Where does cheating begin?

Imagine this scenario… you are suddenly diagnosed with a life threatening disease, something very dangerous but quite curable if you have the right information about how to do so.  Your doctor knows that there is an answer to your serious problem, but cannot recall what drug is required to treat it.  He remembers reading something about it a long time ago, but can no longer recall the exact name of the drug.

He reaches towards the mouse on his computer, and begins to click a link that will take him to the online medical directory where he will find the answer he needs to cure your condition.

“Stop!”, you declare.  “That’s cheating!  If you can’t remember the name of that drug without looking it up, then what sort of doctor are you?  I want you to just remember it without looking it up.”

Of course, I imagine that if this situation were real you would be only too happy for the doctor to do whatever was required to find the cure for your disease.  You wouldn’t think twice about whether it might be considered “cheating” to look up the information needed to save your life… in fact you’d better hope that you have a doctor who a) knows there is an answer out there somewhere, and b) knows how to find it quickly.

I pondered this scenario today because I went to a dinner party with about 40 other people and we were presented with a trivia quiz on the table, something to keep us busy and entertained between food courses.  Being a celebration of Canadian Thanksgiving, the questions were all about Canada.  Now, I actually know quite a bit about Canada… I lived there for a year, travelled quite extensively through the historic eastern provinces, read a few books about Canadian history, and I have a Canadian girlfriend.  So I did know the answer to quite a few of the questions.

Of course, there were also questions I didn’t know the answer to.  And being the curious type who likes a challenge and to always learn more, I reached for my Nokia N95, pointed it to Google, and started looking for the answers to the questions I didn’t know.  If you have reasonable information literacy skills and can come up with good search keywords, finding answers to simple recall-style questions with Google is pretty easy.  In fact, you can usually find the answers just from the Google search results page without even going to the websites they link to.  It was not long before I had the elusive answers… in fact, I actually stumbled across the exact quiz that the questions were lifted from. Whoever put the quiz together had not changed anything, just used it directly from this website.  I casually copied down all the unknown answers onto the sheet and waited until it needed to be submitted.

Of course, when the sheets were finally collected and tallied, there was general astonishment that someone could have actually gotten all the questions 100% correct! A few people who knew what I’d done bandied about words like “cheating” and “unfair”.

For the record, I did not accept the prize – a lovely bottle of red wine – because I willingly admitted I had some help from my friends Mr Google and Mr Wikipedia, and I figured it would not have been fair to accept the prize.  I guess I just like to be a bit of a stirrer sometimes in order to make a point, even if only to myself.

But seriously, why do we build entire education systems based on rewarding people who can respond with the correct answers to questions, but then assume that any use of a tool to help them do this is cheating?   Why would a doctor in the scenario above get applauded for doing whatever was necessary to find an answer to the problem, but a student who does the same thing is considered a cheat.

If basic recall of facts is all that matters, a tool like Google can make you the smartest person in the room.  Today’s trivia quiz proved that.  If finding answers anywhere at anytime is a valuable thing to be able to do, then a mobile phone should be a standard tool you carry everywhere.

What I think people were really saying was that, if I was allowed to use my phone to find answers and everyone else wasn’t, then that would give me an unfair advantage.  And that may be true if I was the only person with access to Google, but the fact is that I didn’t do anything that every other person in that room could have done if they’d have chosen to.  The fact is, I was the only one in the room who used a tool that we all potentially had access to, but because I used that tool it made me a “cheat”.

And here’s the real point… mostly we ban these tools in our classrooms.  And we generally consider any student that uses such tools to find answers to our narrow questions to be a cheat.  And we drill into kids that when we ask them questions, when we set up those “exam conditions”, they better not even think about being “enterprising” or “creative” or “problem solvers”… Just know the answers to the questions, and show all your working too, dammit.

And you’d better hope that if one of those students ever grows up to be your doctor, the rigid thinking we may have instilled in them about “knowing the answers” has been replaced with a far more flexible skill for “finding the answers”.   Let’s hope that our kids don’t have too much trouble unlearning all the bizarre thinking that schools spend so much time drilling into them.

