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Is cheating worse than it once was?

Published: Friday, June 7, 2013 11:34 a.m. CDT

Good, thought-provoking commentaries are always a joy. “Why are Iowa high school graduates two years behind?” by Sue Atkinson, Ph.D., published on Monday, June 3, was excellent. Her analysis of problems in our education today is scary. Fingers can be pointed, but we all have to realize that some or many fingers point directly back at us.

Another avenue to explore that I consider “gaming the system” is by teaching to the test. Through that we have consistently taught students that cheating is OK if it gives you the results you want. Academic cheating today is prevalent. Actually, all types of cheating is prevalent.  One of my nightmares grading research papers was plagiarism, which is not only cheating but stealing someone else’s material.  Is cheating really worse than it once was? 

Cheating includes a number of aspects and people cheat for various reasons. In truth, only well-developed personal integrity keeps us from cheating. We develop integrity from what we see, hear, and are taught. At some point we intertwine all of that into what we personally believe. Integrity is not a one-time thing; it is a policy that we live by and if we offend it enough, we create a lesser integrity. 

My grandfather was my role model for integrity. He lived what he believed, sometimes to the point I considered ridiculous. One example: We went to the store, and, as he owned no car, we walked a mile there, and he was short three pennies. The clerk said that was fine, but my grandfather said he would bring it back after he did another errand. I didn’t think anything about it. We walked another mile to a store, and he asked for extra change. Of course, I was hoping it was for the gumball machine. It wasn’t. We went back to the first place, and he handed the man the three pennies then we walked a mile home. I was tired and probably peeved I didn’t get the gumball, so I asked, “Why couldn’t you have given those pennies to him the next time you went in instead of walking a mile out of our way?” 

His answer: “I gave the man my word, and I didn’t want to forget.”

Cheating comes from modeling adults who cheat, then growing and choosing to become a cheating adult. Early cheating incidents seem unimportant but often leave a lifetime mark on those watching. It might be lying about age to get a cheaper price or keeping the extra change the clerk accidently gives you. 

Cheating results from our fear of failure and being willing to win at any price.  Cheating also comes from others establishing our goals, rather than ourselves. That’s why in parenting it is important to teach a child to establish a goal, then together establishing goals and expecting them to follow through. That’s part of what Atkinson said about students needing to see education as being relevant to their lives. A young child who has often been read to wants to learn how to interpret those squiggles on the paper. If they are given the tools to learn they learn letters, words, sentences, etc. They feel the power of interpreting and gradually set other goals with help.  Goals need meaning, challenge, and be worth working for. They can be suggested but not set by teacher or parent. All of us need to know there is help along the way toward meeting our goal and that cheating won’t really get us the result we want. The learning we gain by seeking a goal is reward in itself.

Widespread competition that leads to so many losers also causes cheating. Too many times we illustrate that second or less is bad instead of the fact we finished the race or contest and others didn’t even try. The goal is to do our best and if our best is coming in last, we made the effort. Peer pressures from those who cheat cause serious problems and are often ignored by adults. People tend to neutralize guilt with rationalizations. “If I don’t succeed, Mom and Dad will be so upset.”  “If I don’t succeed, I won’t be able to play, get to the next grade, etc.”  Sadly, too many adults agree with this rationalization.

We’ve explored some elements of cheating, so how can we reduce cheating? First, we must improve communication and interpersonal relationships. We must encourage a positive view, but not expect everyone to achieve to the same standard. We have to stop treating failure as a stopping point, but as a learning point. We need to communicate after a failure what has been learned, what is practical and what is relevant, which means we need to teach how to set reasonable goals.  Everyone involved needs to provide feedback and encouragement not with, “You did well, but …” A constructive comment is “What did you learn from this experience?”

For too many years, we have expected too little from our children and from ourselves. Teaching was never a 9-5 job but a vocation. We need quality education for our teachers and we need to quit building barriers so they can do their job.  Meeting goals of well-constructed state and national tests are effective only if we meet the challenge and not try to “game” our way around them.  You never really fool a child about what you are doing. A student tends to rise to your expectations or fail your expectations. Only if those expectations are theirs do they sail above them and gain the confidence to learn from their failures.  Yes, there will be students who will do poorly on those tests, but the tests do not show the value of a person; they show where each is succeeding at this point in time and the work we still need to do. Until next week …  Christine Pauley

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