In praise of cheating!


Slader is a new service that provides (mostly) free answers to homework questions in most major high school level math text books. Originally run by math tutors, the service has evolved into something like an online study hall with students providing answers for other students. Brilliant, I think. There’s even an economic model built in–read MindShift’s recent review.

To critics I say it’s only making visible what has been going on for a long time–watch Paper Chase. As the MindShift people point out, it’s fairly common to lay the blame of technology “for encouraging bad behavior, particularly when it comes to academic dishonesty.”

There is something bad about cheating and plagiarizing, to be sure. But I think we’re pointing our fingers in the wrong direction when assigning blame. There is nothing inherently bad about technology. (There simply can’t be because technology is not a moral thing.) There is something bad about a cheater, but remember we are dealing with kids who, by definition, are not entirely responsible for their actions. But there may be something really bad about the fundamental structure of schools.

We can look at schools as a sort of market economy where students and teachers truck, barter and exchange work for grades. In this market, high value grades are very scarce. If you doubt this, consider that at my daughter’s high school the difference between the gold and bronze awards for academic excellence was less than a hundredth of a percent in her garduating year. Whatever else this school says, it’s sending a message that high grades are so valuabe that the faculty is willing carve tiny–though statistically insignificant–distinctions.

One can look at those who cheat in these markets as really efficient operators. That is, if the object is to acculumate as many high-value grades as possible, then those who do so with least effort ought to be rewarded for streamlining their “businesses.” If the students were running corporations their boards and shareholders would be quite happy because they’re seeing a greater ROI than those who grind away at studying.

Now, of course, students are not running their academic careers as businesses; even if they were we’d still be overlooking a serious moral issue. (I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that coporations come out as pathological entities on the DSM IV.)

But I do think we need to look at the effect high stakes testing and grading and consider that we might be contributing to our own problem. Grading and testing have their place, but not as high stakes events. This critique of summative assessment is worth a close read: Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. 


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