Curiosity is banned at Westfield High

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 6:50 PM

Westfield High School in Fairfax County is one of the largest and most competitive public schools in America. It is not unusual that 180 sophomores enrolled in Advanced Placement World History this year, more students than most U.S. high schools have taking AP courses of any kind.

What did surprise some Westfield students and their parents was a sheet titled "Expectations of Integrity" included in the materials handed out by the three AP World History teachers. Their No. 1 rule discouraged random outbreaks of curiosity:

"You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.''

That was not all. Students could not use anything they found on the Internet. They were not permitted even to discuss their assignments with friends, classmates, neighbors, parents, relatives or siblings.

What about complete strangers? The teachers had thought of that. "You may not discuss/mention/chat/hand signal/smoke signal/Facebook/IM/text/email to a complete stranger ANY answers/ideas/questions/thoughts/opinions/hints/instructions." The words were playful, but the teachers were serious. Any violations, they said, would mean a zero on the assignment and an honor code referral.

Some students, accustomed to harebrained rules, took these in stride and immediately began to break them. Parents did not react immediately. It took a while to find the handout in the messes on their dining room tables. They had to read the instructions a couple of times to appreciate what the AP World History teachers meant.

One of the first parents to respond was Amy Fuentes, who had a child in AP World History last year and has another this year. "Expectations of Integrity" was different from any homework rules she had ever seen. "So if a student talks with a parent about what he is learning in this class he could receive an Honor Code violation referral and be subject to the same consequences as someone who cheated on a test," she said in an information sheet she sent to other parents.

I understood her point, but it wasn't the one that most bothered me. I love history. It was my favorite course in high school. I was lucky to have a U.S. history teacher, Al Ladendorff, who encouraged us to read outside the textbook, discuss the lessons with our parents and friends, and be critical of anything we read that didn't make sense. If we wrote something that took issue with the textbook, he was overjoyed.

Many of us were beginning to read newspapers and wonder about how the big stories of the day - Communism in Cuba, the Freedom Riders, the Kennedy moon shot plan - fit with what we were learning in class. The Westfield history teachers did not bother to ban newspapers, apparently since they knew that few if any of their students read them. Putting the Internet off-limits was the same thing. Stray pieces of information from outside the tight sphere of classroom knowledge would not be tolerated.

Westfield Principal Tim Thomas told me he will decide soon whether these rules are okay. He couldn't say much on the record, but gave me the impression that the teachers, who did not respond to my request for comment, were only trying to be fair. Some students have more help and resources than others. They should not be allowed to use materials classmates cannot get. The teachers wanted them to come up with their own ideas, not borrow them from Wikipedia.

Is that the best way to encourage learning? Are we so stuck on managing classroom competition that we can't let students explore libraries, or the Internet, and make connections between the textbook and the real world?

If the teachers are worried about cheating, there are Web sites and applications to catch plagiarists. I wish there were also an app to unleash curiosity, which in this class is locked up for the rest of the school year.

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