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The idea that copying is an acceptable practise; part and parcel of academic life might not be so far-fetched as you might think; however, it is certainly detrimental to effective learning. If bad practice like copying becomes a socially accepted norm, it will definitely hinder the already teetering learning process. Copying is alive and well, flourishing in many if not all our education establishments.


Let’s be truthful, it’s human nature. We like to have friends, be part of a group and by conforming to these practices there is bound to be a bit of copying so that everyone feels the same and fits in.


The problem with copying in an educational context is that whilst it is being done, effective learning is not taking place. To be honest, no learning is taking place. There is no point in making claims that because Thailand is deemed by some academics to be a collectivist society, that copying is something that has to be tolerated as it something culturally endemic to Thailand.


An interesting story from the BBC this year detailed a study into the “potent effect social learning has on primates.” The animals were shown a video of a trained chimp combining two parts of a tool to reach a reward of food. By using a video, it was possible to control how much information was given to the chimpanzees.


What was interesting about this research is that different groups were shown progressively less information. A handful of chimpanzees that had not seen the full demonstration were able to make the tool on their own and adapt it when the food was at different distances from their cage.


Instead of blindly copying the demonstration, they were able to make a choice as to the best way to obtain their reward of food, by switching between the unmodified tool or combining pieces together. The primates that had seen the whole video kept using the longer tool even though it was more difficult to reach the food as it was put nearer their cage. 


From this research it is fair to assume that there is a possibility that social learning is a strong force in chimpanzees, making them “go with what you have seen” rather than work out something that is more appropriate for the task at hand.


The researchers are now looking at carrying this test out on young children to see how much they rely on social learning. It will be interesting to see if they will react the same way.


In my opinion, social learning has its place; however, blindly copying something without due thought and reason results in a lack of understanding and flexibility, as has been demonstrated by the researchers. When circumstances change, people need to adapt to the situation, which will not happen if they are allowed to copy without understanding what they are doing and why they have to do it.


Teachers can help their students to understand by explaining why they are asking students to complete their class work and homework as well as showing the context and ways to adapt to different circumstances. If they castigate those who blatantly copy their work it might stop them feeling hungry in the future.




My teaching assistant called Xerox. He wears my name-tag and copies everything I do.
(Unedited article published in the Bangkok Post 19th January 2010)

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