Monday 20 January 2014

Cheating is learning

The topic for the first week of Dave Cormier's #rhizo14 course is 'Cheating AS Learning' but I've called this post 'Cheating IS Learning' because that's what I say to students all the time in the classroom. When I chuck a question at them in the classroom, I often (well in the first few weeks at least) find them staring back at me blankly. This is, plainly, because they don't know the answer to the question. Pretty much every single one of them has some kind of mobile device on their person that they can whip out and use to cheat but they're all so well trained in standards of teaching and learning that they believe that unless they can pull the answer out of their memory banks then it's not valid as an answer. As soon as I suggest that they can 'cheat' (i.e. they can look up the answer on their phone) then suddenly they are into it. It often becomes a bit of a race to see who can get to the answer first.

The phrase 'cheating is learning' became a kind of catchphrase in that class alongside another one that I picked up from Lindsay Jordan: "No one knows as much as everyone". Lindsay explains it as: 10 people working together on something will always achieve more than one person competing against the other 9. These two principles are, of course, linked; I'll get onto that link in a bit.

There are lots of ways students can cheat: they can look stuff up online (invariably they google it which often gets them to wikipedia), they can look stuff up in a book (usually their text book) or their notes, they can ask someone else in the room or they can ask the teacher. The point is that I want it to be clear to my students that the whole principle of learning has to work from the assumption that there is a whole pile of stuff they don't yet know; not knowing it isn't a big deal, but not finding out is.

The link between 'cheating is learning' and 'noone knows as much as everyone' is, of course, that learning collaboratively (and by extension working collaboratively) is a very productive approach.  The principle  I offer is that I don't expect them to come to an active learning session with the complete picture, but I do expect them to come with at least some of the jigsaw puzzle pieces. It's likely that not everyone will come with the same pieces so the job of work to be done in the learning session is for each student to declare which pieces they've brought and do what they can to piece them together with the pieces that others have brought. It's still highly likely that at the end of that session they they'll have that annoying charity-shop jigsaw scenario of missing pieces, but the  picture should at least be starting to form.

The student reflective responses to these types of classes are always positive: that they feel they've really learned something because they've had to figure it out for themselves rather than simply being told it. This is, of course, heuristic learning at its best.

The first thing that I want to reflect on in this post is that after my confident declaration that 'cheating is learning' I routinely find myself muttering 'don't tell my colleagues I said that'. There's something deeply iconoclastic about saying these things and believing them to be true. That's especially the case for someone who, as I do, also sits on academic misconduct panels. So the first reflective question I pose (to myself and others reading this) is: what are the limits we might want to or be required to impose upon collaborative learning within the academy? What role might rhizomatic learning play in 'loosening the regulatory bolts'?

The other thing I want to reflect on is how this approach I've described fits within a rhizomatic model of learning. It still very much works from the 'arborescent' assumption that the principle of good learning is finding (whether through cheating or not) the right answers to questions. This is, of course, all well and good for things that are arborescent, but, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, 'we're tired of trees... they've made us suffer too much' (15). So the second reflective question I ask (again of myself and others) is how might the 'cheating is learning' principle apply in a rhizomatic context and, particularly, a context in which I want to value and reward students not for answering questions to which we already know the answers, but instead for asking questions we've never thought to ask before (even if we don't yet have any answers)?


  1. Like this cheating as learning

  2. Hi Cath,
    fascinating post - I could see that your students were learning how to find something out - and the something out appeared to be facts (not sure of topic). What about when the something they had to find out was not facts but how to do something? The cheating then is different I think.

    1. Hi Cath and Frances,
      We were having a discussion about ebooks, I suggested that the internet could be the "almost perfect ebook" though some though it could be too much to handle. The point I would like to make is that regardless of trying to learn facts or how to do things, what we need is to teach new skills.
      Some argue that if a question is easily answered by googling it is not a good question, my feeling is that we take for granted what good questions are. I usually find myself asking silly questions, or having too sky-blue ideas. But sometimes, this silliness or almost crazy ideas lead me to new ways of looking at things.
      It's challenging to feel out of the system sometimes.

    2. Frances: I agree that that is a different type of cheating, but I guess my point is that there are lots of types of cheating. Finding out how to do something (even stuff I should actually already know how to do or stuff I once knew how to do and have forgotten) - or procedural knowledge - is the central pillar of the Khan academy and, frankly, a lot of what I use YouTube for.
      Debbie - I guess that's the point of my final reflections. Asking questions like that is working from assumptions of right and wrong whereas rhizomes are really made up of indeterminacy. But, as D&G point out, there are things in the world that are arborescent, we just have to stop teaching (and learning) as if everything is.

    3. Hi Cath - interesting post, but I agree with Frances. For me, what you describe as your approach to teaching, is a good introduction to searching for, filtering, selecting, remixing and repurposing information, i.e information seeking skills. Like Frances, I don't think that this is the same thing as 'cheating' - although I can see that if your students have always been told that using mobile phones in class is cheating, and then you suddenly tell them that they can use them, then what you are asking them to do might be interpreted as cheating. I still wonder whether making students feel comfortable about 'cheating' is ethical. Thanks for your post.

    4. Hi Jenny - that issue of ethics is precisely where my reflections sit at the end: I guess I'm wanting to find out where the meaningful 'edges' to this thinking might sit, particularly for someone responsible for leading on academic integrity. I guess to put it in simple terms, there if there is a kind of it-feels-naughty emotion that emerges from something that I'm doing or encouraging my students to do, it might be worth attending to that.

  3. The stuff is not the problem. The mass of stuff is.

    I am now working with my students on reflective curation of stuff which is meaningful to them using the 'recommendation engines' critically, using translators critically.

    We are trying to make it clear to them that the process is much more important than the product. Indeed the process in language learning or any learning is key. Life-long learning is what it says - a process.

    We are then looking at the different means of communicating identies and competences.

    One of these competences is social networking.

    We have had institutionalised cheating in our systems for ever - the problem is the myth that we are all working on a flat playing surface.

  4. I used cheating as "learning" in junior high when I copied the answers from tests that my sister had a year earlier, and then shared them. I only remember one kid getting caught because he got 100%. The rule was you had to have at least 5 mistakes. Cheater.

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  6. Hi, yes there is a certain behaviour inculcated into school and university students that "remembering" is superior to "looking up" rather ironic given Bloom's cognitive hierarchy. I have been operating an inquiry based learning model for a while now which tries to get over this in giving permission for this "dynamic research" model - i.e. allowing students to be active users of the technology during teaching / learning sessions.

    The points Simon makes I thin is also important in terms of both the tutor and students thinking about curation as a key tool. Rather then setting the students off to onto the morass I look to be, and see one of the key roles of the tutor as, a "network Sherpa" packing the right "bag" of stuff where they can begin.

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