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September 26, 2012

How Group Learning Invites Cheating

By Rita Kramer

The most shocking thing about the Harvard cheating scandal was not that 125 students out of a class of 279 were found to have “committed acts of academic dishonesty” on an exam last spring, or even that the exam was for a course that was supposed to be an easy mark. It was that it happened at Harvard, the elite of the elite, where it is understood that only the smartest kids are accepted. Why would they have to cheat?

As the details became clear (at first, significantly enough, in the sports magazines), it developed that the course, Government 1310: Introduction to Congress, had the reputation of being a cinch to pass. But last spring the exam was harder.  It was a take-home open-book and open- Internet assignment over a weekend, but this time students were expected to write essay answers, not just select answers from multiple choices. And when the papers were graded, more than half were found to have given answers that were the same as another student’s, word for word.

When the facts became public, there was no joy in Cambridge. The stars of Harvard’s outstanding basketball team were among the large proportion of athletes taking the course. It remained unclear what punishment awaited the guilty as it could not be determined whether students had been collaborating on answers or plagiarizing outright from the Internet or each other.

Generosity Was the Excuse

One indignant Harvard student maintained that collaboration was “encouraged, expected.” That attitude also seemed to apply at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s outstanding school, where a similar scandal was revealed. This time 140 students were involved, all receiving help from a classmate using his cell phone to send answers to his friends and those he wanted to become his friends.  The tests (the system was applied to several of them) were the prestigious Regents exams, important factors in college acceptances.  Ironically, the admitted aim of most Stuyvesant students, who face stiff competition getting into Stuyvesant and maintaining high grades once they get there, is to be admitted to Harvard.

Those who tried to explain the Stuyvesant cheating pointed to the pressure students were under with the emphasis on standardized tests and their crucial importance from elementary school through college. Standardized tests, some maintain, lead to standardized cheating. The mastermind of the texting technique had his own justification--generosity. He told a reporter for New York magazine, “I wanted them to have a bright future....I’ve done a lot for these people.”  He didn’t want them, he explained, to have to go to “a lousy college.”  Whatever the rationalization, it seems clear one can be smart enough to get into Stuyvesant but still be a moral idiot.

What about the culture of collaboration referred to by a Harvard student? For some years it has been the pedagogical fashion in the schools of education which prepare teachers for classrooms all over the country. The teacher should not stand in front of a class imparting knowledge, goes this philosophy. (Don’t be “a sage on the stage” is the mantra.) Children will come to knowledge on their own, as a group, with the teacher as a coach. That, of course, makes the students a team.  And a team works together.
One of the purposes of team as opposed to individual work is to do away with competition.  The final answer or product is not the work of any one student so there are no individual grades given. In a typical high school example of team learning, the students are divided into groups at separate round tables (so nobody sits at the head or the foot of the table),with each group responsible for mastering a part of the assigned material, and team coaching of those who find the work difficult.  This results in the brightest pupils being held to the level of the least able.

Easy for Teachers, Awful for Students

One of the features of cooperative learning is that no one has to learn all about anything.  And it is a method that is easier for the teacher (no “frontal teaching,” no “teacher talk”). Teachers are meant to think of themselves, according to one professor of education, as “direction givers--monitors, facilitators, not information givers.” Group learning has more to do with socialization than with learning.

Still, there are youngsters who manage to learn enough, despite the roadblocks erected by the social engineers of schooling, to pass the entrance requirements for a school like Stuyvesant and, later, Harvard.  It may be that they have been so steeped in the culture of cooperative learning that they see helping each other out as normal, despite the rules.  Especially when faced, possibly for the first time, with a situation where they are not the smartest kid in the class--everyone is. The pressure to succeed at a school like Stuyvesant--or for an athlete at Harvard trying to make the grade academically--can corrode the character in a culture where succeeding means more than learning. A good example is the now suspended Stuyvesant student who carried out the cell phone scam.  Asked what he wanted to be later in life, he replied, “An investment banker.”

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Rita Kramer’s books include Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers.



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