More on Cheating

Even after expending some 1300 words on it last week, I can’t seem to get this supposed “cheating epidemic” out of my head.

Last week, I wrote about two New York Times articles that addressed cheating beyond the ongoing scandal at Harvard. The first dealt with an alleged incident of mass cheating at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, the second with a number of (unnamed) studies supposedly demonstrating that cheating is on the rise.

The tone of first Times article disturbed me. The emphasis was on whether or not students had been adequately punished, whether or not the punishment would be noted on their “permanent record,” and whether or not this might affect their college admissions prospects. Not once did the author raise the question of whether this school (or schools in general) might be failing their students by not teaching academic or personal integrity in a more holistic way.

Methinks they are. For instance, Stuyvesant interim principal Jie Zhang is quoted as saying (in a letter to the school community): “Such acts undermine the reputation of this school and hurt our students individually and collectively.” She also wrote of the possible need to create an honor code “as a public sign of our commitment to uphold academic integrity.”

These are all reasonable concerns in the wake of a cheating scandal—but they sort of miss the point. What about the fact that a substantial percentage of the school’s students apparently saw no problem with brazen cheating? Maybe said school should be less concerned with its external “reputation” (and how is that reputation defined? I wonder) and more concerned with whether or not they’re meeting their social obligation by preparing young people for responsible citizenship. Rather than worrying about a “public sign” of integrity, perhaps it should engage in some serious school-wide conversation about what integrity really means and why it is essential—not only in the classroom, but more importantly beyond it.

It’s unfair to assume that Ms. Zhang’s comments are indicative of her entire educational philosophy, and it’s certainly possible that she was quoted out of context. That said, I can’t help but feel as though her letter reflects a factory-model view of students as “products.” As if she’s reassuring shareholders that some recent criticism of the company’s business practices—however accurate—is not a truly representative portrayal. Nevermind the Third World sweatshop behind the curtain. Move along, folks—there’s nothing to see here!

Let’s remember, too, that these “products” weren’t yet “ready for the market.” They’re still in school and should be expected to continue learning, even if the school isn’t teaching the things they need. So instead of condemning them for jeopardizing the school’s reputation, it might be worth approaching this as a teachable moment: “OK, kids, you messed up. So let’s talk about why you did that, why it’s wrong, and what you’ve learned from this experience.”

Why do I get the sense that’s not really happening? Maybe because people—adults, I mean—are more concerned with “reputations” and “permanent records” and “college admissions.”

I wrote over the summer about David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement address in which he told students they weren’t “special.” I speculated in that post about whether or not McCullough was really speaking to the adults at the ceremony. I wondered whether or not those adults might be more to blame than students for the graduates feeling “special.” I wonder the same thing now.

At every conceivable level, our educational system has been built to reward product instead of process. On top of this, the need to sort our students has created an insatiable demand for data in the form of grades and test scores. If we don’t guard against this mentality (which I would argue pervades almost every school in America), we risk losing sight of the fundamental purpose of education, which is to help young people in their development toward engaged citizenship and a productive adulthood.

If we’re not careful, this “product-driven” mentality can lead us to lose sight of the human beings sitting in our classrooms. In the fog of the day-to-day, teachers may find themselves giving tests or assigning work because at the end of the grading period, someone (who, exactly?) expects to see “grades in the gradebook.” It’s like feeding a monster. The more you feed him, the hungrier he gets. (And I know it’s true because I was one of the teachers who thought this way. In fact, I still struggle with it.)

Education reformers should note, too, that the need to “feed the monster” also tends to discourage more innovative approaches to teaching. Consider this 1974 editorial from the Harvard Crimson (written in the wake of a previous cheating scandal):

It is disturbing that students were callow enough in their pursuit of grades to take advantage of the course’s innovative, low-pressure structure to get advance answers to its tests. It is disturbing that medical school admissions are so stringent and quantitative that pre-medical students–who made up almost all of Physics S-1–feel the need to cheat in order to raise their grades from A-s to As.

It will be especially disturbing if the administration takes the cheating incident as a sign that it should crack down on innovative instructional and teaching methods because they make it, as Dean Whitlock said last week, “easy and even tempting to cheat.” Paul G. Bamberg, associate professor of Physics and the instructor of Physics S-1, has been a pioneer in developing methods of self-paced teaching that are designed to emphasize individual learning rather than performance on final exams, an emphasis that pre-med courses at Harvard badly need.

Disturbing, indeed. As you can see, there’s a vicious cycle (or at least the potential for one) at work here:

  • Emphasis on product rather than process –>
  • Perceived need among students to take “shortcuts” in the name of perfection –>
  • Concern about preserving the school’s “reputation” –>
  • Less innovative (i.e., more “cheat-proof”) approaches to teaching –>
  • Emphasis on product rather than process –>

Unfortunately, I don’t know if process has ever been more important. Students carry encyclopedic knowledge around in their pockets these days. Facts matter less; analysis and synthesis matter more. But students must learn processes for sorting through the vast sea of information that they face on a daily basis. They must learn processes for thinking critically, for collaborating, for communicating, etc. In short, a “twenty-first century education” will be a process-driven education. But before we can get there, we have to throw off the shackles of “twentieth century” assessment practices and the mentality they reinforce.

If it’s true that we’re preparing our students to face challenges that don’t exist yet (and I suspect it is), the products that they produce in school won’t really matter much. After all, some of those products are likely to be obsolete in a few years anyway. What students will actually take with them when they leave us are the processes—above all, the processes for interacting with other humans, whether face to face or through verbal media, and with a wealth of information.

Healthy human interactions depend on integrity, and I might argue that in an increasingly connected world, interactions with information do as well. So if we’re going to teach process, why don’t we start there?

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