Piaget on Cheating in School

I really have just a quotation and a few comments for today; I’ll have another brief entry, tomorrow, on a related matter.

From Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, trans. Marjorie Gabain (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), pp.286-7:

Cheating is a defensive reaction which our educational system  seems to have wantonly called forth in the pupil. Instead of taking into account the child’s deeper psychological tendencies which urge him to work with others – emulation being in no way opposed to cooperation – our schools condemn the pupil to work in isolation and only make use of emulation to set one individual against another. This purely individualistic system of work, excellent no doubt if the aim of education be to give good marks and prepare the young for examinations, is nothing but a handicap to the formation of reasonable beings and good citizens. Taking the moral point of view only, one of two things is bound to happen. Either competition proves strongest, and each boy will try and curry favour with the master, regardless of his toiling neighbour who then, if he is defeated, resorts to cheating. Or else comradeship will win the day and the pupils will combine in organized cheating so as to offer a common resistance to scholastic constraint.

Let me highlight one passage, which could very well be written of the system of public education in the U.S. in the current decade:

This purely individualistic system of work, excellent no doubt if the aim of education be to give good marks and prepare the young for examinations, is nothing but a handicap to the formation of reasonable beings and good citizens [emphasis added].

Note especially that cheating is here presented as the natural consequence of a combination of three factors: the arbitrary authority of the instructor, an individualistic approach that sets students in competition with one another, and the primacy given to grades and examinations.

If this is so, then it would do little good to establish honor codes and procedures for identifying and punishing instances of cheating.

To punish cheating is merely to treat the symptom, perhaps at the expense of aggravating the underlying condition: the more strict the exercise of authority on the part of the school or the college, the the greater the pressure on students of the kind that drives cheating in the first place.

As for honor codes, if Piaget is to be believed, then the main form of honor to be hoped for among school-age children, at least, is solidarity against the arbitrary authority of teachers and more careful coordination in gaming the system.

Finally, I would suggest another possible factor in fostering a culture of cheating, one that is common enough on college campuses in the U.S.: grading on a curve, that is, forcing all the grades in a course into a standard distribution, such that some small percentage fail, some small percentage receive As, and most are doomed to a middling C.

What this does, it seems to me, is to reinforce the individualistic approach to learning by setting students directly against one another: not only must a student curry favor with the instructor and do well on tests, but she must do better than nearly everyone else in the class in order to receive an all-important A.

I have heard from some students that many firms now use on-line application systems for prospective employees, but that one of the first things the system requires is that the student or graduate enter her grade-point average (GPA). If the GPA is not high enough – say above 3.5 out of 4.0 – the system will not allow her to continue with the application.

This adds a nasty, toxic edge of desperation to the competition among students.

This is why, at the start of each term, I tell my students that I regard grading on a curve as pedagogical malpractice. I’m only half-joking when I say this; call it an instance of provocative hyperbole.

It is also why I do not provide students with statistics – or “hieroglyphics,” as I call them – on assignment grades, even though they sometimes clamor to know the mean and standard deviation.

My students are so in the habit of having to know “where they stand” relative to their classmates in the cut-throat competition that is modern learning, that they simply cannot hear me when I tell them that comparisons with their classmates are meaningless, that the only thing that matters is their own cognitive development.

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