Why schools should relax about cheating

Here’s a rather unconventional view on cheating. It was written by Penelope Trunk, who founded Brazen Careerist and two other startups. Her career advice runs in 200 newspapers. She lives on a farm in Wisconsin and homeschools her sons. This appeared on her blog.

By Penelope Trunk

Eric Anderman, professor at education psychology at Ohio University, has studied cheating for decades, and he says that 85 percent of students admit to cheating. (The number is probably higher since some do it but don’t admit it.) Harvard recently had to have a public discussion about campus cheating, and Stuyvesant, a New York City magnet school that’s harder to get into than Harvard, had an incredibly organized cheating system that rivals best practices for productivity types in Fortune 500 organizations.

It’s completely ridiculous that schools are so uptight about cheating because what schools call cheating is what people in the work world call effective workplace behavior.  For example:

1. Networking
In school, looking at someone else’s paper to get the right answer is forbidden.  But in the work world, the people who rise the fastest are the ones who know the right person to ask to get the answer.

What made Stuyvesant’s cheating system so effective was that everybody had a certain topic that they would be expert on, and everyone else knew how to get the answers from that person.

That’s a great workplace skill, and you do kids a disservice by training them to think that it’s improper behavior.

The story of the 17-year-old who just sold Summly for millions to Yahoo is a great example of the importance of networking. Nick D’Aloisio could never have turned his little startup into a million-dollar startup without getting other people to tell him the answers to how to build a company, how to fund a company, how to sell a company.

2. Collaboration
The biggest difference between Generation Y and the people who are older than Generation Y is productivity, because Generation Y is incredibly productive because they’re great collaborators.

They don’t think in terms of hoarding information. They think in terms of installing better and better software to share information. It’s miraculous that they were able to do this after 18 years of schooling where they were told that collaboration is cheating.

3. Leveraging technology
Lisa Nelson has lobbied hard from within the New York City Department of Education to allow all kids to use cell phones in school because they’re such amazing learning tools.  Of course, every answer in the whole world is somewhere on the Internet.  Maybe you have to search for a person who found the answer or maybe you have to search for the information and put the answer together yourself, but it’s all there.

So it’s absurd that schools ban cell phones because kids would be able to find answers online. School is effectively an anti‑education system in this regard.

In the age of information, sharing information rules the day, and there’s no longer a place for a Lone Ranger at the office who works independently of everyone else. Today’s business world is too complicated and too networked for people to work so independently as to not be getting information from other people.

When my son was taking his first exam, it was in a music theory class. He had to ask me what a test is when they told him to prepare for it.  I told him that they would ask the class what they learned, and then the class would tell the teacher what they learned. He spent the week at the piano, studying.

It didn’t occur to me how nuanced the answer was because during the test, my son started looking at all the kids’ papers around him.  The other kids were horrified, but they didn’t say anything.  I just sat and watched.

It was so interesting to me that my son has a natural inclination to get the answers from the people around him when he didn’t know.  I let him do it.

It’s unclear what he knows by himself about music theory, but it’s clear that he knows how to get answers to questions when he needs them, and that will serve him well in life.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | June 4, 2013