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Rebuttal: Cheating isn’t networking, it’s cheating

Elaine J. Power, a biology and biotechnology teacher at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, Md., took strong issue with a post by Penelope Trunk that said schools should loosen up about cheating and encourage students to network to find answers. You can read the original post here, and following is Power’s response:

By Elaine J. Power

Penelope Trunk says that “what schools call cheating is what people in the work world call effective workplace behavior.” She’s wrong.

What schools call cheating is more akin to the workplace behavior in which somebody gets a promotion by taking credit for someone else’s work. When the boss condones that kind of behavior, you get a lot of disgruntled, back-stabbing employees, and a dysfunctional workplace. If schools condone cheating, it’s not collaboration that students learn. They learn that you don’t need to work or think for yourself to succeed. You need only hang around until someone else puts in the effort, and then call it yours.

Imagine the lucky student who spent 12 years coasting through school with nary a single teacher to tell him that it wasn’t okay to copy all his answers from the paper of the student next to him:

As an entry-level worker, he keeps asking people for contacts so he can network for information he needs for his project. Several people give him their time and information leads. But he calls them again, and again, every time he needs something else until finally they stop taking his calls. The report he cobbles together is terrible, with not an original thought in it. And since he never has any information to reciprocate, even his most tolerant peers soon learn to stop wasting their time with him.

He then gets assigned to a team project. Finally, a chance for shared credit on a higher-quality product! But to his shock, each person on the team is responsible for one piece of the project, and everybody’s looking to him to do his piece. Since he can’t do it, his only hope is that everyone else will do such a great job that the overall report is good, and at least he’ll get his name on it. It is and he does. The problem is, now nobody wants to be on a team with him, either.

Still, he can at least leverage technology. He’ll redeem himself by finding out what he needs for his third work assignment online. No matter how many times he Googles the topic of his assignment, though, his boss still rejects the web page he turns in.

Cheating isn’t networking, or collaboration, or leveraging technology, and it doesn’t teach how to do any of those things. It’s cheating: taking the result of someone else’s work and presenting it as your own. Schools can’t stop it. But they can and must treat it as wrong.

If a student cheats on a quiz and I don’t catch it, I’ll never know that she doesn’t understand the concept. If the student simply copies her lab analyses from other students’ paper, she’ll never have a reason to discuss the logic behind the analyses. If the student turns in essays copied from ones found online, she’s not learning to work in order to synthesize information.

In my pre-teaching days, I once was the project lead on a team with a stupendous research assistant, an extremely bright young woman straight out of college. She mentioned one day how much she loved working in a group, which she didn’t expect because she’d hated it so much in high school. Surprised, I asked her why she’d disliked it so much when she was younger. She replied: I got tired of being on teams where I did all the work, and we all got the same grade.

True collaborators are the gems of the workplace. I want my students to be those collaborators, able to hold up their end and work with their colleagues towards a common goal, whatever the setting. Nobody wants to work with a cheater.