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24 April 2005

Donald A. Norman: In Defense of Cheating

I can't quote from this enough:

...In real life, asking others for help is not only permitted, it is encouraged. Why not rethink the entire purpose of our examination system? We should be encouraging students to learn how to use all possible resources to come up with effective answers to important problems. Students should be encouraged to ask others for help, and they should also be taught to give full credit to those others...

Consider this: in many ways, the behavior we call cheating in schools is exactly the behavior we desire in the real world. Think about it. What behavior do we call cheating in the school system? Asking others for help, copying answers, copying papers.

Most of these activities are better called networking or cooperative work...

In a system where copying is punished, the student feels compelled to lie. Suppose that copying were encouraged ­ honest copying, where the source must be revealed. And suppose that both the copier and the originator of the material were rewarded, the originator for their contribution and the copier for knowing where to seek the information. This would reinforce the correct behaviors, minimize deceit, and encourage cooperativeness...

From ACM Ubiquity (via Pasta and vinegar)

Posted at 06:24 PM in Children and teens, Fakes and forgeries, Learning | Permalink


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But that's exactly what we asking in universities! We're saying PLEASE use books, go, find more information, here's a class in how to use the library, another on the web, and here's how to cite your sources, you just add a referece, see, like this!

And they still copy and paste without citing their sources.

No, most don't, most students are great, but there are students every year who hand in papers that are copied and pasted from a single or from multiple websites.

Copying isn't punished in academia. Copying without citing your sources is punished. And it damn well should be.

(Sorry, I know there's some bile in this comment, I've just had to deal with three separate plagiarism issues in our department. It's depressing.)

Posted by: Jill at 24 Apr 2005 22:15:18

I'll add to Jill's comment by saying that part of the reason we require students to cite their sources is to build communities of scholars that value past achievments and work together to push ahead. Surely that only strengthens a sense of "cooperativeness".

Posted by: Anne at 25 Apr 2005 14:20:29

Whoa - I'm glad Foe cited her sources...

In architecture school, 'analysis of precedent' was encouraged wholeheartedly - slavish drawing on details by pastmasters or entire strategies was the best way of building understanding (all puns intended)

'Stolen knowledge' I guess is more acceptable in the mastery of practice than the advancement of theory.

Posted by: Matt at 25 Apr 2005 19:27:54

Hi Jill, Anne,

I should have given more context for Norman's argument, rather than just copying the part that most interested me, and linking through. I believe that if you read the full article by Norman, you wouldn't find much - if anything - to disagree with.

Norman was responding to an article about "the implications for cheating of allowing students to use computers during examinations", and he was questioning the value of closed book exams and "individual, isolated work".

At no point does Norman say that credit doesn't have to be given. In fact, what he's arguing for is an extension of this credit economy. First, he believes you should be allowed to use (and credit!) the work of your fellow students, rather than just 'scholars'. Second, he suggests that there are many ways students can contribute to group work, and it would be better to consider them all: "If one person is frequently copied, that person's stature as a contributor should rise. Similarly, if a person makes no original contribution, but is effective at forming coalitions that solve problems, that person's status as an organizer should rise."

It would be a huge challenge for academic institutions to recognise and reward the contributions of all of the people who contribute to a the success of an idea (Gladwell's mavens, connectors and salesmen) but maybe an interesting one?

Posted by: Foe at 25 Apr 2005 20:01:22

Sounds interesting! I support a broader sense of collaboration, and I have plenty of objections to the creation of "expert" knowledge and current grading systems. But two things bother me about his article:

I get nervous when I think about the *quality* of ideas and knowledge when popularity is used as a marker of status. For example, when Norman says that the most copied person deserves higher status, how do we know that the work is copied for the "right" reasons? In the article he also says "When we have problems in the real world, we want answers, no matter the source" - and I think that the source matters a great deal. Pushing his argument further, what is the purpose of supporting "coalitions" without "value judgments"? After all, coalitions of very cooperative people have been responsible for some of history's greatest attrocities!

He also seems to gloss over differences in evaluation and examination methods - for example, answer recognition questions are quite different from answer generation questions - and most teachers use a combination of several types of evaluation strategies (and others, like me, never have exams at all) in order to value the unique skills students have and the contributions they make to the community.

I'm not saying he's wrong, or doesn't make some damn good points, but I see more than a couple of problems with his (reactionary?) position...

Posted by: Anne at 26 Apr 2005 14:46:43

Firstly, Norman’s choice of title, In Defense of Cheating, is tragic. Norman states numerous times that he believes that cheating is wrong. Rather, he wants to reform the assessment methods in order to allow certain behaviors associated with cheating—seeking advice, “copying” others’ ideas, etc.

At heart, I believe Norman wants what many of us want: schools in which students learn life skills and are engaged in meaningful exercises and for teachers to be “mentors” rather than merely “enforcers”. Thus, Norman understands how students can feel jaded due to strictly enforced assessment methods and the regurgitation of useless information.

Mistakenly, Norman assumes that it must be the educational system’s intent to make school meaningless and unproductive. In fact, I daresay most schools promote the same values that Norman does —collaboration, referencing— and even expect students to go further in interpretation and evaluation of the ideas they encounter. However, Norman seems to neglect these higher level skills in his proposed curriculum. In other words, it is not necessary for students to interpret data on their own, so long as they are able to find someone who can do it for them: “suppose the student got credit for finding the essay.” While finding good primary sources is an important exercise, students already are expected to do that and to read the source and make their own judgments. Norman wants to reward one skill while schools are trying to reward a variety of skills.

Evidently, Norman just wants to make school easier. In fact, he promotes new assessment methods which do not “rank order by some arbitrary mark of performance.” That is, it’s no longer necessary for students to excel. Rather, we should just generate an “accurate characterization” of the way students already are without “value judgments.” What we would do with these accurate characterizations, I have no idea.

In the end, I believe there is some truth to the idea that certain collaborative and community aims are compromised due to the need for fair and accurate assessment. In theory, most teachers and administrators are already on board with a collaborative approach to teaching. But when it comes to accountability, and that’s when the community ideals fly out the window. Still, I fail to see any hope for resolution in Norman’s argument.

Posted by: Justin at 30 Jul 2005 16:32:01