On Cheating in Schools: Is It a Gendered Game?
There’s a good chance that Aristotle cheated on some test or exam at some point in his education.
Cheating or academic dishonesty has been around forever and there really was never a golden era where students all followed the rules, adhered to honor codes, or produced their own work no matter the consequences. I asked educators on Twitter what they thought about cheating and educator Linda Bennett wrote:
The narrative of moral decline is a natural one. Every generation of teachers thinks that things were “better when I was a student.” We see students acting in ways which outrage us. However, this phenomenon is really more of a mirror into who goes into education, meaning the types of people who would go into the profession of education in the first place. A large majority of teachers were the rule followers, the ones who towed the line and bought into the entire enterprise of school. We believed the system had value and therefore its moral codes were worthy of our adherence. Just speak to the teachers who struggled in school but ultimately went into education despite their negative experiences. They’ll tell you what most of the other students were doing while the rest of us were dutifully sharpening the teacher’s pencils.
Cheating in school is also not, as we would like to think, about the bad kids versus the good ones. I lost my taste for this type of moral outrage and hand wringing about children years ago. Our students are learning how to navigate moral space and school should be seen as an opportune place to do it without fearing outrageous and overblown responses from adults and schools. Learning ethical standards is not simply a contrived mindset; it takes practice.
Where we often make a mistake is imagining that cheating is driven, more or less, by the same set of motivations for all students. Students cheat for a whole host of reasons including but not exclusively:
The pressure to do well in school.
Anxiety over assessment practices.
Pleasing adults, in particular teachers.
Lack of confidence.
Poor work and study habits.
Messaging from parents, community, and environment.
Seeing what one can get away with.
Then let’s add that these factors can be in combination. And, we cannot dismiss our own roles as educators in the culture of cheating. How many teachers place a stumbling block before the blind by creating circumstances where cheating is easy? What undo pressures are we placing on our students to perform or receive our disapproval? How is school framed as a game? How is the learning made to feel meaningless, disconnected from the student, reified and therefore the learning is not theirs, there is no ownership? My education is all based on what someone else wants me to learn, right? Why not just cheat to get by?
Our students are learning how to navigate moral space and school should be seen as an opportune place to do it without fearing outrageous and overblown responses from adults and schools. Learning ethical standards is not simply a contrived mindset; it takes practice.
Are there also other factors that would help us be more successful minimizing cheating in school? My question is: does gender play a role in this discussion surrounding school practices and policies and sensitivities regarding cheating? Do the ways in which we socialize students into narrow and objectifying narratives around gender contribute to the motivations to be academically dishonest?
When I work with groups of boys in schools to try to understand their experiences, they regularly communicate two critical factors. Firstly, particularly from parents, they are just expected to do well. They find that they are always climbing up some steep mountain of expectations and when they fall down, they receive harsh criticism and rebuke. They feel as if there have been automatic assumptions placed upon them (I call this the preordained relationship of being a male with success and accomplishment as the pre-supposed benchmarks) and that they rarely hear praise for what they actually do well, but volumes when they do not meet up to expectations. The boys tell me there is never any winning and it’s exhausting. They feel like they are disappointing someone all the time.
Second, boys also talk about the game of school. It’s what Robert Everhart in his excellent study Reading Writing and Resistance: Adolescence and labor in a junior high school calls achievement versus attainment. Achievement is the legitimate hard work, effort, and growth that we associate with the very best of students. Attainment is the mindset that school is something you game, you work the system, find ways to accomplish or even just get by with the least amount of effort. It’s being smart in a different way which gains you credibility within your peer relations without the hassle that school is perceived to be. Your parents stay off your back, teachers leave you alone, and you get to look like a success, at least in the moment, with your friends. Boys feel that the goal is to look like a success with minimal effort. That’s the real sign of accomplishment.
Cheating, for boys, helps fulfill much of this stereotypical presentation of manhood in schools. It’s an end run around the system. By getting their work done by copying someone else’s assignment or getting a decent score on a test by looking at another student’s work, they get their parents off their back and can claim to have found a way to psych out what feels like the performative and prescriptive nature of school. And in applying a certain kind of logic, there is something not wrong ethically about their logic. If the school cannot figure out how to have students feel like the work is relevant, what does it matter where the work comes from?
They (boys) feel as if there have been automatic assumptions placed upon them (I call this the preordained relationship of being a male with success and accomplishment as the pre-supposed benchmarks) and that they rarely hear praise for what they actually do well, but volumes when they do not meet up to expectations.
I do not know whether girls cheat less than boys. We might make this assumption for very gender biased reasons, but we need a strong researcher to find this out if we care to know. What I do know is that in talking to girls, the reasons that they cheat are different and yes, they also have to do with gendered expectations of them and school. I often hear less from them about what is expected from them at home and much more about what is going on between them and their peers and also their teachers. In a number of studies, it has been shown that girls do believe that effort drives their success. And, they tend to also believe that failure has to do with innate deficiencies often associated with gender stereotypes. Boys, interestly, believe the opposite!
Girls also have a tendency to believe that school and learning have value. This value is about their futures but it is also relational, between them and their teachers and also their peers. The fear of failure in this instance is highly existential and anxiety producing to the point for some girls where it ends up being debilitating. Cheating, as I have found when exploring this topic deeper with female students, is a way to relieve the pressure, the dread of failure associated with something they greatly value, their education.
For teachers and administrators to apply a gender lens to motivations and outcomes regarding academic dishonesty adds another important tool to creating school culture where cheating is minimized and frowned upon. Schools constructing meaningful learning experiences, for their own sake, is an excellent place to start.