Cheating vs. Learning

Photo via Flickr:
Photo via Flickr:

I’ve never understood cheating, probably because I never cared much about my grades. I instinctively knew that the grades didn’t measure anything meaningful — usually just my ability to quickly memorize information I’d just as quickly forget. I was good at this, and so did well on tests when I bothered to try, but I didn’t have any truck with them after a while. My test scores were highly variable as a result, and I didn’t want or need go to Yale. But I loved learning, which was different from doing well in school.

I came across this video in my travels around the web. It is a video of Professor Richard Quinn of University of Central Florida telling his class he has discovered that many — it turns out more than a third! — cheated on their exam. In an article in Inside Higher Ed it says “Experts in cheating and testing security have said the UCF incident is generally no worse than what takes place in many universities” and this doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve said before that entrepreneurship, one of my primary interests, is something that flourishes under an apprenticeship and not a factory model of education. I’m not sure what the business students in the UCF class were aiming for. The lecture usurped by the cheating conversation was meant to be about “Mergers and Acquisitions”.

Quinn was accused by the students of being lazy, and offering a ‘test bank’ test offered by the textbook publishers. Teaching from a textbook is almost always crappy teaching, so the whole system is flawed. It seems to me that cheating is the almost inevitable consequence of test-giving and test-taking. It doesn’t have to be this way. The best method for assessing learning progress is self-assessment, with the input of someone passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. This would require a lot of trust in the student, but also more work on the part of the teacher — who would not really be a teacher at all, in the traditional sense, but a person in love with a certain topic, probably a practitioner of the subject in question, maybe retired, maybe active.

Here’s my idea of what an ideal school would be like, borrowed from David Albert’s book And the Skylark Sings with Me a book about a family’s experience in home and community based education. It’s how I’ve envisioned, but never articulated, my own perfect school.

Author: Caterina Fake

Literature, Art, Poetry, Homeschooling Mother. Founder & CEO, Findery. Co-founder, Flickr & Hunch.

12 thoughts on “Cheating vs. Learning”

  1. The school of my dreams seems to be rather similar to what David Albert describes in that excerpt. I have been thinking about whether such a concept could be made reality in the foreseeable future and there are some major problems coming to mind.

    Most of these problems are mainly logistics issues and it is very possible that web 3.0 will naturally provide sufficient solutions to most of these.

    But the logistics issues are trivial compared to the cultural boundaries. The learning process used today in the majority of human civilization is based on the classic teacher-student model, with rather distinct roles. The teacher is the authority in this relationship, based on her/his experience. The current educational ecosystem seems to be based on the particular model. And this model has been used for so long that is now an integral part of the beliefs and convictions everyone grows up with.

    The solution clearly lies in what John Lennon describes:

    “You may say that I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one ”

    The implementation is far from easy.

    Let’s get more dreamers!


  2. It’s a good point. I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn, who basically posits that grades were meant as an approximate measurement of learning, but when we focused too strongly on the metrics and not the actual thing you’re trying to facilitate (learning), it ends up completely subverting the process.

    There’s a few other things: I worry that grades subvert attention from those who truly do like to learn: risk taking is usually fairly discouraged by grades, for example. Also, honest self assessment is a rare skill in today’s world, and I think it hurts people: focusing on what your real weaknesses are is difficult (example: incredibly talented students who keep focusing on academics than, say, the way they communicate and relate to others). The other thing that worries me slightly about “entrepreneurship education” is that it ends up focusing on the types of kids who do well in graded systems, as opposed to those who do well in more loosely organized situations, particularly when you end up having to pick your own standards for success and understand weaknesses. In ski racing, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “You will always be your own best coach,” and so I needed to focus on being as good a coach as an athlete.


  3. My junior and senior years in highschool I started skipping class and hiding out in the public library. One of my teachers caught on, but instead of punishment she started giving me lists of topics. I’d research them and report my findings back to her, and we’d debate what I’d learned. It was a great experience that enstilled a confidence within me to break away from the predefined paths in the education system.


  4. You’ve just described a proper unschooling philosophy. My oldest son began loving puzzles, board games, then electronic games, then computer games and now at age 18 has more knowledge of computer/electronic hardware/software than a fellow employee who attained 7 yrs post high school college education.

    Another advantage is that he isn’t afraid to try something difficult, like repairing laptops. He doesn’t need to follow convention, but makes it up as he goes.


  5. There are some subjects that lend themselves to collaborative learning, and some that do not. Mathematics is an example where I think we learned better and had more fun from listening to other student’s insights since – while it has some higher order principles – is mostly a process oriented discipline. OTOH absent unusual circumstances – I don’t know how much “insight” a 6th grader is going to contribute on Karl Marx in a history class outside the knowledge of the instructor. In such factual domains, there will always be a strong teacher-student model IMO. Accusing the teacher of being lazy is – to me – another cop out consistent with the other student cheating revealed in the testing… there is no question to me that in conversations with young people a huge number of them want to get from point A to point B without doing the hard work in between. Much of it is due to a culture that provides instant gratification and glorifies commercial success. So many of them want to be stars without putting in the effort to get their brain into orbit first.


  6. I spend all my time creating online testing software, so I just wanted to make the point that not all testing is bad.

    For example, a professional footballer will spend time in the gym, repetitively lifting weights, and they will weight and measure themselves. These things are not fundamental to playing football, but they are very effective ways to improve your abilities as a footballer, particularly with the help of a skilful coach.

    Similarly, in some areas (e.g. learning languages or basic mathematical operation), testing (especially online testing where you can have as much practice as you want from a pool of questions) is very helpful. And, of course, in these situation there is no incentive to cheat.

    But I completely share your despair when test results are considered to be synonymous with learning. People who set up systems like that deserve to have people cheat.


  7. Great people thinks alive (though I’m not sure if I’m great). That’s essentially how I approached it back when I was in college, I wanted to make sure my grades are ok but I’m not its slave.

    “The best method for assessing learning progress is self-assessment”, you have the magical power of peaking into my mind.

    And I’d like to crystallize another element which you may have implied, that is, quality overrides quantity, so that I may have a deep grasp of 2 or 3 critical concepts for one lecture and know how to USE them in real world situations instead of remembering 5 or 6 concepts and have no clue on how to apply them.


  8. two things: is ripe for a huge pivot if we are to evolve from this current industrial model of education onto a startup model. This animate by the RSA on a brief talk by Sir Ken Robinson touches on the issue:

    2.finding this blog reminded me of what the internet is all about, people and their ideas, thanks for sharing yours!


  9. Your post is timely for me. Specifically, your link to your ideal school. I’m working on a venture where we are deciding between structured and organic learning of the users within the platform: How much of each, what helps, how much is too much? The school you envision sounds great, one I would have liked to have attended. I think there is one challenge that needs to be address to make it work. Let me explain. A mate of mine went to a “Free School” in California in the 1970s, and that had some elements like you describe, but much less well funded and less community support. Their philosophy was to allow the students to decided their own curricula. However, he described that while it encouraged independent learning, the lack of some form of structure created uneven/spotty learning. In your ideal school how would you see the daily schedule (structured?), and would certain core skills be mandatory? How would you decide each?


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