Moral Development and Art Plagiarism: An Art Teacher’s Viewpoint

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When you think of high schoolers and cheating most people think of a plagiarized essay or copying math homework. They don’t necessarily jump to art. Yet, I think I am in good company when I say cheating and plagiarism are alive and well in the art room. In what way you ask? 

Oh, let me count the ways. First, there is more time to converse in the art room. My hearing is fine yet my students often think I’m deaf. They think nothing of asking a friend, “How was the history test?” Usually followed up with, “Oh, super hard. Be sure to study….” and they launch into specific topics in detail. That’s where I interject and let them know my ears are working and I would be required to report their conversation to their teacher.  I’m sure it’s not appreciated but I rarely get push back. Occasionally it might lead to a conversation about how boosted grades in a later period might impact the curve put on an exam.

I’ve also had  students turn in work created by a sibling created for a different teacher. That’s a pretty straightforward example of outright plagiarism. In other circumstances I have experienced students lying bold-faced to me and even in light of evidence the student will swear to their graves the lie is their truth. I’ve come to learn that moral development happens with time, experience, and well, development. They don’t yet grasp the full consequences (like my explanation of how helping friends in a later class taking the same test  can alter the curve). The frontal lobe of their brains continues to develop throughout adolescence and well into the early twenties according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). This part of the brain is needed for rational decision making. Our job is to help them grasp these concepts in age appropriate ways. Sometimes that will come through helping them make the small choices and sometimes that will come with painful and embarrassing implications, like my friend who turned in a sibling’s art work.  

Copying Isn’t Always Bad!

Copying someone’s else’s artwork is not necessarily plagiarism. Sometimes we art teachers even mandate it! If you have ever asked students to find a photo for a grid drawing, it’s very likely students are copying other people’s original artwork. I know I have seen art students at museums creating faithful reproductions of a master. If that is the assignment, that is fine and is likely covered under “Fair use.” Fair use is the right to use portions of copyrighted materials without permission for purposes of education, commentary, or parody. If you properly credit the artist, you are not claiming it as your original work and if not profiting, copying will not likely land you in hot water. But when the expectations of an assignment is to create original work and you have laid the expectations and processes to create original artwork, anything less is disappointing. 

I know I’ve had students in my classroom angry they couldn’t “just” copy something. Thinking and creating is hard work. Hard work is not always welcome. You can lean on two things in this instance. Your school’s plagiarism policy and the artistic process you teach. Placing required benchmarks in place (finding several reference images, developing a sketch, completing  25% of project by a certain point, etc). As a teacher, you need to let the student know they are creating art with your involvement. 

The Times They Are A-Changin’

I do want to make note that we are living and working through unprecedented times. Every school community needs to have frank discussions about what expectations are during remote learning, what we are holding students accountable for and if and how assessing work will occur. Yet, art teachers can’t deny the current climate of remote schooling is changing the norm and teachers are finding more flagrant examples of art plagiarism. It’s very easy for students to add their signature to work plucked from the internet to turn in. 

The Tricks of the Trade

For art teachers I would encourage prevention as the best mode to combat art plagiarism by leaning into the process as described above. There are also tools to help combat art plagiarism. Google’s reverse image search is an art teacher’s best friend. Go to images.google.com, click the camera icon, and upload an image from your hard drive, or drag an image from another window. Tin Eye is another popular reverse image search tool. PicSearch is a text focused alternative with an index of over 3,000,000,000 pictures. 

Requiring a photograph of student’s holding their work in progress is another well used and recommended strategy.  Checking the metadata is another useful tool for the art teacher. Information is transported with photos and may include the camera brand and model, the date and time when the image was created and the GPS location where it was created. You can do it on your own but it varies by computer. Instead. you may try a online platform like Metadata2go to help you see the metadata information. 

Your best tool is your instinct. In dealing with students always keep in mind that you aren’t a judge throwing a hardened criminal in jail but rather shaping the developing mind of a child. Compassionate is a bit of a balancing act with discipline. Keep in mind that a student often may have played similar tricks in other classes and I think it’s important to dialogue with other teachers and administrators when plagiarism is discovered, following the old phrase, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Check out My Art Lesson’s handout on Art Plagiarism and Copyright.

Good Resources:
http://faculty.academyart.edu/faculty/teaching-topics/tips/visual-plagiarism.html