Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. – Emerson

Cheating as Learning

Last week one of my students came to ask me for his final exam mark. I told him, then he said, “And what did so-and-so get?”

I said, “You’re asking because you copied off his paper.”


“Well, he complained to me about that. I told him not to let anyone copy from his paper again. I can’t tell who’s copied what from who, so you should both get zeros, really.”

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

I work in Saudi Arabia. Cheating of this sort is very common here and I’ve wondered about it for a long time – not so much about the cheating as about the attitude toward it. Students almost expect it, and getting caught is like, well, like loosing a football match.

I also wondered about this as I moved my own kids from school to school. Every year we’d try a new one and all were just about the same: seven weeks of soporific classes followed by a two week hazing of exams, then repeat the cycle.  About two weeks before a new battery of exams, prep started, and the closer the exams got the more kids crammed. Every year in May, following the last day of school – and the last exam cycle, kids poured out of the schools and literally ripped their books to shreds, scattering the pages all over school yards, spilling out into the streets.

Parents whose children struggle in school simply move them to another school where they do better. There are schools where students work hard and get reasonable marks, and there were schools where students do little or nothing and get great marks. Of course, the best schools are those that give the best marks. University entrance officers look only at the GPA, and GPAs are calculated from first grade. I have seen primary school reports with grades calculated to five significant figures after the decimal point. With a granularity of 1/10,000th of one percent, marks would seem to matter, and matter a lot.

cheating to learnIt took me ten years to figure this out. School has little to do with learning. It’s mostly a power game and the GPA is the goal keeper. The object is to score a goal. The rules are customary, arbitrary, invented by committees, by people who are players themselves, by people who don’t understand the game, or care to. Like most traditions, no one really knows where it all comes from. this is just the way it’s always been done.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Our students are players, and they play to win.

Our students are such good cheaters. They collaborate skillfully and easily to overcome any challenge. They co-operate and they help each other. They share what they have, and they contribute what they can, when they can. They are expert learners. I’ve stated marking them on their learning, on their collaboration, and I don’t worry about cheating. I give work that makes them better collaborators, that makes them better learners. They can’t cheat – they have to be players.

Cheating is learning, especially when it is socially supported. Sure, you can cheat alone but that is not often seen here. Local cheaters almost always collude… they co-operate and they collaborate, and they solve their problems collectively. In industry we strive to build these skills.

So, maybe it’s time to mobilize students’ collaborative and co-operative skills to support their learning, to stop policing them and start teaching.

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

“He got a B and you got a B-. The grades mean nothing and I’m not policing anyone. That’s not my job.”