And the most useless. My attempts to curtail the cheating failed miserably. Sermonettes about academic integrity were met with clucking pity at my naiveté. I grudgingly admired the ingenuity and resourcefulness students employed in their cheating, elevating it to an art form — exquisitely etched cheat sheets were hidden in hair, pens, cigarettes, you name it.
In an oppressive regime, one learns to game the system. That’s how the Solidarity movement — or any other dissident movement — worked. You outfox your oppressors. When I talked to my fellow teachers, I was surprised to find that they accepted and enabled the cheating. They didn’t see it as an ethical dilemma; they shrugged it off as friends helping friends.
So, I realized there was another layer to this. It was a manifestation of Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory — collectivist vs. individualistic views of the world around you. North Americans are supposedly individualistic (à la Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone), though of course the reality is not so simple (à la the Wall Street Occupation and other collective movements). In other cultures, individuality is subsumed under the greater interests of the community — Asian cultures are often cited here. Countries emerging from authoritarian regimes are a weird mix of individualism and collectivism, and people situationally jump from one end of the spectrum to another. Fierce, entrepreneurial individualism (as a response to forced collectivism) yin-yangingly coexists with a need to look out for the greater good.
All of this presented an opportunity for me to explore the classic Getting to Yes positions vs interests distinction. My position: cheating bad! My interest: that students learn stuff.
Looking at it from the shared interest (mine and my students) of learning English, I jettisoned my cheating police role, and redirected my energy toward different learning modalities. I made every effort to de-formalize the classroom and build trust. We sat in a circle, had conversations, and role-played — standard stuff from my college days, but pretty far out in that context. It took awhile for the students to get used to my low-rent Dead Poet’s Society schtick, but it eventually became a vibrant learning environment — thanks largely to the students’ incredible creativity. (Role-plays became increasingly elaborate, incorporating students’ props and costumes.)
In the end, my students learned a fair amount of English, I was no longer the man to whom to stick it, and I emerged with a more nuanced understanding of what the cheating was all about. Win, win…win.