Fagin’s law

What does teaching and learning look like? Well, I would suggest that teaching and learning comes in a wide variety of forms. Sometimes the learning may be teacher centred, at other times it is student centred, it may involve small groups working together, it may involve a larger group discussion, it may have an independent learning focus, it may have students working together to find the solution to a problem in pairs. Whatever the lesson, the teaching and learning impact will be different for each teacher and student within that particular learning environment.

There you go-education all nicely wrapped in a tight bundle of pedagogical goodness ready for distribution to teachers, students and parents…Hmm..perhaps not!

As I sat thinking about education; the issues of copyright, privacy and fair use began to take hold of my thoughts. I suddenly found myself reminiscing and thinking back to the first time I had watched the movie ‘Oliver Twist’. Here was a story where the teacher was an old villain who taught his young apprentices the art of theft and deception by having them carefully watch and learn from their peers. As they observed and learned each other’s nefarious skills, their master (Fagin) continually praised their abilities at being able to carry out their criminal acts.

So what does this have to do with copyright and plagiarism inside the classroom?

Well, ultimately, Fagan’s pupils were all plagiarists. Oliver was a copycat who mimicked his wiser peer-the Artful Dodger; he in turn, mimicked their teacher and educator-Fagin. And they were taught that this was the greatest thing in the world! When I first started to teach literacy (English) to Year Five students, I was schooled in the art of scaffolding and modelling different writing styles to the students. Planning involved one of the teacher’s writing a wonderfully crafted example of a particular text type. In the literacy lessons we would then share this incredible example of how you should write in a particular style. These sections of written text included any example of a writing genre that we were currently studying at that point in time. Examples included an introduction to a horror story, a conclusion to a Greek myth, a verse to a winter poem and an impersonal recount for a school trip.

After we had introduced the piece of writing we would then discuss, as a class, how great our modelled writing actually was. Next we would ask the students to go away to their desks and write their introduction, conclusion or verse for a horror story, Greek myth or poem.

And guess what? Yes! You guessed it! The whole class would pretty much copy the writing style we had used to model the task. Of course we differentiated the task-the less able students were allowed to copy more than the more able students as they didn’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to insert their own words into this glorified gapfill exercise.

Now this isn’t the worst part! No. The worst part is the fact that we celebrated the quality and beauty of their written work. We showcased examples of their work in class assemblies, we eulogised over the quality of their literacy books during parent-teacher conversations and we boasted about the children’s level of writing to prospective parents.

We had become Fagin. I had become Fagin! I had taught my students that it was alright to copy another person’s work and use this work to create their own versions of a story, poem or recount! Not only that. I had revelled at the similarities between the student’s work and the original version that we had shared as a class. I had taught my students that it was ok to plagiarize another person’s work; and more than that, I had instilled a value that this was actually a good thing!

In this day and age we continually talk about how we need to give our children the chance to be more creative and innovative. I am an enthusiastic disciple and devotee of this approach to learning. I absolutely and wholeheartedly think that students should have every opportunity to work in a manner which encourages them to develop their ingenuity and independence. However, by encouraging a method of writing by copying, I had discouraged their creative stimulus and thought processes. I know that I am responsible for being a part of this process and encouraging this as a tool for teaching and learning.

However, that was then and this is now! I am in a different year group, I am part of a new course and I am continuing to learn what it means to educate in the right way. This year, we have introduced something new to our literacy teaching. Something that will hopefully give something back, something creative that can be used and shared with others. We call it free writing!

You may already have something similar, but if you don’t, you might want to give it a try. Here is how it works-once a week we let the children write for an hour. They can write in whatever genre they want, in whatever way they want. When we mark it, we don’t mark it as a teacher but as a reader! We give them no input and we ask no more than they try to entertain and interest their reader. We also encourage them to share their work and read to each other-in the future I would like to develop this part of the process further. I ultimately see this as a way of introducing and discussing creative commons, fair use or even copyright.

So far it has to be said that the free writing has been a huge success; with both teachers and children learning valuable lessons from the experience!

And so to use a Dickensian analogy – I hope to finally say goodbye to the plagiaristic teaching villain that is Fagin and welcome a more open-minded facilitator that is more of a  Pickwick than a Fagin.

2 thoughts on “Fagin’s law

  1. Our school just did a performance of Oliver. Our head was Fagin and did a fine job. We all were in it, my daughter an orphan and a thief. I had a singing part, yikes.

    The free writing is great. And of course we all need to encourage creativity. But doesn’t a innovation often begin with imitation? I would say that a great deal of great ideas start out with modeling someone else’s work. A remix in a sense.

    Thanks for the post.


    1. I really enjoyed your post! The way in which you connected today’s copyright with Oliver Twist was so clever. I see the same thing happening in my classroom on many occasions ask I am also Fagin! I agree with Josh that it is important to model and that the ideal would be for our students to remix and mash up the example in order to make it their own. This would help them to get to the point of creating their own. I see myself in this process too. For now I am looking at what others are doing on the web, trying to use some of their ideas and then eventually, hopefully, I will get confident enough to be a risk taker and try my hand at creating something original that I can call mine! Are you there yet?
      Great post!


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