Have you ever cheated in school?
80% of Stuyvesant students answered yes, according to a poll conducted by the school’s student newspaper. An article in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (“Stuyvesant Students Describe the How and the Why of Cheating”) examined the students’ explanations for the rampant cheating at this highly competitive, academic school – cheating that students largely justified by the phrase “survival at any cost.” As one student explained, “It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test’ — no. No one wants to fail a test.” Determined to gain entrance to a selective college and pressured to take the most challenging courses, students gradually create a collective new moral order: “All this makes for a culture in which many students band together, sharing homework and test advice in a common understanding that they simply have to survive until they reach their goals: dream colleges and dream jobs.”
Cheating in school is nothing new, but its pervasiveness and the students’ inability or refusal to recognize the immorality of cheating should cause us all grave concern. One college student who graduated from Stuy recalls providing her fellow classmates her physics homework on a regular basis to copy. Asked what she thinks of their behavior in retrospect, she replied, “I respect them and think they have integrity. They’re proud of their achievements in college and sometimes the only way you could’ve gotten there is to kind of botch your ethics for a couple things.”
“Botch your ethics” to get “there”? It’s troubling to me that this student lacks the self-reflection on who she and her friends might be when they arrive at the vaunted “there.”
I read this article yesterday after hearing it referred to by a fellow participant in a webinar led by Pat Bassett on “Skills and Values for the 21st Century.” The focus of most of the webinar was on how we build and support character. One of the salient points Pat made was that schools cannot simply urge an honor code on their students; instead, they must create a culture that promotes and values honesty.
So what should Stuy or any school mired in academic dishonesty do? Well, in my mind, the culture must not just promote honesty; it must also honor and respect students’ minds. I texted a former student after I read the article to ask her if she had ever cheated. She responded, “Yes but only in one class.” She explained, “We had a ton of reading each week and the teacher would randomly give us these really hard quizzes that we often failed. I didn’t have time to read all of the assigned work, and I didn’t think it helped me learn anything. I also didn’t think it was fair. It rewarded the kids that could remember everything they read but not anyone else. I learn by talking through things. And lastly the quizzes weren’t even legitimate. Some of the questions were just stupid random facts that undermined the validity of the quiz. The teacher allowed us to grade our quizzes and then asked for our scores. A couple of times I gave myself scores that I did not earn.” She ended the text, “OMG please don’t think I’m a bad person!!!!!”
I don’t think she’s a bad person, and I told her so. I don’t wish to justify her actions, any more than the students at Stuy rationalized their own; however, I wonder where our collective responsibility as educators lies in this morass.
Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, shared in his blog Freedom to Learn his fear that the system of schools is a breeding ground for cheaters: “Our system … is almost perfectly designed to promote cheating. That is even truer today than in times past. Students are required to spend way more time than they wish doing work that they did not choose, that bores them, that seems purposeless to them. They are constantly told about the value of high grades. Grades are used as essentially the sole motivator. Everything is done for grades. Advancement through the system, and eventual freedom from it, depends upon grades. Students become convinced that high grades and advancement to the next level are the be-all and end-all of their school work. By the time they are 11 or 12 years old, most are realistically cynical about the idea that school is fundamentally a place for learning. They realize that much of what they are required to do is senseless and that they will forget most of what they are tested on shortly after the test. They see little direct connection–because there usually is none–between their school assignments and the real world in which they live. They learn that their own questions and interests don’t count. What counts are their abilities to provide the ‘correct’ answers to questions that they did not ask and that do not interest them. And ‘correct’ means the answers that the teachers or the test-producers are looking for, not answers that the students really understand to be correct.” His words strangely echo those of my former student.
Dan Ariely, author of the book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, commented on the recent Harvard cheating scandal, surmising, “None of this is meant to make light of the problem of cheating, or to imply that it’s excusable. But if we want to prevent such things from happening again, we need to think about not just the students, but also the system in which they live and operate.”
What’s most interesting to me about the cheating scandal at Stuy is the students’ willingness to collaborate on cheating. As the article notes, “Although Stuyvesant has a reputation for being cutthroat, students say collaboration, not competition, is the norm. Several framed the collaboration as banding together against a system designed to grind them down. Many classes have private Facebook groups that students use to exchange advice or, sometimes, to post full sets of answers for classmates to copy. Take-home exams are seen as an invitation to work together.”
Does anyone else think it’s ironic that one of the five “C’s” of 21st century learning is “collaboration,” the means by which the students collectively altered the established moral compass at Stuy? The students may be learning things we didn’t intend to teach.
That’s the thing about the internet and a flattened world – the old structures and systems often find themselves wondering how they lost their voices and their command. And frankly honesty is something worth holding on to. Dan Ariely warns about this in another post about the increased prevalence of cheating in online courses compared to face-to-face classes: “This kind of behavior in online classes worries me because it is becoming more pervasive, and once we reach a point of moral indifference, it is nearly impossible to change this behavior. I don’t think we’ve reached this point yet, so we need to work as hard as we can to counteract the trend toward dishonesty. Otherwise what’s often considered an important tool for democracy in education could be made worthless.”
In the end, I don’t think we can change the behavior simply with honor codes. A way of behavior becomes a “code” because we socially contract to believe in its value, its benefit. But if students don’t respect the code because they question the underlying system that promotes it, we’re doing them a greater disservice by asking them to put their names- essentially their identities – under words that are no longer placeholders for meaning.