What do you think?  At what point does the ability to find answers cross the line and become cheating?

CC BY-SA 4.0 Where does cheating begin? by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

32 Replies to “Where does cheating begin?”

  1. Time for us all to reflect on what goes on in classrooms isn’t it Chris. It’s the students who come out of the system knowing how to find the answers who are going to be the long term winners. We all know that. I know that when I went to school it was recall of facts that was important and yet I’d be hard pressed to remember 50% – maybe even 30% – of what I studied in my final year of High School. It seems to me that an inquiry driven curriculum at Yr 7 – 10 is going some way towards acknowledging this, but we fall down when it comes to the Senior years and the exam driven recall of facts based curriculum that presents itself there.

  2. What you are talking about is Information Literacy! It is what librarians are all about… teaching students how to find, use, and evaluate information. Sounds like not too many people in the room knew how to find and use useful information. When a student in my library found the answers to a web hunt I was doing with them online, I gave him a prize! Of course, after that I changed the web hunt. The purpose was to find and use useful information and the prize winner sure fulfilled that. In your case since that was not the goal, you were correct in not accepting the prize.

  3. I think the issue is not one of ‘succeeding’ but one of (lack of) conformity to the prevalent expectations, social norms and very importantly, the accepted arrangement of power (= knowledge) in the context of trivia quiz (quiz master knows THE answer) much like we do in classrooms (teacher knows THE answer). By cleverly using your phone, you challenged this nexus of power & knowledge (plus probably quietly pissed off a few others who either did not think to use the phone or weren’t ‘game to’…see power it is) as it has stood for so long we know no other (reminds me of the story about 5 monkeys in a cage and TTWWADI syndrome – have a look at Ian Jukes’ stuff).

    Many writers have dealt with the power-knowledge nexus and the disciplining force it produces. But here is an extract from a bloke whom I regard as a wonderfully eloquent defender of the sort of education I’d say you and I look forward to.

    “It is sometimes said that students who take forbidden shortcuts with their homework will just end up “cheating themselves” because they will not derive any intellectual benefits from doing the assignment. This assertion, too, is often accepted on faith rather than prompting us to ask just how likely it is that the assignment really would prove valuable if it had been completed in accordance with instructions. A review of the available evidence on the effects of homework fails to support widely held beliefs about its benefits.[33] To that extent, we’re forced to confront the possibility that students’ violation of the instructor’s rules not only may fail to constitute a moral infraction but also may not lead to any diminution of learning. Outraged condemnations of cheating, at least in such instances, may turn out to have more to do with power than with either ethics or pedagogy. Perhaps what actually elicits that outrage is not a lack of integrity on the part of students so much as a lack of conformity.[34]” Alfie Kohn, “Who’s Cheating Whom?”, Phi Delta Kappan, October 2007, available at http://www.alfiekohn.org

    Good post, as usual, you bloody non-conformist 🙂

    Tomaz from next door at http://human.edublogs.org

  4. I’d be far more inclined to use words like “efficient”, “resourceful” and possibly “strategic”. Why is it deemed better to cram young minds with largely useless facts that can be regurgitated on cue, than to stress the importance and hone the skills required to access and process information when (and if) it’s required?
    I, personally, feel the latter is far more empowering. Plus, it has the added benefit of allowing our minds the necessary space required to develop true creativity and innovation.

  5. For me the issues is just as much about the “test” as anything else. It seems that in schools too much of the testing is simply recalling facts. Wandering around exam supervision sometime last term (with a whole yeargroup of 230 students) I was trying to visualize them all there with laptops, doing their exam. Although I could visualize it in my mind, my dream was crushed after picking up one of the spare exam papers to see what was being examined. Basically it was all recalling of facts – reproducing them in essay or short answer format. We need to be creating assessments which ensure that when they become that Doctor, they are able to actually do something with the information from the online medical directory. Most of the assessments around at the moment are not even close to preparing students for that.

