I used to think I was being original. I used to think that I was doing some things differently to other teachers. My phrasing of an explanation, or my diagram of some concept, or my activity for that piece of understanding. I never thought it was all original or unique, but some of it. I was wrong.
Listening to What is Original? by the TED Radio Hour, I’ve realised that I am less original even than I had conservatively estimated. Every time I explain a concept, I am drawing on the reading I have done, the conversations I have had, the methods and strategies I have adopted: all of which have been thought of by someone else at some point. I have never described an event in history without basing it on the work of historians. I have never developed a slideshow or resource that doesn’t draw on sources and ideas that have been – somewhere, in some way – partially or wholly created by others. My education, my conversations, my life experience all dictate how I will think and how I will act. I am the sum of my own history.
Although I may use different emphasis, different pacing, different methods or different words, I am only ever remixing or adding my own accent to a language of understanding that has already been developed by someone else. What I am doing is adapting and adopting it for those learners in my charge. And I’d like to argue that this is perfectly fine.
I was truly stunned to hear in the TED podcast that Bob Dylan had borrowed so many melodies, lyrics or both from other folk singers – and this was perfectly acceptable in that community of creative people.
In a climate of increasing professionalisation of teaching, we are tempted to think that we are accountable as being original thinkers and designers of utterly unique learning experiences. Indeed we are to some degree, on the technicality that the time and space we occupy whilst experiencing something cannot be recreated before or after that moment, so yes technically we are being original… but only by cosmic default.
But really we are more like DJs, taking the ideas and creativity and experience of others and remixing them to suit our context. It might be a different audience in a different time but we cannot really claim to be creating an original experience in its truest sense. However, that’s not to say that we aren’t innovating. Just because I haven’t done significant original research on Russian history doesn’t restrict me from taking the work of others and remixing it into something my students find approachable, accessible and meaningful.
Taking this further, as argued by some in the TED Radio Hour podcast, all we can really do is remix, recreate and build upon the work of others: especially our students. So when we look at our marking criteria or our task goals and demand originality, are we really asking students to come up with something absolutely unseen or unheard or not experienced ever before? Or are we asking them to remix, reform and build on things that already exist. I wonder how we think about this in terms of plagiarism.
Are we kidding ourselves in asking students not to copy the ideas of others if those ideas answer the very questions we are asking? Plagiarism is the taking of others’ ideas, without acknowledgement, and using them as our own. But as we ask students to collaborate more, to use design thinking, to research and synthesise information… we have to be clear at which point homage or remixing ends and plagiarism begins.
Even if our students are able to develop their own questions, their own paths to learning, to draw their own conclusions, to argue a case rather than state facts… what we’re really asking them to do is remix, reuse and reinterpret knowledge.
So, go be creative! But don’t stress if it’s not original.