July 07, 2020

Why school sucks

The case for cheating

I’m a high school student, and like most students I studied from home for the last 4-ish months. I study in my bedroom which is similar to my future workplace, or maybe it even is. My bedroom is equipped with a computer with an internet connection, same setup as my working parents. Since school is meant to prepare us for our careers, my bedroom seems to be the perfect place to pursue an education.

Not having strict supervision allows for easy cheating. No one will know if you use a dictionary. No one will know if you use a calculator. And no one will know if you collaborate with your peers. This got me thinking. If my bedroom is my workplace and I can cheat so easily, does this mean I get a free ride to being a billionaire?

I don’t believe that is the case. Why not? I have come to the conclusion that cheating at school is nothing like cheating in real life. In fact, this “cheating” thing is actually appreciated by employers. Employers don’t care if you use a calculator or dictionary. Using all available tools to the fullest extent is a positive skill. Furthermore, employers value employees who collaborate and discuss difficult problems with other people.

At school, however, you will likely be disqualified for doing any of those things during a test. Weird, since I’m at school to prepare for my life. And my life just happens to provide all of those tools1.

Calculators, dictionaries and Wikipedia

Why do children spend countless hours doing basic arithmetic, when they will be using a calculator for all serious decisions after they graduate? Seriously, who is going to do taxes from the top of their head when they can easily use a calculator? I’m not advocating to stop teaching children math. On the contrary, I actually do think teaching students why addition exists, what it is and when they should use it are important topics that everyone should know. But I don’t care if they can add up 90234 and 87623 leaving a calculator (phone) in their pocket.

I’m also not advocating to stop teaching languages at school and relying on dictionaries instead. I wouldn’t have been able to write this text if I didn’t know English. But I also believe a dictionary helped me improve this text. It’s a combination of practice and resources that made this text what it is. I’m sure native speakers will find some mistakes, and I would love to know how to improve this text but at least we learned Shakespeare died in 1616.

Everyone has access to almost all of mankind’s knowledge regardless of where they are thanks to websites like Wikipedia. That’s a wonderful thing. This is no excuse, however, to stop education altogether; or humans would have been replaced already. Knowing how to apply something requires context, analytical skills and creativity, things a computer cannot yet do, but we can teach children.

Cheating is bad

Many people say you only fool yourself by cheating. I agree. Cheating is bad if it will hurt you later on. I don’t believe collaborating will ever hurt me. Nor do I believe using a dictionary will.

“But knowing something is quicker than looking it up.” Absolutely! I wish I knew how to provide first aid in pressing situations. I wish I hadn’t wasted time learning to memorize facts I don’t use. And in the rare event of me needing to know who painted some piece, I have Wikipedia right in my pocket.

It’s not fair to cheat at an exam and earn a certificate tricking people into believing you can do something in isolation, when in fact you cannot. So will I study for that exam? Probably not, but I will make sure I can get things done.

What school should do

Surprisingly, exercises are that impossible to cheat at are, besides the fairest, possibly among the best exercises we can spend time on. Filling out a fancy survey, read exam, may be a way to validate the products in an assembly line, but one would be stupid to believe human qualities can be captured by a number. We shouldn’t test humans the same way we test tools. But most importantly, we are only teaching students facts we know today, and that does not seem to be particularly responsible in a world evolving this rapidly.

An alternative to exams could be asking students to devise something new. After all, how could one cheat at doing something that does not exist yet? Writing a philosophical essay, debating issues in society or writing computer programs seem good places to start. Students should be free to use the tools that are available to professionals in the field, work within common constraints such as deadlines, and above all, be able to collaborate. Using a smart rotation system it would still be possible to extract individual student performance from a shared environment.

Final words

Exercises I can cheat at are exercises, for what exactly? I think school should pose exercises I can’t cheat at. If cheating takes time that could be made as a constraint on the exercise. Looking up how to make an argument during a debate won’t sound very convincing. Math requires exact answers and computers often can’t manage that. Fair enough, we will have to do it by hand. There is nothing inherently bad about it.

If I can cheat at something and still get the correct answer or get a project done, I have found a loophole in education. It means education is not prepared for the technological advancements. School today doesn’t really prepare us for the future. Let’s change that.

1 I'm not taking the great technology for granted, but I am planning on continuing to enjoy using it.

Thanks for reading

I hope this post was useful to you. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out on Twitter or email me directly at rick_wierenga [at] icloud [dot] com.