They’d cheated again. Can you believe it? Homework was just a simple written exercise to reinforce a conversation lesson, and yet, most of the class had cheated. Again. Forty-two students in the class; Six distinctly original sets of answers. The others so similar to these answers that it showed they were clearly copied. What differences there were simply showed that the writer was not even good at copying. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened since I arrived in Japan.
OK, don’t get mad; get even. Or, better: don’t get mad; ask questions. I wanted to know what was going on.
“Right, class. I am not at all happy that most of you cheated on your homework. This should not be happening. For this week’s homework, I want you each write for me three good reasons for copying your homework from a classmate and three reasons why it is not a good thing to do. And, this time, don’t copy!”
Was I ever in for a surprise! In fact, a whole series of them.
Why is it bad to copy? “I deceive my teacher, my parents, myself, and my God” (it was a Christian school). “It stops me from learning” (aha!). So far, so expected; at least we were on the same page about why it was not a good thing.
Why is copying a good thing? “It saves my time,” said more than half of the students. Then, the one that really hurt: “It saves my time for more important homework.” I learned a lesson by reading this.
Lesson 1: I had never really treated the homework assignment as though it was an important part of the learning process, just as an added extra from the end of each unit. If I did not treat it as important, how could I expect the students to?
But then, a whole different slew of responses described the advantages of copying in terms of friendship. “It is a good way to make friends.” “It can deepen our relationships.” “It shows my friends I trust their answers.” The first few times I read such responses, I treated them with skepticism. But the more I read, the harder they were to ignore.
What was going on? Well, I was fairly naïve at the time and had assumed that all of us in the classroom were there to engage in a common endeavor: to learn English. I assumed that this goal was paramount and took precedence over most, if not all, other considerations. There had been some evidence to the contrary: “Why do we go to school?” I had once asked a class earlier. “To make memories,” most students answered. I’d smiled at this and not really picked up on the hint that, for many of my students, coming to class was mainly about making and keeping friends. Anything they learnt in class tended to be secondary. Why else would a student who knew the answer to a question be reluctant to give it before she had gone through the motions of checking it with her friends?
Lesson 2: Don’t assume that my students have the same priorities I do.
Then there was a whole bunch of students who wrote “I didn’t copy.” Well, this must have been true for some of them. There were six distinct answers, after all. But a longer answer gave me another light-bulb moment: “We didn’t copy. We did the work together so we would all have the same answers.”
Lesson 3: If you want individual answers to questions, make the questions personal.
And again: “I answered the questions but then I checked them with friends.” I was not at all skeptical about this – I had seen students check answers with each other in class, and groupwork was one of the things I had encouraged.
I thought about this a lot, and in the end, I decided to remove the word “cheating” from my vocabulary. It was stopping me from seeing what was really going on. I resolved always to resist the assumption that a student was cheating, but instead to ask myself if the learning goals of the activity were being met by what the student was doing. Using translation software in writing class? You know, that’s probably a better preparation for real-world writing than not using the software.
Lesson 4: It’s not cheating if they are still learning.
The biggest lesson for me, though: Don’t get mad. Get inquisitive.
 Readers wishing to explore further the effects of bias in the classroom will find the article here interesting. Those with a more general interest in bias and the brain should take a look at this model.
Stephen M. Ryan teaches at Sanyo Gakuen University in Okayama, Japan. After years of teaching English, he is still getting it wrong on a daily basis. On the good days, he learns from his students. The thrill never gets old.