(Note: This post is a part of a series. For an introduction and index, see Teaching Times Tables)
I met individually with the ten students with the lowest scores (and no improvement when I gave the test again after giving them a week to study) to try to figure out what was going on. Some obviously hadn’t done any work studying, but others seemed like they had learning problems. Unfortunately, I have no resources (or training) to test/diagnose their learning problems. I’d love to give them individual attention, but there’s no time during class. And students can be hard to catch outside of school.
This is a problem with school in America too — how is a teacher supposed to deal with the kids in their class that simply do not have the capacity to learn at the same rate as the rest of the students? It hurts these students to try to evaluate them against the same standards as their peers, because in many cases it can be completely unrealistic for them. What they really need are personalized goals and instruction… but each student would become a full-time job. It makes me wish I could clone myself.
I gave this small group of students all a third retest, after I had given them opportunity to work with me one-on-one (not all took the opportunity). I caught almost all of them trying to cheat during the retest. I found them looking at little scraps of paper, their friends’ papers, and at the times-table charts on the back of their copybooks. I took all these crutches away as I found them.
I couldn’t blame the kids for trying to cheat. It’s human nature, and most students here see it as a game (see this excellent post by a fellow volunteer for a great description of this dynamic). What really bothered me though was how fiercely my students denied what they were doing when I took the obvious cheaters (that I caught in the act) to the office administration to answer for their behavior.
They only “found the cheat-sheet there, and weren’t using it”, or were just “using their copybook as a smooth writing surface, not to copy answers from”. They were quick to paint me as unjust and cruel, flipping reality on its head and taking no responsibility for their own actions.
It made me uncomfortable to see how strong their conviction was of their innocence. It was hard to not get swept up in the heat of the situation as I tried to affirm my understanding of reality. It didn’t help that there were other students crowding around to witness what was going on (privacy is not culturally valued in Liberia in the same way as it is in America).
Realizing that we were just creating a scene, I told them I’d individually give them another test in two days. Assuming they hadn’t cheated on any of their past tests, they should be able to duplicate or improve upon their past scores. If they couldn’t get close, they would reveal themselves as cheaters, and have to face the consequences of the school administration. Rather than just punishing the students there and having them resent me, I wanted them to be confronted with the reality of their lie.
Two days later, I began individually testing these students. Before I gave them the test, I apologized that they had such a large audience two days prior and went on to have a conversation with them about cheating, lying, and how their performance on the test would act as an indicator for their honesty. I told them that their cheating was only a small concern for me — it was their honesty that I valued more.
“Lets imagine that you see your friend steal your pen, but then when you ask for your pen, they lie about having taken it,” I would begin. “A pen is not worth a lot of money… so why is that little lie such a big deal?” After I heard their answer I would go on: “The next day, that same friend comes to you saying they need money for medicine because their mother is sick… will you give them the money?” They wouldn’t, of course, because that friend could be lying. “But what if their mother is really sick?” Some of them said they would go visit the mother to see themselves. “But what if the mother is really far away, impossible to visit? And she needs the medicine soon!” Well, in that case, because they couldn’t trust their friend, they wouldn’t be able to help. “Do you see now how small lies can create bad situations down the road?”
I told them that cheating doesn’t make me angry, but lying about it does. “If I find that you are lying to me, you begin to lose my trust — and when you lose my trust, I become unable to help you if you need my help in the future.” I would tell them. “That makes me sad and angry, because I want to be able to help you. That’s why I’m here. So if I find that you are lying to me about anything, even if it seems like the smallest thing like cheating on this test, I see it as a big, big deal and will talk to the principal and your parents.”
After this conversation, and after explaining to them again how the test they were about to take would be like a “lie-detector”, they all confessed to having cheated on their past tests. (Except one, who matched her score). I made them say all of the details of their cheating, because somehow it seemed important to have them affirm the reality of it all after such proclamations of innocence. Perhaps they confessed only because I wore them down and had them trapped, but to hear them finally speaking honestly felt so healthy and transformative compared to what I had felt from them two days before.
In one surprising case, a girl that confessed her cheating actually blew her cheating score out of the water when she retook the test. She knew the answers, but was simply not confident in herself – the cheating only served to slow her down. (Cheating only helps up to a point on this timed test, and then hinders you). When I showed her the score she got, I drew a special star by it and I emphasised that she earned that score and star – she could take it home to her family and show them it was her own, honest work. She got a big smile and took the test home.