Matthew Van Meter
It is impossible to work as a teacher in Russia and not come into frequent contact with cheating. I do not wish to imply that the rest of the world is magically cheating-free (it is not), but Russia’s academic institutions are plagued by a particularly bald-faced sort of cheating, one that has undermined the intellectual climate of the country, and has been cynically tolerated or even encouraged by the Russian education system, beginning in first grade and intensifying all the way through the end of university and beyond. However, within this phenomenon – so widespread as to roundly deserve the term “ubiquitous,” if not “universal” – there paradoxically lies some hope for reform that may wind up being more effective than all the good-faith efforts made by the West, particularly by the United States, to update curricula for the information age.
Much has been written and said recently, especially in the United States and parts of Europe, about the degree to which schools and curricula should change to accommodate changes in technology and shifting job requirements. This is hardly the first time such a discussion has taken place, but this time, unlike during the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution, the ground is shifting faster than educational systems can keep pace. Education tends to be a conservative field in terms of its approach to change, often reflecting movements in society long after they have already taken place in the society at large. I am speaking, in this case, of the teaching methods and value systems rather than crude measures of political affiliation. Even in this country, most professors and teachers are considered “liberal.” In contrast to the general bent of their political affiliations, teachers and professors tend to fundamentally stick to their pedagogical guns when it comes to methodology, adhering slavishly to the rules with which they are comfortable. This is not to insult members of my profession: it requires an inhuman amount of work to be a really innovative teacher, and most educators are not well enough paid or respected to justify that sort of sacrifice. It is hard to articulate to someone who has not worked in a school the sheer volume of effort and time involved in doing the profession very well.
Everything that I have said in general about education goes doubly for Russia. The teaching methods are more old-fashioned, the teachers more convinced of the inherent value of traditional methodology, and the professionals more underpaid and overworked than their colleagues in other European countries or North America. The system in Russia, as in much of the world, is built on rote knowledge, which both ignores the broad global consensus about which skills are in demand currently, and, significantly, makes cheating remarkably easy. If all that matters is the “correct answer,” then any shortcut that provides that answer is an effective one.
An acquaintance, during a conversation about this topic, said that she was happy to see the trend of cheating in Russian schools. I asked her why, and she responded that it was good “training for life in Russia.” The truth of this statement has struck me again and again during the last couple of years. The implementation of anti-cheating mechanisms in school is both arbitrary and ineffective, echoing the fate of the broader “war on corruption” that is ostensibly the goal of the Putin/Medvedev administration. Students caught cheating are reprimanded and told to come after school to complete exactly the same assignment, or simply to do it again at home. I can’t count the number of students I have caught copying an essay from Wikipedia (as though their English were indistinguishable from the wonky pseudo-academese prevalent on Wikipedia) and asked to re-complete an assignment, only to have them bring the essay copied from a different site. This may well be training for Russian life, but it is a troubling trend.
There are surely cultural differences between the United States (my country) and Russia that underlie this difference in expectations, and I don’t want to sound smug or needlessly paternalistic. Unfortunately, Russia wants to reap the rewards that come from independent thought without providing the educational framework within which such ideas are valued. Here, memory is king. Not so long ago, this was the case in all school systems; indeed, the point of an education for much of history has been the instilling of memorized information. This was useful at a time when the best place to store information was in the brains of educated people. This time, however, has passed.
There has been a great deal of discussion about what constitutes intelligence recently, following the appearance of Watson, the computer that won “Jeopardy.” In a brilliant article for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik notes that memory was, at one time, the measure of intelligence. We are still fascinated by people with perfect or near-perfect recall of facts. However, at a time when so much information – a debilitating, numbing amount, in fact – is at our fingertips, how practically valuable is memorizing such information? Isn’t cheating, especially cheating that uses the Internet, simply a response to an unimaginative task? In this question lies the greatest hope for Russia and such countries where blatant cheating is universal and accepted.
If cheating, instead of being combated disciplinarily (a losing battle if ever there was one) can be combated at the level of the assignment, it could be turned into a powerful tool for educators. How does a teacher know how effective his or her assignment is? By the prevalence of cheating on it. An ideal assignment, especially in the upper grades, would be one that asks for analysis and ideas of the sort that one does not simply look up on the Internet. In this way, Russia’s student population provides an enviable feedback system for its teachers. If a teacher can write an assignment on which no student will cheat, not because they choose not to but because they cannot, that teacher will have succeeded in privileging the exact skills that are so valuable in the modern world: analysis, independent thought, and exploration of one’s own ideas.
We are far from that point, and it would require a huge change in mindset within an education system bedeviled already by more than its fair share of problems, but it is a step that, if taken, could restore Russia’s academy to its once great place amongst the world’s education systems.