Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Fine Line Between Cheating and Helping

If American individualism can be symbolized by a mother bird pushing her tweety out of the nest when it's time to learn how to fly the Croatian equivalent could be the mother bird finding extra twigs, straw and grass to enlarge the nest until tweety either learns to fly or stays in the nest. Is that a harsh representation?

Depends on where you live.

Croatians can't believe there are parents who would push their kids out of the nest at 18. Americans can't believe there are 45 year old sons (with jobs) who still live with their parents.

And it's this dependence (or lack thereof) that is one of the biggest cultural shocks a citizen of either country would face if they traveled to the other.

That brings us to today.

I was teaching my last English class of the spring. In order to finish on a cheerful note, I gave them a simple test that reviewed everything we learned in the last semester.

I had noticed in previous classes that a couple students tended to glance at each other's paper, but in a class where there are no grades and people come as they wish I turned a blind eye to the suspicious behavior. Nonetheless, today I purposefully separated everyone in order to get a fair representation of how much each student had learned.

As soon as I had handed the test out though, the daughter of another student craftily turned in her chair in order to steal a peak at her mother's test.

I couldn't believe it!

"Please look at your own paper" I politely said to the entire class. The 15 year old glanced up and gave an embarrassed smile.

But before you could say "compulsive cheater" she turned her face in order to use her peripherals. And to my surprise her mother had her paper situated in a such a way that the answers read like a billboard to her daughter. As I watched them communicate with scribbles on the paper and special eye movements I realized that this behavior had been thoroughly ingrained in both mother and daughter.

So I gave up. I let them cheat. Sure, it didn't matter because I wasn't giving them a grade. But still, shouldn't mommy cover up her paper, and let her tweety fly by herself?

I grew up hearing that "cheaters only hurt themselves". And I still believe it's true. But if you stop to think about how fine the line is between 'cheating' and 'helping' you may begin to understand why there are lots of cheaters in Croatia but very few who are without nests.


Lea Coppage said...

We get the same thing here. A guy I know had elaborate and intricate methods of cheating while he was in high school. When I asked him why he would "help" someone if it hurt his grade, he told me that it created a debt for the other person, which he could collect if/when he wanted. One of my classes told me that there was a competition between the students and teachers; the teachers would try to get the students to learn stuff, and the less the students learned, the more the students "won". Our daughter said that some of her classmates would spend 30 minutes trying to get out of doing 15 minutes of homework.

One thing that worked for me (at least twice) was to separate everyone, like you did, and tell them I need to know what they have learned. I didn't tell them it was a test or quiz or anything. Only after I looked at their papers and realized that they had mastered the concepts did I tell them that they were so good that I decided to make it an official grade. I don't know if that will work any more; I assume they will figure me out after a while.

Rule #2: It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different. But really?? I don't know!

Jeremy Bohall said...

Thanks for weighing in, Lea! Sounds like you've done a great job trying to understand the situation. I have no idea to do with Rule #2 (or #1 for that matter) in the school context. The one thing I've managed to do is create a "policy" that's in tune with the private school I work with and make it abundantly clear that I will not accept cheating in any form well ahead of the exam. I think the fact that I'm a foreigner makes it easier for them to accept a rule that's strictly enforced.