Saturday, October 15, 2005

School cheats and dodgy politicians

Cheating in school and university becomes an election issue.

The heavyweight UK Economist (Oct 4) magazine reports that thousands of pens that write with invisible ink, and have a small ultra-violet light at the end with which the ink can be read – are flying off the shelves of stationary stores in Poland. It’s no coincidence that the new academic year has started. The pens are ideal to cheat in exams with.

Cheating at school in Poland is endemic. Anyone who has worked in the education system here (as I have done) will tell you that it is not just the thick students that do it. They defend themselves by claiming that it is ‘part of our culture’, and was a way of ‘resisting’ the communist educationalists.

And it’s not just the students who are to blame. Teachers have been turning a blind eye to this nonsense for generations.

Things are getting better. The matura school-leaving exam is now being marked by external examiners, so the temptation for teachers to tweak the grades has gone.

But teachers are still in denial about cheating in class. After a particularly nasty encounter with lecturers at Warsaw University when I was promoting the magazine I used to work for, we decided to do something about it, and run a series of articles about the subject (see Honesty in the classroom?). And then we sat back and waited for the letters and emails to start coming in.

In the end we received just one letter.

The Law and Justice Party(PiS) – which stands on a platform of tackling corruption in public life, has pointed out the obvious: corruption and cheating in schools are linked. In the market square in Krakow, reports the Economist, PiS staged recently a little drama to illustrate the point: “Six ‘students’ struggle to complete their final exam paper. One by one, they are caught cheating, and forced to stand up, showing their masks: well-known corrupt politicians and businessmen.”

The article also points out that the word for cheating in Poland – sciaganie – suggests ingenuity, not dishonesty. “Only when Poles find a pejorative term will this dubious habit loose its moral immunity,” concludes the magazine


Aaron Fowles said...

I actually used that article in my conversation class my first year in Poland. I was shocked by the students' responses:

- Everyone cheats, so I cheat to fit in
- It's part of our culture
- Our teachers are too demanding

And on and on. At that university, students used to compile their crib sheets in the school cafeteria right in front of me. The school copy shop reproduced them for the students.

I remember standing outside the University of Economics in Poznan and watching as a student exited the building and proceeded to show his friends the 18-feet-long crib sheet that he'd had hidden in his sleeve. Three wingspans! And he had no problems revealing this thing in front of the University.

Gustav said...

Every student I know spends hours cooped up inside studying and studying.

They have studying schedules - They study studying in order to study better. They start studying for exams months in advance - and they still fail.

The comment about teachers being too demanding is a fair one. Not that I don't think teachers shouldn't be demanding - but rather that in the Polish system students are forced to memorize thousands of irrelevant details rather than demonstrate ability and knowledge. Professors can choose to be picky or lax, and if a student prostests, the professor will promptly fail him. The Polish educational system needs change.

I've heard that it's changing. I hope it does. When students don't feel that the absence in their memory of a miniscule bit of trivia won't lead to repeating a year of school, you'll see cheating levels fall.

michael farris said...

My best defense against cheating is to just give open book tests (generally only possible if Polish teachers are uninvolved).
Interestingly, I still get a steady failure rate (they don't believe me when I say that if they don't know the material then having all the notes and materials they want won't help them).

If I could change one single thing about the Polish education system it would be to drastically lower the amount of rote memorization required. Students also clearly don't believe me when I tell them when I took statistics, we got a sheet with all the formulas we'd need with each exam (graded on the ability to pick which formula you needed for a specific problem, a skill for which cheat notes wouldn't help).

On the other hand, change in established systems generally needs to be slow, otherwide you'll get some side effects you weren't counting on and didn't want.

beatroot said...

I see people have lots of experience with the little bastards. A few`years ago one of the Zamojskis (posh British/Polish family, one of them is that historian that does those dull history books) was teaching English here and saw all the cheating, and started a campaign against it. I thinik he is still doing it.

And there have been changes...warsaw poly had a 'no cheazting'day last year...and the new matura is much better than it was (the old one was so crap that universities have to have their own entrance exams). But it is older the teachers I blame...higher grades meant special perks for them, so cheating for part of their career prospects.

Bialynia said...

The teachers, and not the students, are to blame. The friends in my small town all have stories of how they passed a certain class or matura, they would bring this teacher two bottles of Vodka, they would bring that teacher some imported choclates, or a couple hundred zloty. The teachers of course take these gifts and pass these students. Now what if a student doesn't want to cheat and has teachers like this?

I know a Polish law student at Northwestern University in Chicago who brings her professor a Latte from Starbucks before every class, I'm sure students suspect that she's going to get the benefit of the doubt when grades come out. The professor should say "no thanks" to that Latte.

michael farris said...

"The teachers, and not the students, are to blame"

Take the word "not" out and I'll agree. There's corruption a'plenty on both sides and the problem too often is that neither side wants anything to change.

Bialynia said...

Students are not in charge, if they were given heavy penalties for cheating they would stop. What incentive do they have now? None, if they want good grades how is a non-cheating student supposed to compete with the one who is cheating?

michael farris said...

"if they want good grades how is a non-cheating student supposed to compete with the one who is cheating?"

I think that makes my point pretty well.

Understand, I'm not letting the teachers (especially at high schools) off. But as they say "do tanga trzeba dwojga"*

*"it takes two to tango" for the Polish impaired

~JS said...

I went to grad school in wa-wa and most of the students were cheating, but not only from poland, they came from all over central-eastern europe...and this was just what i saw during exams, not to mention plagiarism.

To be fair, from my side of the atlantic...some stats from a wikipedia search:

"A 2005 survey by the Center for Academic Integrity reported that 70% of American college students admitted to some cheating. The survey indicated that cheating is also a problem in high schools, where 60% of students in public and parochial schools admitted to plagiarism. Instances occur where teachers and school administrators have been implicated in cheating on tests to improve their students' scores. Generally, an exaggerated emphasis on the significance of performance test scores triggers the motivation to cheat among some individuals."

beatroot said...

Cheatong, in the form of plagiarism, is increasing everywhere - the internet is making it very easy to get some very well written essays. And with the increasing emphasis on course work' the little gits are taking the obvious and easy way out.

But cheating is still seen as a bad thing to do in most countries. And that is where Poland is different - they think it's 'clever'.

I agree that Polish students are force-fed facts, a bit like how Japanese students are.

But cheating is an academic crime, and that is how it should be treated.

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