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John Beck - Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Apple Pie, Fireworks, and Cheating in School

“Every student cheats,” a wise mentor once told me, “so build ‘cheating’ into how you teach.” I’ve come to learn that not every student cheats all the time, but somewhere along the way, everyone does something that they know is a little … let’s say … “corner cutting.” This is one of the big problems inherent in trying to build a videogame to replace a school course.

On this July 4th (the date of my writing this piece), I am reminded of how cheating is built into our American psyche.The Colonial Army defeated the Red Coats because they broke all the rules of the “game of war.” A whole state (and its largest university) celebrate early settlers who cheated by grabbing up land “sooner” than the law allowed. Everyone in America seems to consider politicians (all of those not affiliated with their party of choice and most with their party) to be scoundrels and swindlers. Finding “loopholes” is one of the most revered paths to riches and power. I am not suggesting that we in the United States have a corner on this behavior. But we are good at it. 

As an in-classroom teacher, I stumbled into a method of dealing with cheating a decade ago which annoys the hell out of administrators (and accreditors): make the assignments purposefully broad and the grading completely subjective.  STOP USING RUBRICS. Employers appreciate this because they are sick and tired of every new graduate coming to work expecting exact rules of the job—and even if those rules are written down in some handbook somewhere, no boss follows them exactly. Everyone manages employees idiosyncratically. So best to get students ready for that earlier than later.

Most of my students were initially frustrated with this method—it flew in the face of the standards they had known since kindergarten. Once students realized, however, that I was constantly “moving the bar” on them – expecting more from them in each session, they got creative in trying to anticipate my ever-expanding grading criteria. And more often than not, student innovations exceeded my expectations – and created a new baseline for passing the course.

While I had a method of dealing with it in the classroom, cheating remained the main reason I could not figure out a way to build a viable game until recently. Now with the ability to store the game in the cloud – and change it constantly – there is a technical way around “strategy guides”—the cheat sheets that will inevitably appear to help students through the course/game. 

But the more important “solution” to the problem can be found in complexity.  If there is not a single right answer—if there is so much detail in the game that “answers” have to be constructed in a smart way—it is hard to cheat.  Think of it: easy to cheat on multiple choice test; really hard to cheat on an architecture course final project where a student has to build a model of a new office building. In the later, there are so many moving parts, it can be put together successfully in many different ways.

There is more to it than what I’ve described above, but those are the basics—constant change and complexity.  By “building in cheating,” you can produce better teaching in any format. 

image: flickr/ vozach1234