10.11.2009

But Is It Cheating?


Blueprint

Blueprint Mural
by Joe Shlabotnik


One day in elementary school, my classmates and I were handed yard sticks and told to create a map of the school as to close to scale as possible. Standing in the longest hall of the school, looking at the comparatively tiny ruler, the whole thing screamed busy work. As my classmates went to work futilely measuring, I went to the media center instead; I figured that I shouldn’t waste my time measuring something that I was sure someone had not only measured already, but had probably with more accuracy than a gnawed-on piece of wood (hopefully by the class pet and not a student) could provide.

I asked the media specialist, Mrs. Williams, if there were any maps of the school available, preferably one with the building’s dimensions. Being that I was a regular in the library, one who often requested odd things like books about UFOs or sound clips of a mandolin, Mrs. Williams did not even blink at my request…it wasn’t until she was about to hand me the blueprints to the school that she curiously inquired as to why I needed a map of the school. Needless to say, I did not leave with the map that day, but instead left with a lecture about not taking shortcuts (a nice euphemism for cheating) and the importance of doing work as assigned.

When the Answers Can be Googled, You're Asking the Wrong Questions

The point of the exercise was not to test our measuring skills or to learn cartography; we were learning about scale and ratios*, a concept I could have learned without having to spend an hour actually measuring the hallways. Was it really wrong that I took the initiative to do research and cut my work in half? I think not. I often see students given the task to extract information from their text books, usually with the intent of their learning the material. Students who quickly locate the information using Google or their buddy in the desk next to them, are consider to be cheating. But are they really doing anything wrong? The students are simply copying information onto their paper; the source from which they copy is irrelevant, as long as the information is correct. I can hear all y’all teachers clamoring about the value of such assignments, but hear me out. If you want to teach students how to read a text, make that the point of the assignment (actually tell students the goal) AND give them questions that cannot be answered by Google, you know, the ones that require students to actually think and not just regurgitate. If you want students to learn the material, then it does not matter that Johnny the savvy geek studies the periodic table from an app on his ipod, rather than from the stagnant picture in his text book.

Too often people confuse difficulty with value, and tasks that have been made easy by technology are somehow less valuable. It is more difficult - or at least takes more time – to manually insert citations and write/type a bibliography, than it is to use a service such as EasyBib; however, there truly is no value in having to lookup citation formats every time one writes a paper. Rather than spend time teaching how to cite, let technology take care of that mundane tasks and spend that time teaching actual research skills, such as resource analysis.

Moral of the Story: If a student finds a quicker or easier way to complete an assignment, whether thanks to technology or otherwise, think of it as progress - you now have a new method of teaching, and the student now has time to learn more stuff!

*As a side note, the 6th grade teachers in my district have a neat way of teaching ratios that not even Google (or a visit to the Media Center) can solve. Working in groups, each student has his picture taken next to an immeasurable object, e.g. a flag pole. After measuring themselves (in both real life and the picture) and the height of the object in the picture, the students then extrapolate the real height of the object by cross multiplication. The teachers even include an Excel lesson, by having the students create graphs from their final tables.