Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Great Students Steal

The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal ran a big story on how many schools are now permitting their students to "cheat" on their exams by looking up information online or even inquiring with their peers via instant messaging. The argument for the practice goes something like this:
  1. We can't stop them from cheating anyway, because digital devices make it so easy to look up extra infomation or for students to communicate with each other.
  2. Searching for data online is a useful skill that will be critical to them in the future, probably more so than just rote memorization.
  3. Collaborating with others is also a useful skill, and probably a more important than rote memorization.

Of course, the traditionalists will take a dim view of all this, and I guess I'm one of them, though I think the issue deserves careful consideration.

Of the stated arguments, #1 is just lazy. There are ways to prevent cheating, if you're determined enough to do it. You might have to crank up a microwave oven in the front of the classroom to jam wireless signals, and put up partitions to prevent IR transmissions, and put cheap web cams on every desk so students wouldn't know when someone was watching them, but it could be done if it was a priority. And with the unseemly committment most schools make to technology-for-technology's-sake, you'd think they could cope with that.

#2 and #3 are more subtle. I agree that learning to search online is a useful skill, but it's not that hard, or else Google wouldn't be making hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Also, there is some merit to teaching the mental skills of rote memorization, even if the information itself is not that useful. If I felt like I couldn't avoid online searches, I would just change the nature of the tests to accommodate it. I would have so many questions, and tight time limit, that only someone who knew the information cold could complete the test without more than a few quick online searches. Or I would structure the tests to not rely on factual data (which is a lazy sort of test, anyway) but instead to focus on critical reading and analysis; rather than have them write about a particular theme, I would put forward my own theme and ask them to critique it. Google can provide information, but it can't replace analysis. Nor can google teach people to write, though grading people on the quality of their writing is difficult . . .

#3 is the hardest one of all to address. Because, well, yes, it's very true, and more true than I even care to admit. I went all through school thinking that somehow the world would vindicate my individual intellectual talent in spite of my lack of social skills. Then I got out into the real world and found out that most of my success at anything depended on working with other people: managing my boss, managing my colleagues, learning from other people and teaching other people. In retrospect, it seems downright criminal that the curriculum didn't do more to recognize that truth. (I'm told that business schools nowadays do almost all their assignments in groups.)

I think I would probably allow some of the #3 sorts of collaboration . . . I would certain have a significant portion of the class grade depend on a collaborative project, but I would also build in checks and balances to avoid abuses. I might let a group work together to prepare a presentation, but then do a random drawing to see who would actual make the presentation for his group, or quiz the members of the team on the project. That way, the more capable students would be incented to help others on the team learn the material, and no one could coast on the work of others. And, in a reversal of the years of playground basketball humiliations, I would let the top five students in the class be the team leaders, and let them pick their teams. That would put huge social incentives on everyone to perform . . . because, let's face it, it sucks to be picked last for anything, even for schoolwork you might not care about.

But even after all these concessions, I would still be inclined to keep a significant portion of the grades based solely on individual performance, without references, without crutches, without friends. To all things there is a time and a season . . . and as useful as synthesis and collaboration are, there is also times when everything is riding on you and you alone.


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