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What some call cheating can help learning

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 10:18 PM

My daughter is with us for the holidays, having survived her first barrage of law school exams in California. The exams were longer and more difficult than anything I ever had as a graduate student in Chinese studies. But her professors allowed students to have notes with them. This got my attention because her boyfriend at a neighboring law school was forbidden to have notes in two of his exams.

At these two institutions dedicated to equality under the law, what my daughter did during exams at one could have been considered cheating if she attended the other. What are we to make of the uneven nature of such rules, just as unpredictable as those found in our public K-12 schools? Open-book exams are okay some places, not in others. Cooperating with friends on homework is encouraged by some teachers, denounced elsewhere as a sign of declining American moral fiber.

Alfie Kohn, a provocative writer and speaker on educational subjects, has a book coming out next year: "Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling." It addresses this issue in a way that may cause apoplexy in some of those raised on the old rules but makes sense to me.

For instance, insisting that students do homework on their own does not necessarily encourage independent learning. In high school, most students show up to see their friends. If homework becomes a social occasion, even by telephone or Internet, there is some chance it might get done. Otherwise, except for motivated, college-bound students, it often will not be completed. That is particularly true in schools that limit severely how much homework counts on report cards.

I don't often agree with Kohn. But he has a gift for seeing past school practices that owe more to habit than results. There are many studies, he notes, that show cooperative learning - doing an assignment with others - raises achievement as well as enhancing relationships and motivation.

"The problem, however, is that aside from the occasional sanctioned group project," Kohn writes, "the default condition in most American classrooms - particularly where homework and testing are concerned - is reflected in that familiar injunction heard from elementary school teachers: 'I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do.' (Or, if the implications were spelled out more precisely, 'I want to see what you can do all by yourself, deprived of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments, rather than seeing how much more you and your neighbors could accomplish together.') . . . Alas, most collaboration is simply classified as cheating. End of discussion."

Kohn blames much of cheating on the competitive nature of American schools. The majority of high schools in the Washington area are prime examples. Most of the parents are college graduates. They want their children to follow the same path. They seek out competitive high schools to make that happen.

Around here, smart educators and school boards have seen how the urge to beat your classmates can sour the learning process. Most no longer rank graduates by their grade point averages, except in broad categories like the top 10 percent, the next 10 percent, and so on. At least half of Washington area schools no longer pick just one student with the best grades to be valedictorian. The honor often goes to dozens of hardworking students who have gotten grade-point averages above 4.0 because they took Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses.

More difficult-to-copy essay questions on exams and more attention to what is going on in the exam room may also restrain cheating. But why not start with eliminating rules and practices that frustrate learning? We might make our schools better and make it less likely that students think they have to cheat to get where they want to go.

For education news and analysis, go to the Education page at washingtonpost.com/education. You can sign up for a weekly e-mail of our best headlines and blogs, The Post's "Education Report." Our blogs include Class Struggle by Jay Mathews, The Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss, D.C. Schools Insider by Bill Turque, College Inc. by Daniel de Vise and Campus Overload by Jenna Johnson. For college news, go to washingtonpost.com/higher-ed. And on Twitter, follow us @PostSchools. Editor's note: Jay's column appears today because its usual home in Metro, the Education page, will be on holiday break for the next two Mondays.

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