the educational technology journal

Vol 18|No 3|January 2009
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A True Original

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2009, all rights reserved.
About author

With important groups such as ISTE, AASL and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills all calling upon schools to stress originality, imagination and creative production, the meaning of those terms along with related concepts such as synthesis, innovation and invention becomes central to defining the purpose of education.

This focus on originality represents a major shift for many schools, classrooms and teachers. It also contrasts dramatically with the draconian methods and measures imposed in the U.S. by the unfortunate and flawed NLCB.

This article examines the meanings of the key concepts while considering how they might shape learning in schools during the next decade.

Sunset in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
© J. McKenzie

Pearl Tower in Shanghai.
© J. McKenzie

Sunrise in Tokyo with the Tokyo Tower in the distance.
© J. McKenzie

Is there really "nothing new under the sun?"

"A phrase adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes; the author complains frequently in the book about the monotony of life. The entire passage reads, 'The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.'"

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. 2002

A true original?

When is a product, a work of art or an idea a true original and when is it a mere copy, a counterfeit or an imitation? When does copying cross the line into plagiarism?

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. (Herman Melville)

In these times of facsimiles and digital impressions, simulacra will often replace or stand in for what was real.

When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity. (Jean Baudrillard)

Beth Orton sings "Reality never lives up to all that it used to be."

Later she adds, "The best part of life, it seemed, was a dream." Lyrics from "Best Bit" on her album Pass in Time (2003)

How much originality can we expect from our students and how can we best nurture its development?

What does originality have to do with ICT?

The biggest failing of the past 20 years of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) in schools has been the putting of carts before the horses, stressing the tools themselves rather than the information, the communicating and the building of new ideas and insight. This is a failure repeated across the culture and the society as fashionable and trendy uses often supersede thoughtful uses.

The focus of ICT should be on ways of knowing, learning and understanding, making smart use of information technologies to support exploration and contribute to both comprehension and invention.

ICT is about information, understanding and literacy - using thinking skills to make sense of the vast stockpiles of information now available electronically.

ICT is about smart thinking, not smart boarding.

Degrees of Difference
Shifting from the Ridiculous to the Sublime

  1. Copying - When researching a challenge, the student simply cuts and pastes the ideas, statements and positions of others. Whether done with attribution or not (plagiarism), the student is simply gathering, not inventing or thinking.
  2. Modifying - Rearranging, combining, condensing, summarizing and blending the ideas, statements and positions of others is akin to weaving or creating a tapestry. There may be a slight degree of originality in the rearrangement, but the student has taken gathering just one step further to amalgamation. The elements being synthesized did not originate with the student.
  3. Improving - The student adds new insights and possibilities to those ideas gathered from others - extending, elaborating, enhancing and elevating understanding to new levels, introducing elements that are quite novel to the mix in general circulation.
  4. Starting Fresh - The student invests a great deal of thought to defining and mapping out the challenge at hand before collecting the insights of others. The student poses hypotheses and possibilities prior to collection. The research process is meant to develop understanding and construct ideas instead of collecting the ideas of others.

Who was a better poet?

If we ask our high school or university students to compare two poets, we should expect that they do the original thinking involved in such a comparison rather than scooping up the comments of some literary critic or critics.

Who was a better poet? Elizabeth Browning or her husband Robert?

Sadly, many students might be tempted to rush to the Net and find out what the sages have written on this question. They might soon find themselves reading the following passage from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature:

Her work, in fact, was as chaotic and confused as it was luxurious and improvident. Her Seraphim is overstrained and misty; her Drama of Exile is an uninteresting allegory; nearly all her shorter poems are too long, for she did not know how to omit, or when to stop. Few, if any, poets have sinned more grievously or frequently against the laws of metre and rime.

In this approach to the assignment, the student contents himself or herself with collecting and reporting the opinions of the sages. There is no original thought involved.

Original thought might begin with a cluster diagram sketching out the traits of a good poet.

The student must wrestle with some difficult concepts. Does popularity matter? Income? Being widely published? Creating new possibilities for poetry? Sticking with the tried and true?

Honoring conventions? Turning them upside down?

Being innovative? Being original? Being soothing? Speaking clearly but powerfully? Using rhyme? Writing poetry that withstands the test of time? Being colorful and lyrical? Being inspirational?

Ideally, each student will select different traits and each will create a cluster diagram that is unique - one that matches that student's preferences and values.

This approach to the assignment then charges the student with the responsibility of collecting data to build a case.

In comparing the poetic devices (such as alliteration, assonance, imagery and metaphor) employed by Elizabeth and Robert, we should expect students to lay the Brownings' poems side by side.

The student might consider several of Elizabeth's Sonnets from the Portuguese such as the 4th drawn from the online collection at http://www.bartleby.com or other sonnets from this site.

IF thou must love me, let it be for naught
Except for love's sake only. Do not say,

Robert's poems can also be found at Bartleby and at this site.

YOU'LL love me yet!—and I can tarry
Your love's protracted growing:

The student should be developing a personal assessment of the power of each poet to capture and express complex ideas and emotions. The assessment should be grounded in terms of literary analysis and substantiated with specific lines and phrases as examples. It would be best if this assessment took place before reading the opinions of the sages.

This is not easy work. Gathering the opinions of others is much easier and involves much less analysis. To compare these two poets, the student must consider evidence besides their works.

  • Which poet published most and was most read during their lifetime?
  • Which poet is now published most and most read?
  • Is the quality of a poet or a poet's career to be judged by their popularity? their acceptance by the general population?
  • Is it reasonable to judge the poetry of those writing more than a century ago?
  • How do standards of poetry change over time?

How Original Thinking Readies Students
for the NAEP Reading Assessment

The kind of thinking suggested above matches that required to score at the Advanced proficiency level on the NAEP Reading Assessment as defined below for 8th Graders:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Advanced level should be able to describe the more abstract themes and ideas of the overall text. When reading text appropriate to eighth grade, they should be able to analyze both meaning and form and support their analyses explicitly with examples from the text, and they should be able to extend text information by relating it to their experiences and to world events. At this level, student responses should be thorough, thoughtful, and extensive. Source

The Proficient level also requires the reader to build a case and understand literary devices and elements:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to show an overall understanding of the text, including inferential as well as literal information. When reading text appropriate to eighth grade, they should be able to extend the ideas in the text by making clear inferences from it, by drawing conclusions, and by making connections to their own experiences—including other reading experiences. Proficient eighth graders should be able to identify some of the devices authors use in composing text. Source

How Young?

The very young can be challenged to make up their own minds, form their own ideas and create fresh and original possibilities. Original thinking should be thought of as a habit of mind, and primary schools should see their work as engaging students at the fourth level of the Degrees of Difference outlined above - Starting Fresh. In fact, the work properly begins in pre-school, as good teachers engage the very young in tasks that invite imagination, play, improvisation and wonder. Note article "In the Early Years." This charge is well understood in New Zealand where the early childhood curriculum is clear about the importance of such themes. Note article "The Early Childhood Workshop."

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