Here’s a fascinating piece from this week’s Education Week regarding some recent research and observations on the subject of academic integrity and cheating.
Edweek Article on Academic Integrity
The article makes challenging reading for any educator or parent. However, on the positive side I believe it provides us with valuable ammunition when confronted with students who can’t understand why academic honesty and cheating matter.
Reading the piece there seemed to be a general sense that one of the biggest causes of increases in cheating was reduced overt attention and discussion about the perils of cheating, about values and about the merits and purpose of learning. Yet again, loss of focus on the ‘process’ of what goes on in the classroom as we give way to an obsession with the ‘content’ or the body of knowledge that ‘somebody’ has decreed should be taken on board by students, tested and then should be the sole arbiter of who gets to move to the next stage in the sausage factory.
At first, the numbers in the American system who are cheating in some way are mind-boggling. There appears to me one resounding reason – children/ young people are in the majority seeing school learning as a big mass of irrelevance that they just have to get through in order to ‘reach the other side’. They don’t see the learning itself as fruitful, worthwhile, relevant or rewarding. It isn’t seen to have enough innate purpose in its own right to make it worth putting real sweat and effort in to. Thus, cut corners and short cuts are the chosen routes. It also tells me that as an older generation we have a lot to answer for. If conversation over the dining table (for those families who still do such archaic things!) includes talking about putting one over on the boss, skiving off, taking short cuts, seeking to get advancement without earning it by fair means or foul, then we shouldn’t be surprised if children think this is the way to build a life.
What the article has to say about ‘cognitive distortions’ is very interesting – as we cheat, we find ways to rationalize it to ourselves, to diminish its significance and, even worse, to kid ourselves that really we achieved the good performance and as a result will produce even better performance in the future. One of the things that I take from this is that the, “Oh dear, don’t do it again” approach to catching students cheating with no ‘consequences’ does them a massive disservice. It reinforces that the problem isn’t the cheating, but the getting caught. We have seen instances here in India where mass cheating in exam halls has been uncovered by inspectors, only for the parents to turn angrily on those inspectors (believing that they are denying their children their legitimate right to get the results they want/ need by any means).
Whilst the article talks about the short to medium term impact of the cognitive distortions, I fear a longer term impact which is not so much talked about. I believe that even while these short term justifications are going on, inherently humans are wired to be honest and moral. As a result a dissonance will slowly grow inside the individual. While their mind is working harder and harder to justify and legitimize their actions internally, the problem will get bigger. This can manifest in different ways; simple guilt, diminishing self-respect, health problems brought on through internalized dissonance and even in older years – shame.
Imagine an elderly man or woman sitting in an armchair. A small child runs to them, hugs them and tells them, “Oh, Grandma (Grandpa), we’re so proud of all that you’ve achieved in life. One day I want to be like you.” Inside, the old person feels an empty feeling in the pit of their stomach. They think, but cannot say, “Oh, you wouldn’t respect me if you knew the truth. My success has been built on a lie, a deception, on cheating. I’m not worthy of being looked up to. I wish I could turn back the clock.”
As schools, we need to ensure that our children find their learning relevant, worthwhile and meaningful. We need to focus their minds on metacognition – the awareness of their own knowing/ learning so that the purpose of what they are doing is clear and motivation levels maintained. We need to be serious about talking about cheating, academic honesty and all the implications of personal weakness. We need to ensure that the cheats and liars are not put on pedestals, seen as ‘cool’ or idolized. We need to ensure that there are unpalatable consequences for cheating and be consistent in their implementation – some tough love is justified. Finally, through our own actions and approaches we have to send two loud, clear messages; (i) Learning is the primary purpose of school (life), not the accumulation of certificates, and (ii) students are in competition only with themselves.
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