Guiding our kids into their fast-changing futures.

First Take: Is What We Used to Call Cheating Still Cheating?

Is it time to revisit our definition of cheating? Author Penelope Trunk thinks so, writing in the Washington Post “It’s completely ridiculous that schools are so uptight about cheating because what schools call cheating is what people in the work world call effective workplace behavior.”

No doubt, technology changes things. We wonder why, given the questions that our kids are being asked on many of their tests, why they shouldn’t be allowed to access their networks to find the answers. (Dates of the Civil War, anyone?) Life outside of school is turning into an open phone test. Is it time for schools (and our mindsets about student work) to catch up?

And by the way, for an interesting and passionate rebuttal, check out the response from Elaine J. Power, a biotech teacher at a Silver Spring, Md. high school.

If you want to know our thoughts on the evolution of cheating, read on.

If nothing else, the ubiquity of information and knowledge should launch a serious conversation among parents, educators, and students not just about cheating but about just what knowledge we really need to carry around in our brains. In other words, what should the curriculum cover at a moment when so many answers are just a few keystrokes away via our technology?

No doubt, we’re assuming here that every student has access to a smartphone or wireless access for his or her tablets or iPads. Right now, that isn’t the case. But we trust that within the next five years, the number of disconnected classrooms and students will be falling fast. And we can’t wait until every child is connected to engage in the “What changes?” conversation.

What changes with cheating is this: we used to have to carry all sorts of information in our heads because if we didn’t have it in there we may not have access to it. That, apparently, is why the New York State Regents saw fit to make sure every 11th grader in the state could answer this highly relevant and important question ”Which geographic feature impacted the development of the Gupta Empire?”  The answer choices were: a) island location; b) volcanoes; c) monsoons; and d) permafrost. (See below for the right answer.)

Now, seriously, why would anyone object to a student taking his or her phone out, firing up Google, and searching for the answer? Isn’t that how 99% of the population would deal with that question in real life? The point: it’s not what you know so much as whether or not you know how to find the answer. In the Gupta case, I might go to Google, or ask my connections on Twitter or LinkedIn, or even turn to Wikipedia. As a parent, I care more about that literacy than I do about whether my child can answer that question on Jeopardy some day.

So much of what we expect kids to know falls in that same category, yet we demand memorization and recall at the expense of the skills and literacies so vital to navigating the world of information we now live in. That simply has to change. We have to ask more questions that have more than one answer, and help our kids become masters at using the tools and networks at their disposal to arrive at the most relevant answer for the moment. If that’s cheating, so be it.

What do you think?


PS…the answer is “monsoons.”


  1. Teachers and school are cheating our students by not allowing them to use technology. It will take a lot of work to change our curriculum and especially assessments, but it is worth it! Thanks for posting these articles.

  2. Tim McClung says:

    Is this the evolution of cheating or the evolution of learning? After reading Ms. Trunk’s article and Ms. Power’s rebuttal, I don’t think either side gained much ground. I particularly liked Will’s comments regarding Ms. Power’s piece. I am currently reading a book by that “curmudgeon” educator Marion Brady entitled:
    What’s Worth Learning? that I think is really the core question. BTW, he has also written a book entitled What’s Worth Teaching? if you want to look at it from that perspective.

  3. Jill Weininger says:

    Wow, compelling articles and posts on a hot issue. I do not believe the issue is black and white. There are some things that people need to know and and learn (what’s 6×8) and some of those “need to know”pieces depend on what a person’s specialty is. I wouldn’t want my doctor to need to search on WebMD for diagnosing a sinus infection, but I want my doctor to know how to research and collaborate for a more complex issue. Both collaboration and using resources are vital skills. But, memorizing vs. collaborating are about time and place and demands of the task. People have to know information so they can contribute to the collaboration, create and know the right questions to ask.

  4. Nick Pantaleone says:

    The reference to the Gupta question is from 10th grade global history curriculum not 11th grade U.S. History. Yet, interesting and engaging topic. To truly gain a deeper knowledge of content, which is at the heart of the Common Core, it is necessary to have the understanding of facts. It serves the purpose of connecting to previous and future concepts that creates essential ideas. Test reliability also calls for a mix of various questions to assess knowledge. Multiple choice coupled with CRQs and essays lead to a reliable measure of knowledge. Many professions depend on quick decisions that require an understanding of facts and procedures. I wouldn’t want a doctor to google the function of the heart during surgery.

  5. Ted Graham says:

    I think the answer is both yes and no. Both learning and cheating have evolved. For the learning it is necassary to incorporate technology and allow for honest research. I reiterate honest research. Students need to be able to find and incorporate information that is easily found at the touch of the button, however they also need to learn to credit the work of others and their sources. I believe that this is a very important skill in our society. As Nils stated this means changing our curriculum and assessments. We must give our students the opportunity for true collaboration so that they learn to work together and strengthen each other, not simply poach the “smart” kid’s work.
    At the same time we have to teach our children and students that it is not right to take credit for the work of others. A way to allow this to happen is to put the stress back on the learning and off of the grade.

  6. Roosevelt.Pricedale says:

    Gràcies per endavant i bona sort! :)

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