  6. Your example beautifully articulates how technology is challenging the power relationships enshrined in the institutionalization of ‘educational’ values.
    Content is a multidimensional space to be navigated. Your life-saving doctor or browser enabled trivial purser; are simple exploiting their capacity to navigate content to efficiently solve the problem at hand.
    The actually cognitive process of synthesis; of researching targeted information; of combining appropriate data, process and experience to create an effective solution; has probable not changed since the modern human brain evolved.
    The exponential growth of content (in any field or endeavor) and the mediation of the process of synthesis by technology has however, radically shifted how epiphany happens!
    But what happens if everyone learns this?

    What happens if suddenly between the ages of 5 – 18 (lets not even go into tertiary here) students are allowed to engage in autonomous thinking? The sort of thinking that had previously been the domain of those ‘conditioned to conformity’ through years of servitude to content regurgitation. To actually allow the ‘aberrant youth’ to hold opinions and seek their own conclusions aided with only information literacy and a web accessing device?
    Last person who suggested that (minus the tech) was made to drink hemlock!
    Tackling a player without the ball (rugby) – that’s cheating. Betraying a promise or trust – that’s cheating. Selling short on a market in freefall – that’s cheating. Googling the answers because your teacher is too much a Luddite to realize the world has changed – that’s just saving time so you can spend finishing Halo 3.
    PS: My pub actually turns the wi-fi off during Trivial pursuit and all Blackberries, phones, and mini/micro PC must be in bags or turned off in the centre of the tables. I think immigration at LaGuardia is less stringent!

  7. I was thinking along similar lines this week while pondering the necessity of passing higher math in order to get a New York State Regents diploma. What is the purpose of these requirements?

  8. I am more interested in knowing if my students know why an answer is correct than if they can simply find the “correct” answer with Google. To achieve this understanding requires deep thought and a search for meaning.

    We really have to start re-thinking the questions that we ask of our students. If they are able to quickly find answers on Google that are counted as correct, we aren’t challenging them to think hard about the questions we are asking.

    This is one of the biggest challenges in teaching to me. How can I have my students spending the bulk of their time thinking about their answer, rather than mindlessly repeating what they think I think the right answer is?

  9. I love this post. It’s so true. 🙂 I’m big into using assessment/ tests/ exams etc. as a form of learning, so I love this.

  10. Hi from Canada! Congrats on the victory!

    I teach high school English and I share the same critique of ”teaching” answers not how to get answers.
    My two cents: I swore off book reports as soon asbook summaries and analysis became commonplace on the web..years ago.

    I had a similar discussion last week with a teacher who had bought a set of novels and was disappointed because there was an analysis of the story at the end of the paperback! She was going to actually use another book!
    I shared my approach with her. When studying any piece of literature I provide all the web resources I can find for my students. So instead of simply asking them ”What is the book about?” and getting answers they can’t back-up and don’t even understand, I force them to think about what they’ve read vs what others think about it. I ask what they think the book is about, based on what they’ve found. And, why they agree/disagree with what they’ve found. I usually have them support their(or others) opinions as well.

    In essence I just take for granted that they will use the tools available – or teach them to use the tools available – and our work on literature is based on what is out there.

    Thanks for sharing! I’m a ”cheater” too when it comes to that sort of a party game, I am always trying to ”think outside of the box” and they never give me the prize ;P

  11. @Bill
    It is all about what you teach – if you are a content delivery machine then you question to discern the level of content recall, by which you adjust your teaching strategy to maximize students content retention.
    If you wish students to lean the competencies of collaboration, enquiry, analysis, synthesis, creativity, planning, implementation and reflection, then you ask questions about form and/or process, not about content.
    Most of us do something inbetween.
    Do not ask question that you already know the answers to – then your students will spend more time thinking about their answers.

