Cheating: What Students with Learning Differences Teach Us about Learning Indifference

Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.  ~Henry David Thoreau

We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.   ~ Lloyd Alexander

There’s a memorable scene in the movie Casablanca when the local constable, Captain Renault (played by Claude Reins) comes into Rick’s (played by Humphrey Bogart) Club, and closes him down:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I’m shocked!! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much!
Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

The news recently of the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public School District brought this scene to mind. School officials there had to confront the possibility that student answer forms were changed allegedly because teacher bonuses there are tied to student test performance.

And, last April, ABC news published this story about a professor at Hunter College who found out that several of his college history students plagiarized the same elementary school web site in their required papers for his class.

Mary, a college student quoted in the ABC News Primetime special referenced above defends plagiarizing, cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty by indicting the educational ‘system’:

 “A lot of people think it’s like you’re not really there to learn anything. You’re just learning to learn the system.”

What exactly is the nature of this ‘system’ that Mary and her peers are trying to learn?? How has this system influenced what students at Hunter College and teachers in Atlanta think and do in school?

As a Head serving in a school for students who learn differently, I would like to take this opportunity to examine this topic of cheating.  My guess is that we are all taken aback and confused by stories like these.  It might help to get a wider-angle perspective on what is going on in our schools – and how the educational environment itself can often foster the very behavior it strives to prevent.

In the interest of full disclosure, the ‘normal’ school experience simply fails to engage or honor the students we work with every day at Lawrence.  Our students have learning differences. We are therefore required to think and teach differently. Our students for the most part are very much like other kids in school everywhere, but they need a highly structured and systematic approach to learning literacy, math and other academic skills.

If you want to marginalize these students, think again.  The children we work with who are being failed by our general education venues prove to be bright, successful, entrepreneurial adults once they escape the bonds of the classroom.

While our students at Lawrence can accurately be described as struggling with a learning difference, I suspect that one explanation for the cheating being reported in schools is that our students and teachers in many places have surrendered to learning indifference.

Several years ago a math teacher brought a group of five boys to my office. They had been caught copying each other’s answers to an algebra homework assignment in the boys’ room before class.

The cheating distressed him and me for different reasons.  He was understandably upset with the choices the kids made to avoid completing the assignment.  I shared his concern about the boys’ behavior, but I wasn’t willing to impose swift, severe discipline without first looking at how our practice may have unwittingly encouraged this behavior—or at the very least made it an attractive, allowable alternative.

A problem can be a kind of gift that needs to be unwrapped carefully. There are problems that solve us (as Robert Keagan says), and it struck me that this issue of boys copying answers might have surfaced systemic issues that offered us an opportunity to improve teaching and learning.

What did the boys behaviors indicate about what they thought was important in math class, and in our school?

How did our approach to homework contribute to the choices these boys made?

What could we do to steer them more definitively in the direction of behaviors that were aligned with our mission to make them life-long, insightful learners?

“What was the assignment,” I asked?

“Give answers to problems one through thirty odd at the end of the chapter on slope,” was the response.

As we talked about how to respond to the boys, I thought about my own experience in algebra class—I think I got the exact same assignment in a different algebra text book in 1964!

If the assignment is to come up with a piece of paper with 15 answers—without really proving in any authentic way that the material was mastered—it becomes an easy assignment to minimize. Or, as in this particular case, avoid altogether either by simply not doing the work, or by cutting corners.

This teacher was a wonderful man who was very dedicated to his work. While he had teaching experience in other schools, he was relatively new in our school. Perhaps like most math teachers he was trained to demonstrate problems on the board for the class, and then assign problems for homework.  The homework problems were discussed in the next class after the students’ papers were collected. He was a caring, thoughtful teacher who went out of his way to change explanations when necessary and give plenty of time and one-on-one support when students had difficulties. His own commitment seemed to make the behavior of the boys even more painful than it might ordinarily be.

This prompted me to ask the question:  Is it possible tocome up with a homework assignment that is cheat-proof?

It was not difficult.

After some discussion, we came up with a plan: Instead of the teacher going over the problems on the board after he assigned the homework, we determined that he would ask students in class to form cooperative groups.  Each group would be responsible to solve several problems using the models in the text, each other, and the teacher when they got stuck. Each student would be required to demonstrate the solution to one of the problems the group got to solve, plus one that they would be randomly assigned at the end of the week. They would be responsible to present in their groups first, and then go to the board and lead the class discussion and the solution to the problems. If they could not satisfactorily demonstrate mastery of the concept and the work required to solve the problem, they would be required to attend an after school study session with the teacher to have more intensive review until the assignment could be completed satisfactorily.

The homework now was to learn how to solve the slope problems and prepare to present solutions to the class.  They could prepare any way they wanted—they could talk with older siblings or parents, discuss with their peers in study hall, or even talk to each other in the restroom if convenient!

