By Tim Johnson
Maria Gray* was understandably upset when she got a call from her son’s teacher telling her that he had been caught cheating on an assignment. Working on a project about the language and culture of Turkey, Adrian*, 9, had been instructed to conduct research from books and then convert the facts into his own words. Adrian instead opted to copy the information word-for-word. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’” says Gray. “He had plagiarized the entire thing.”
“Academic dishonesty,” a.k.a. cheating, is a growing trend in Canadian classrooms. From plagiarism to forgery, fabrication to using good old-fashioned crib sheets during an exam, more and more students are giving into the temptation. One survey of first-year university students found that 73 percent admitted to serious cheating while in high school, while universities are reporting double and triple the amount of cheating versus just a few years ago. “Based on those findings, it’s plausible to assume that cheating might be an issue for much younger age groups,” says Dr. Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), a national educational nonprofit that has studied the issue.
Cappon, a dad of two, observes that while some of the reasons for cheating are simple — ready availability of online resources — some are more complicated such as parents’ increased sense of anxiety about the fierce competition to get into a good university and succeed later on. “This pressure that the parents feel, it’s passed along to their children even at the early grades,” says Cappon.
“The vast majority of the cheating I see in my school comes from kids not being prepared and leaving things to the last minute, then copying and pasting from the Internet as a last resort,” says Ernie Ourique, a Grade 6 teacher in Toronto. Ourique says parents can help their children by making sure their kids are well rested, have a study space they enjoy with all the tools they need on hand, and that they always have enough time to complete assignments and study for tests.
Cappon recommends that parents also shift the emphasis from simple achievement and marks to more meaningful conversations about learning. “Have a lot of discussion around the dinner table about how your child is doing in school and the value of what they’re learning, rather than whether your child is getting all the questions right,” says Cappon.
If your child is caught cheating, Ourique advises parents to make it a teachable moment and take corrective action in order to prevent the behaviour from happening again. “Parents need to drive home the fact that this is a serious thing, and that honesty is an important life skill and goal,” he says.
Not surprisingly, children and adults often have very different ideas about what constitutes cheating — many children don’t understand where the line is drawn especially if integrity is not modelled at home. Cappon suggests one way to help is to establish a well-defined policy on academic ethics in your home, something often called an honour code. Many schools have these in place, and when that’s the case, parents and kids should review it together. And if your school doesn’t have an honour code, that’s an opportunity for parents and kids to write one cooperatively.
As it turns out, confusion was a big part of the problem for Adrian. “I don’t think he did it intentionally,” says Maria, noting that once she sat down and talked with Adrian, she realized that he hadn’t understood the teacher’s instructions and, when given the choice, took the easy way out. “It was in keeping with his minimalist approach to homework and work in general.” Adrian missed a couple of recesses to complete the assignment properly, and now Maria keeps closer tabs on his work and stays in touch with his teacher. “It wasn’t the end of the world but he definitely learned something from the experience.”
Tim Johnson has never committed plagiarism but once invented a system of sign language to cheat at euchre.
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