  12. The periennial problem of how to rank society??? You used to have to be able to list the rivers on the North Coast of NSW in order to have any chance of being a high court judge. This is very dangerous stuff!! If the “prizes” are to go to the creative, enterprising and problem solvers how are we ever going to get NSW out of the mess it is in? We all know that the sign of having a big brain is being able to fit lots into it. Stop tinkering with things that will surely bring us all down! By the way, what is the captial of British Columbia?

  13. I’ll preface this by saying that I applaud your post and only wish I’d have written it. 😉 That said I will play devil’s advocate just to push the thinking here.

    What if the doctor was operating on you and discovered something that seemed a bit out of the ordinary. He knew there was a procedure but couldn’t think of it in time and you die.

    I guess the point is that we all need to have a certain amount of information, skills that we have on hand at all times. No doubt our schools spend way too much time focusing on the information that is better served being housed on google that in our brains but the question is, what does need to be such a part of us that we can recall in an instant? Multiplication tables? Parts of speech? Or are all of these and others dependent on a person’s vocation or interest?

    Just asking because I know others will.

    Bonus Question: Name the only person killed on land in the 1954 Canadian Air Disaster. (It was my wife’s grandmother) 😉

  14. Great post and great points. But what if the doctor who was operating on you was a past student of the school. Would you be convinced that he/she was competent at finding the best information in the shortest time before it was too late?
    Or maybe he/she just took the information from the first of Google’s results and didn’t bother to check authenticity?

    As an aside, my son thinks he’s cheating when he’s discussing his homework and he takes on people’s ideas and opinions. I’m trying to change his concept of the point of the homework – being a learning process. He’s not easily convinced.

  15. Chris,
    Love, LOVE, your examples. I agree with everything you say, but not everything you imply.

    I think Dean has a good point here. There has to be some base line of information that will vary from job to job. Unfortunately, students don’t know which of those jobs will be theirs until they are out of our care and into their post high-school career or actually doing those jobs. So, at what point do you say that some particular knowledge sets are not relevant and others are. I think we can all agree on the importance of being able to think and find information (and good information at that, of course), but a predominant theme I’m seeing often is that kids really don’t need to know basic math (because of calculators) or don’t need to spell, or kids don’t need to know how to decode words, etc.

    So, how do you assess (evil word, I know) some of these basic skills unless you require the student to perform in isolation?

    Unfortunately, too many teachers take this to an extreme and stifle their students’ natural inclination to collaborate. I think there’s a happy medium.

    Thanks for a great post.

  16. the problem is that you wrecked the fun. trivial pursuit is not called ‘trivial’ for nothing. it is about who can retain many unimportant factoids so that we can marvel at their aspergers and have a laugh. games like rockwiz and spics and specks are great fun because of exactly that. how interesting (not) if they were able to google their answers. trivial pursuit is not meant to be an example of deep learning but of fact retention. Some people care about that, but not me. what’s much more important is people ‘knowing’ stuff, so that it’s reproducible in a time of crisis (as with the example above with the surgeon who can’t remember the procedure and so you die, or the guys on Apollo 13 (or was it 11) who had to do detailed mathematical calculations using a pencil and piece of paper so that they didn’t flick their space ship out into deep space). In order to ‘know’ at that kind of level requires a certain number of ‘facts’ in your head that can be recalled and built on and applied to this new circumstance. equating that complexity with a quick google search is not helpful when thinking about the best way of teaching. Clearly there is a place for facts – what is the name of that muscle and where do I find it, and how do I know slice and dice it so the person doesn’t die from blood loss). These are facts that are turned into practical knowledge. until we get the Matrix kind of download straight into the brain (which is a totally cool idea) we’re still going to have to learn stuff ourselves and teach stuff to students – even if it’s only so that they know that most of the stuff on Google needs to be fact checked. 🙂

  17. I think Mick Prest and Jen have pinned the problem with ‘cheating’.

    The HSC provides a single ranking metric to simplify University admission controls. We accept arbitrary rules in this game, providing the competition seems fair enough. If you play, you can either try to work the rules or weather opprobrium and risk cancellation of your result.

