Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cheating redefined

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.

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."
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."

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)

comments: 3

Anonymous said...

The problem is not, I think, that they're encouraging the students to use the internet or other technology, but that they're privledging them over their brains. Sure, the internet is already in place and takes very little work to activate, but, as you point it, there are a myriad of problems of teaching kids that accessing information is just as good as using information. It's knowledge vs wisdom, I suppose.

That said, I'm all for allowing kids to learn to access information. Only I want to give the kids grades for each activity separately. Did you know the word yourself and could use it correctly? Excellent; 10 points. Could you find someone using it differently online? Great; 5 points.

Keep the activities separate; value them differently.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the students at Bonnie PIzters school, this is what I have to say:
I don't think it is cheating if she looked up the definition. The test was, can u use the word in a sentance. She aced the test because she can do that. If you knoe the definition to a word, that doesn't mean you can use the word in a sentance.

Question 1: She is only in 7th grade, she knows the meaning now, she looked it up because, Mrs. Keene said we could. She didn't take that as an advantage, she took it as, I'm stuck, I look it up.

Question 2: Yes, they might encounter thats but, they will know how to use that word. In an interview, they don't ask u, do u know what this means? if they really wanted that job they would know what words to noe.

Question 3: I dont think so

question 4: that would be copying, and thts not aloud. The teachers at that school, if something sounds noot like tht student, type it into google, and if tht exact thing pops up, they would talk to the student, and get marked down.

There, u are all rong, it wasnt cheating

Michael Leddy said...

Jeff, I think we are in agreement. I look things up online every day, and I ask my students to do so too. (There are posts on my blog with some excellent links that my students have found that were relevant to works we were reading.) I like that in your example, the student has to know at least one meaning of the word to be able to figure out what she or he is finding online.

I thought at first that this second comment must be a put-on, but someone from Kent did visit this post tonight. Is this e-mail from a real seventh-grader, or from someone spoofing? Reader, u decide.