Cheating and the Christian Teacher

Simon JeynesThe CACE Roundtable4 Comments

Christian school student takes a test
Christian school student takes a test

Let’s make one thing clear. We are opposed to cheating. If a student cheats, there need to be clear consequences as there should be for any moral lapse. The Bible is clearly against cheating considering it a form of injustice that requires reparations (cf. Leviticus 6). Cheating is saying something that is not true as Laban cheated Jacob with his ten years of labor (Genesis 31). In the context of teachers and students, cheating means passing something off as your own when it is not. A student might bring in answers to questions during a test; a student might plagiarize. Cheating is a form of lying. 

So why isn’t the title of this article, Cheating and the Christian Student? Because in the 21st century, the way in which students think about cheating is not the same as it was in the 20th century. This is not post modern relativism. This is a change in reality just as large as when the longbow allowed peasants to kill lords at a far distance, ‘cheating’ according to the laws of chivalry. In an article by an English teacher – “Cultivating Critical Thought in the Gen-Z Culture of Sharing” by Amy Cavanaugh in English Journal, July 2019 (Vol. 108, #6, pp. 32-38) – Amy quotes students as follows: ““I’m just so stressed out,” said one, “and if someone has the answers to a stupid worksheet, I’ll take them.” “It’s just sort of normal,” said another; “I’m not a cheater but I share.” She comments: “That student’s lack of shame stems from a youth culture that engages in wholesale sharing of music, photos, videos, memes, tweets, posts, and more. The line between harmless interpersonal communication and violation of the traditional norms of intellectual property is fuzzy because authorship of lots of online material is unclear and kids get used to the idea that sharing a tweet credits the source”.

In other words, students are living in an environment where information is available online and where not accessing that information would severely disadvantage them. We would like to suggest that this is at least one significant area where we have to catch up and change how we think about cheating. If we ask questions that the student can google the answer to, we should not penalize the students if they do. It’s the same as asking the students to spell a word correctly and penalizing them if they use a dictionary. Instead, we should appreciate and praise their skill in research, their resourcefulness in exploring, and their shrewdness in best utilization of time. Essentially, we have asked a lower order thinking question and they have responded with a lower order process. If we want to engage them in higher order thinking, we have to rethink our questions and our teaching pedagogy:

Consider the following scenarios:

  1. A third grade class is instructed to create an animal report presentation in powerpoint along with an information sheet. They must answer questions such as what is the animal’s habitat, what does it eat, is it endangered. What is the most difficult part of this assignment? There is little thinking involved – everything can be found online and the instructions might even encourage that. The challenge is in writing, organization, and the understanding of powerpoint. As a science class, this is a very lower order activity. As a multi-media class, it is potentially a much higher order activity. Imagine, instead, thinking of it as a science class and making the instructions quite different to promote higher order thinking: choose a wild animal or bird that you have seen in your neighborhood; research the answers to the knowledge questions provided and put together an information sheet – cite your sources, print or digital or human; in the best way for you, present to the class why this animal/bird is important and suggest what actions the class as a whole might take to protect a healthy neighborhood. This scaffolds the assignment leading from knowledge to analysis and insight, from lower order thinking to higher order thinking. The potential technical roadblocks are eased and the assignment focuses more on the science than on the multi-media. 
  2. A 10th grade class is asked to write an essay with the title: “What is the theme of Macbeth? Support your answer by reference to the play.” This would be a very typical 20th century essay question and is probably still in vogue today. However, a savvy student can go online and find the various answers to that question and paraphrase what they found. This turns a higher order exercise of analysis and emotional response to one merely of articulation. Imagine, instead, acknowledging that there is a lot of information out there and structure the exercise differently. “Find two conflicting interpretations of Macbeth and explain them with full citation. Argue for one of those interpretations showing why the other is incorrect. If you would like, argue for your own third interpretation showing why it is superior to one of the other interpretations. Support your answer by reference to the play.” This scaffolds the assignment leading from being able to paraphrase the information found (lower order thinking) to taking a position and understanding its strengths and weaknesses (higher order thinking). 

This leads to another point which is that lecture, a 20th century staple, is now understood to be one of only several ways in which students can acquire knowledge. Knowing is now the ‘easy’ part. The pedagogy that leads to thinking, a practice that cannot be googled, must now include discussion, group engagement, as well as individual reflection. Discussion so that there is a clash of ideas based on common knowledge; group engagement so that knowledge can be interrogated in more complex ways (e.g. from different points of view such as gender or race or class); individual reflection because thinking has to be internalized and made personal. 

We must teach our students a new definition of cheating. The following is not intended to be definitive but to provoke further thinking in Christian schools as we adapt our questions and pedagogy to a new context. 

Academic cheating is lying about authorship. If I say that an assignment is mine, I am saying that it is unique to me in its use and interpretation of sources. Where I am asked to find information, I am encouraged to discover that information in whatever form I can (personal, print, and/or digital) and carefully assess its origin so that I know whether it is authoritative or spurious. I must always identify where my information came from and be aware that all sources have bias. Using a classmate, an adult, a printed resource, or digital resources and passing their insights off as my own is cheating.  Academic honesty is acknowledging and giving credit for what is someone else’s. 

Rethinking cheating offers an opportunity to move our teaching to a higher gear. If we encourage the use of the internet of things fully and see it as an enormous advantage for our students, we can then also take them to a new educational plateau where each subject is able to delve even more deeply in the search for truth and meaning. 

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4 Comments on “Cheating and the Christian Teacher”

  1. How times have changed. I am 83 years old and a retired Christian School administrator. What I remember is when a teacher or two sent a student to my office to deal with a cheating problem. I totally agree with this article’s premise about being able to go to google these days and find anything one needs to explain the subject matter. We called it ‘plagiarism’ in my day. Yes, Times Have Changed!! … George

  2. Another angle on this is captured in the quote (I think it was Ken Robinson), “at school we call it cheating; in the workforce it’s called collaboration”. We need to remember the end goal of student learning. Sometimes a student asking a colleague ‘for the answer’ is lazy and little learning occurs. Sometimes is can be a rich part of a collaborative learning experience. We need to be careful that we don’t respond as pharisaical law keepers.

  3. Love this approach to a common issue in our schools. Helping teachers to understand the generation they now teach is important so we learn to modify our teaching appropriately.

  4. Thanks for building a compelling argument that challenges the Christian educator to create assignments that foster higher-order thinking that leads to unique, reflective student work.

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