesis in this type of assignment. In fact, though the final product was a couple pages about Kansas, the assignment really could have been a fill-in the blank sheet.

State name:
State capital:
State flower:
State bird:
[Paste map here]

Instead, this assignment took the guise of a research report. I remember spending a couple hours on Saturdays at the library, dutifully copying directly out of an encyclopedia, not thinking I was plagiarizing, but instead believing I was doing good work. Given the limited variety of encyclopedias, I have to imagine my teachers were familiar with the texts, especially because 25 students each year would likely turn in the same reports.

So, what is the purpose of research reports in the primary grades? Are students demonstrating their ability to find information? When asked to report on something, they’re basically asked to repeat what they find. There’s really no room for much else.

Copy/paste is not a new phenomenon brought to us by the computer. Blair (2003) describes similar, low-tech practices in the 16th-18th centuries, though it’s likely existed since there were printed materials and means to copy them.

What do we learn from copy/paste? I think we learn more from copy/paste practices than the popular press would have us believe. Taking the example from James’ and my third grade copying efforts, we learned how to find relevant information in a reference text and we read the academic language and selected appropriate passages to use in our report. By reading the encyclopedia entries, we started to familiarize ourselves with a form of academic language. Including the texts in our report helped us practice the language. Imitation is a form of learning, no matter how elementary.

In his book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future, Bauerlein (2008) describes the copy/paste practices of fifth graders as an example of the erosion of learning and deep thinking:  “go to Google, type keywords, download three relevant sites, cut and paste passages into a new document, add transitions of their own, print it up, and turn it in.” This description, however, does not consider the full story. Perhaps the fifth-graders do engage in the superficial stages described by Bauerlain, but how do they select the relevant sites? Which passages do they cut and paste into their document? How do they transition from one idea to the next?

In my dissertation research, I noticed that, even at the university level, students frequently copy and paste. I don’t believe that the thinking stops when they hit control+v, though. Savvy students use the pasted information as a starting point or mid-point, not as an end. While locating the information is made easy by the technological affordances of Google and other search engines, the task of sifting through this information, finding relevant bits, and making meaningful connections remains a challenge.

Perhaps copy/paste is the beginning of the process. As students gain sophistication and their assignments ask them to synthesize, rather than report, these practices complement or supplement the more challenging sense-making processes in which they engage.

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