Isn’t That Cheating?!

We had exams this week at the Escuela Agricola de San Francisco. Lots of them. Not exams like we’re used to in the states, mind you. Here, if the students want a photocopy of the test [as opposed to copying down the questions by hand] they have to pay for it, and the entire semester final consists of 4-6 multiple choice/short answer questions over what amounts to about 8 pages of notes per subject.

Still, they are exams; complete with cramming the night before [or in this case mid-morning when the teacher for the other class doesn’t show up,] visible stress and consternation on the part of the less prepared students, and cheating…lots of cheating.

In fact, here, they take cheating to a whole new level. In the classes I observed, nearly every student is involved, and none too subtly either. Even the teacher gets in on it. S/he will leave the room for a few minutes, intently grade papers or read during the exam, give what I’d consider ridiculous hints, even tell students if an answer they’ve given is correct or not. So much for academic integrity, eh?

Perhaps not.

Perhaps this is an ideal example of what I have started referring to as “culturally responsive curriculum.” Or in this case, the lack thereof. In a society where a hungry teenage boy only gets one bite of the snack he just purchased because he shares it with every companero who happens to be within arms’ length, where a jacket is worn by a different person each day and no one seems to know who it actually belongs to, where everything from doing laundry to doing business is a social event, can you really call sharing the answers on a test “cheating?”

It never really occurred to me that the “value” of individual competence and achievement could be characteristically, even uniquely, an “American” or “Western” thing. Something imported here along with the current pedagogy several decades ago. Though it’s interesting that the students do whisper and try to be at least somewhat covert in their “cheating,” that behavior seems somehow unnatural for them…foreign.

While there’s certainly a case to be made for each student knowing what they need to know in order to succeed, and certainly in many ways, success here [as in the states] is an individual matter. Still, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to structure a class to build behaviors anchored in the culture of communal responsibility and sharing instead of building alternate behaviors in isolation from, or even opposition to, those core values that end up being artificial, and therefore fragile…

Could we, for example, focus on group work, and being accountable for the learning and success of the whole group? Could we encourage them to capitalize on each others’ strengths, to co-operate in a team with diverse areas of expertise? It seems that these kids are more naturally adept at working in groups than most students in the states [arguably the most important skill one can gain in terms of future success,] and yet in the current curriculum and pedagogical framework, that’s “cheating.”

There must be a better way.

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