    Preparation for adult life is a different task. The rules are not published yet because their context is the future, and our kids are still developing them.

    Schools are engaged in both tasks. As kids develop the cognitive and moral capacity to handle it, we have to let/help them distinguish between these tasks.

    The tacit rules of a Trivia Night include bonus points for surprising people and penalty points for breaking implicit social contracts. If everyone feels Googling is not ‘in the spirit’ of the game, you might call me a jerk for doing it.

    If the GP retrieves the benefits of powdered rhinoceros horn, you might not be so impressed. Broad and deep contextual knowledge are essential components of expert method, and must also be valued. School is not just a Trivia Night.

  18. The real issue about cheating has always been passing others’ work off as one’s own. In extreme cases, as at universities, it is the most fundamental of all theft: your identity and accomplishments are stolen. Imagine going to a job interview and rattling off your PhD thesis and publications only to be told by the interviewer “We’re familiar with that but we know that it was written by so & so”. This is not far-fetched. It happened to a colleague. Her career was ruined. The thief got a promotion. As we move toward ‘open source’ one thing is sure – the fat cats always make sure their name is on everything as author – whether they wrote it or not. Research assistant drones will only fall further behind. … and we wonder why we can’t get kids interested in science careers!

  19. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread. It’s been wonderful to watch the discussion unfold over the last few weeks.

    Just for the record, I totally agree that there must be baseline standards in “knowledge” and I’m not suggesting that we dump the idea of learning and recall in favour of being ignorant but armed with a cellphone.

    I often think about it like this… when you’re putting a jigsaw puzzle together, the first few pieces are really hard because you have no reference points. You have all those blue pieces that you know are part of the sky, but it’s hard to join them together at first. As you gradually get more pieces on the table it gets progressively easier to figure out where the next piece goes. The last few pieces are really easy because there is so much of the rest of the puzzle in place… the more pieces you get the more you, quite literally, get the big picture.

    Learning facts and remembering information seems kind of similar. If you don’t have a good general knowledge, then it’s hard to connect the pieces as you “learn” new facts. You get presented with them, but if you don’t have a lot of other “knowledge” to hang those new facts on, they often just don’t connect in your schema of the world. If you have a pretty good general knowledge you are probably more likely to learn new facts more effectively because many of them will be building on things you already know. The more you know, the more you know.

    Just having access to something like Google won’t help much if you have a limited ability to connect the facts you discover. Well, it will, in that you can “find answers”, but you probably won’t build real learning.

    And that’s where I think a teacher brings value to the learning process. Although we all espouse the value of a student-centered learning process, it’s a wise teacher, providing explicit teaching that’s the link between just helping kids to know stuff, and helping kids to learn how to learn, helping them to know how to find information when it’s needed, helping them to connect the dots.

    All of you who spoke about the idea of “just Googling” not being enough, you’re absolutely right. But it’s a useful skill to be able to find information on demand when you really need it. It just needs to be seen as one of the skills – literacies – of living in today’s world, as is just another way that we keep adding pieces to the jigsaw puzzle.

  20. Hi Chris,

    I have seen my family doctor on many an occasion pull out his CPS (Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties) to look something up, err, cheat, help my kids get better. I was glad he did.


  21. Yes the ability to use tools to find information is a skill students need to learn. But so is the ability to learn how to study so that they can recall information. No I don’t care that a student remembers the symbol for Manganese in 30 years – but the skills that I should have taught him in order to remember that information at least for a little while are important.

  22. I agree that this is a sticky situation. We all want our students to study and know the material so that they can answer the questions on the test. As a student I was always saying, “this is dumb. I will never need to know this in the ‘real world’ and if I do I can just look it up!” I think some things really don’t need to be memorized. For me, an elementary school teacher, I will not need to know how to find the derivative of an equation and if for some unknown reason I really do, I can just look up how to do it. Some things, however, I do need to know so I can teach my students. I need to know grammar and basic math. I guess the challenge becomes determining what type of information really needs to be learned, and what information we can just look up using our resources.

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