Appearing in the wake of recent news reports about the declining literacy and numeracy of college graduates, an article from Saturday's Wall Street Journal makes interesting reading. Here's an excerpt:
Twas a situation every middle-schooler dreads. Bonnie Pitzer was cruising through a vocabulary test until she hit the word "desolated" -- and drew a blank. But instead of panicking, she quietly searched the Internet for the definition.I would suggest that "cheating" is indeed the word, and that "educators" like Mr. Thornton are cheating students in several ways: by cheapening the dignity and value of study (why bother when you can look it up during the test?) and by giving the false impression that learning is not a matter of knowledge and understanding but a matter of "accessing" "information."
At most schools, looking up test answers online would be considered cheating. But at Mill Creek Middle School in Kent, Wash., some teachers now encourage such tactics. "We can do basically anything on our computers," says the 13-year-old, who took home an A on the test.
In a wireless age where kids can access the Internet's vast store of information from their cellphones and PDAs, schools have been wrestling with how to stem the tide of high-tech cheating. Now, some educators say they have the answer: Change the rules and make it legal. In doing so, they're permitting all kinds of behavior that had been considered off-limits just a few years ago.
The move, which includes some of the country's top institutions, reflects a broader debate about what skills are necessary in today's world -- and how schools should teach them. The real-world strengths of intelligent surfing and analysis, some educators argue, are now just as important as rote memorization.
The old rules still reign in most places, but an increasing number of schools are adjusting them. This includes not only letting kids use the Internet during tests, but in the most extreme cases, allowing them to text message notes or beam each other definitions on vocabulary drills. Schools say they in no way consider this cheating because they're explicitly changing the rules to allow it.
In Ohio, students at Cincinnati Country Day can take their laptops into some tests and search online Cliffs Notes. At Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, Calif., seventh-graders are looking at each other's hand-held computers to get answers on their science drills. And in San Diego, high-schoolers can roam free on the Internet during English exams.
The same logic is being applied even when laptops aren't in the classroom. In Philadelphia, school officials are considering letting kids retake tests, even if it gives them an opportunity to go home and Google topics they saw on the first test. "What we've got to teach kids are the tools to access that information," says Gregory Thornton, the school district's chief academic officer. " 'Cheating' is not the word anymore."
This article follows up on Bonnie Pitzer's vocabulary test:
In Bonnie Pitzer's case, teacher Becky Keene says using the Internet helped the seventh-grader, but in the end, she aced the test because she demonstrated she could also use the word in a sentence. "I want the kids to be able to apply the meaning, not to be able to memorize it," says Ms. Keene.I have several questions for Ms. Keene:
-- Aren't we better capable of understanding and applying meanings of words when we know them?
-- Won't your students encounter many situations in life in which they'll need to know what words mean without looking them up? Imagine one of your students interviewing for a job, no computer available: what happens then?
-- Doesn't someone who knows the words in a sentence have an advantage over someone who has to look them up? (E.D. Hirsch makes that point very clearly in Cultural Literacy -- that constantly having to look things up leads to a breakdown in comprehension.)
-- What makes you so sure that your student didn't find her sample sentence itself online? And if she did, what would be wrong with that? Why is making up an original sentence necessary? Wouldn't finding an appropriate sentence also be evidence of being able to apply the meaning of the word?
In the pre-Internet world, education theorists dismissed the value of memorization because one could look up everything in books. Now, it's the Internet: "It has everything," as someone says in the film Broken Flowers. But if education theorists and Ms. Keene were correct, I'd be a master of Greek and Latin and several other languages that I don't know.
"Legalized 'cheating'" (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)
"Study: College students lack literacy for complex tasks" (from CNN)