The lesson here is that if we make school and homework about learning, and demonstrating what we learn, there is no way to take a short cut. You can’t easily find a way to cheat.  Not only that, this approach fostered cooperation and collaboration. Unfortunately, collaboration, which is highly prized in the marketplace, is called “cheating” in school.

Before anyone points a finger at Atlanta, or college students who copy someone else’s writing, or the boys who share homework answers to algebra homework, let’s hold up a mirror and acknowledge what has happened in our schools over the past two decades. Let’s talk honestly about who cheats and who gets cheated in our nation’s schools and colleges.

Have we not rigged the system to encourage students and teachers to take short cuts? Have we spent so much time and energy preparing kids to take tests that we have forgotten what teaching and learning actually requires?

Tests and grading systems now emphasize recognition over cognition, memorization over problem solving, and individual, isolated student work over team work and collaboration. When we quiz students and grade them on material they memorize for a short period of time—without an opportunity to discuss and use it with others or apply it thoughtfully to new circumstances—we confuse ‘memory’ with ‘knowledge.’

When educational practice settles for memorized facts over application and problem solving, students shift into the mode Mary described in the ABC Special.  Students focus on surviving a system of binging and purging information—what Dr. Mel Levine called ‘informational bulimia and intellectual anorexia.’   It becomes possible to cheat in such circumstances perhaps because everyone involved perhaps feels cheated by the experience.

And how do we define cheating?

And who is really cheating who?

In the State of Ohio, for example, only 32-36% of all the students in the 4th and 8th grades score at or above proficiency levels in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—often referred to as the nation’ s report card. Similar scores are seen across the nation, elevating this failure to a public health emergency as well as an enduring national disgrace.

We are cheating all the children who fall below proficiency levels, and maybe even those who reach proficiency levels.  We cheat our children when we do anything that sells them short.

Our failure rates cheat our children, cheat our communities, and cheat our nation by allowing schools to fail the most basic and fundamental obligations to teach children effectively in classrooms.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 stated, “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the people . . . [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”

Philosophers and leaders from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey to Martin Luther King have admonished that the preservation of democratic institutions require knowledgeable and virtuous citizens educated in schools that serve every sector of the populace.

The cheating we should really be worried about and outraged by is not happening in Atlanta schools, or in Hunter College history classes, or in high school bathrooms where boys share answers to homework questions. It is happening in federal and state legislatures and local budget offices where policy that influences what happens in our schools is determined.

We made this problem and we can fix it. There are now several examples of schools and educational models that have succeeded in the same conditions that others use to excuse and rationalize failure.  I will be celebrating what these schools have learned about effective programming for at-risk learners in future blogs.

For now, I think we should all be shocked. Shocked that ‘business as usual’ continues in schools that are failing our children.

Where is Claude Reins when we need him?


About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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8 Responses to Cheating: What Students with Learning Differences Teach Us about Learning Indifference

  1. Bob Baker says:

    Lou: Outstanding essay on our great national failing. Thanks for putting the real cheating scandal in focus!! Thanks for being a first responder!

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks Bob! Courtney helps me so much — she understands what is most important for me to say and helped me hone this message. So glad you are out there. BTW: how wonderful it was for all of us to hear that Courtney won the honors in her cohort in the 100 miler! She is awesome!!
      Kind regards,

  2. Maureen Weigand says:

    Well said and beautifully written. Thanks for “getting” the mission.

  3. Remy Zane says:

    You, sir, raise some mighty valid points. I don’t remember ever cheating in school, but your dichotomizing (?) of memory and knowledge still holds true to me today. Is… is that a good thing?

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks Remy! As I have grown older the differences between memory, knowledge and wisdom gain contrast and stand out in high relief. Episodic memory is the way we make sense of our lives. But in school children are asked to memorize lots of fairly unimportant stuff. Looking back I think I wasted time trying to memorize facts that did not necessarily fit into a sensible narrative and therefore for me at least the information faded quickly or if it didn’t I felt I had remembered some useless trivia. Thanks again for the comment!

  4. sandi tadaki says:

    Well said, my friend; this should be an op ed piece in the NYTimes! We heard Alan November at the HAIS Schools of the Future Conference and his words resonated with me as well. Check him out here:

  5. cleveland47 says:

    I just discovered your blog today thanks to an email exchange prompted by our NEO Education Thread. This is an outstanding analysis of an issue that has always been a factor in schools — but with important new insights and a remarkable solution. Even more important, however, is the fact that it addresses a question that I think is the most important question that is rarely addressed when students deviate from our “standards” or norms: What can we learn about our school and teaching and learning from what has happened? How can we do our work better based on what the students are teaching us? Lawrence must be a very special place if the leadership and teachers are willing to not only ask such questions, but to make changes in response. The best schools are the ones who don’t explain away every difficult situation, but use them to guide their ongoing exploration. I will be checking in with your blog again! Karen Nestor

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