Beating the Cheats

Hilary - an English teacher from London who has taught the subject in many countries, writes about the British attitude towards cheating and cheats.

Cheating in Britain has an entirely different significance from cheating in Poland. This is, it can be argued, due to the different character and purpose of the two education systems. British exams are basically designed to test students' mastery of certain arts of expression, technical skills and analytical methods. That is, to put it more simply, how they think and how they write. In Poland, on the other hand, students say that exams are designed to test not how students think, but what they know.

In Britain, cheating in exams, or school work, is not just seen by the authorities as undesirable, it is seen by the students themselves as offensive. If you copy somebody else's essay, you're not just taking objective data from them, you're actually stealing nothing less than their own personal style and ideas. So to cheat, in the British way of thinking, is seen - like plagiarism - as somehow shameful. If you steal someone else's ideas, or copy their style, then it means that you have no ideas, style - or even self-respect - to call your own.

The consequences of cheating, if you get caught in a British school, can be serious. When I was talking to an English teacher at the British Council in Warsaw, she said: "I remember when I was doing my 'A' levels in England, one boy was caught cheating in an exam. He wasn't allowed to complete the paper. And for all the other exams he had to sit by himself at a desk up on a platform, at the front of the room, so that everyone could see who he was. It was a kind of public humiliation, of course. And I remember the boy was so ashamed he just broke down in tears."

Michelle - a Canadian who has taught English in many language schools in Poland and Asia.

I worked in an English school in Poland for the first time in 1993. I got on well with the students and the staff until one incident caused a deep and insurmountable divide between myself, the other teachers and the townspeople: I caught a boy cheating, ripped up his test, wrote a zero in the register and sent him to the headmaster.

Within 3 minutes he was back, accompanied by the headmaster. The headmaster was demanding to know why I gave the cheating boy a zero. I was confused. What did he mean, why? Wasn't it obvious why? Well, no, it wasn't.

The boy was sent back into the classroom and the headmaster told me that there would be no punishment for any student I caught cheating - ever.

When I brought up the subject with another foreigner in Kraków several days later, she explained that, in Polish schools, cheating is condoned. I expressed my shock, and she just shrugged. She said that students have too much work, it's not humanly possible to remember it all, and so it's expected. Any challenge by an outsider is met with hostility. She advised me to give it up; cheating is deeply ingrained in the Polish education system and nothing I did would change that.

I didn't give up; I changed tactics. After that, I only gave verbal tests focusing on spoken English, the use of grammar in conversation and had the students identify vocabulary from pictures. I also gave marks for written homework assignments. It meant extra work, but it also meant not having to change my entire value system. I just cannot, and will not, reward cheating.

Steve - an English teacher who once taught in Africa.

In Sudan, where I worked as a state schoolteacher for a year, cheating is endemic. When it comes to school-leaving certificate examinations, however, the penalties are so severe that it actually puts the teachers under considerable stress.

Cheating in Sudanese schools is a way of life, a ritual, the "done thing", and it is rather hard to break the habits of an, albeit, short lifetime. So when it comes to the final examinations students are going to try it anyway, regardless of the consequences. And those consequences are very severe. Get caught cheating in any of your exams and that's it: all of your other exams are nullified and you are kicked out of school with pretty much no chance of re-sitting. And the concept of an "appeal" is not in the Ministry of Education's dictionary, so you can have the unique chance of watching your life slide down the toilet, age 17.

The authorities make it clear to teachers that cheating must be reported immediately. And this can make life very difficult for the teacher. The prospect of sitting in a classroom designed for 30, but containing over 70 students, each of whom is only too aware of the impossibility of your eyes being everywhere at once and ready to cheat at the faintest opportunity, regardless of the consequences, is not my idea of a perfect morning's work.

Knowing that you are the sword of Damocles, able to destroy a person's life in a moment, might appeal to some people, but to me, it is an anathema. In the end, I managed to escape all invigilation duties, bar one, by feigning a severe dose of Montezuma's Revenge. The one I couldn't avoid, a mathematics exam, actually passed without a hitch. Whether that was due to my attempt to look like a psychopathic Nazi interrogator, or because all those present were pathologically honest, I'll never know. But I breathed a deep sigh of relief when the last paper was passed in and everyone left without punishment.

Des - half Irish, half Polish, compares cheating in Ireland to Singapore, where he worked as a journalist a few years ago.

I remember at school in Ireland, boys used to cheat, copying from their neighbours' papers, pestering their classmates for answers, exchanging notes under the table, or even bringing books into the exam hidden underneath their jumpers. Many kids used to copy homework off their classmates, thus learning nothing of what they were supposed to.

In Singapore, penalties are strict for misbehaviour of any kind, including cheating in tests. This can include expulsion from school. There is a heavy emphasis on education and learning as a way to improve the nation's main asset - its people.
If you want to better yourself, cheating is worse than useless. If you cheat and get away with it, you're tempted to do the same again, not comprehending that you've effectively shot yourself in the foot. You've cheated your school, classmates and teacher. You've cheated the education system and society. But most importantly, a cheating student cheats themselves.

Joanna - an English language student at Warsaw University, reflects on the reasons for the high number of cases, and social acceptability, of cheating in Poland.

From a very early age, Polish children are forced to acquire a frightful amount of knowledge, and the weight of the books they have to carry to school and back would drive a camel to suicide. However, most of the information drawn from these books will never prove useful in any way to the students, who suddenly find themselves on a very tight schedule, but deprived of any sort of motivation. Coupled with the ruthless tyranny of the grade, this produces a truly devastating effect: students start to acquire tons of redundant information without actually learning anything.

Like athletes achieving top form right before the biggest event of the season, they force their brains to memorize gigantic amounts of theoretical knowledge just to pass one exam, get a good grade, and blissfully forget everything a week later. Quite naturally, this destructive tendency often causes unbearable strain and leads directly to cheating. And all this is due to the fact that the people responsible for the Polish education system still confuse the mechanical memorizing of abstract information with actual learning.

In general, mechanisms based on hierarchy tend to resemble a fish: they go bad from the head down. In other words, once the decay sets in at the highest level, it quickly reaches the lower strata and wriggles out of control at the speed of lightning. The Polish education system is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The officials responsible for the entire academic network care primarily for the interests of their own party, viewing the interests of the teachers and students as secondary. The result is an utter degradation of the public schooling system.

Polish teachers are overworked and dramatically underpaid, very often treating their school duties as an addition to their principal source of income; can you blame them for not caring whether their students actually learn anything?

Cheating, therefore, can be viewed as a natural defense mechanism against a corrupt education system, but if we go deeper we will see that cheating in school is a direct outcome of a specific mentality which centuries of tyranny have developed in Polish society.

The Pole usually treats authority as a force established against their will, and one whose interests are very much contrary to their own; therefore, the student considers it just to use all the methods they have at their disposal to beat it. The situation is totally different in countries which have never known tyranny and possess a long tradition of functional democratic institutions: the United States seems an obvious example of this type of nation. The average American respects authority, because he has no reason to doubt its effectiveness; he will therefore view cheating as degrading. The average Pole, on the other hand, views the system as hostile and authority as a cunning foe who must be defeated - even though totalitarianism ended here 14 years ago.

Konrad - Polish, who works at an English language school in Cork, Ireland.

The most recent plague to visit Western educational establishments is plagiarism via the Internet - rewriting parts of an essay from some source. Western educational systems place a substantial emphasis on continuous assessment - written tasks, usually essays and reports, assigned during regular term. The results of such assessment affects final marks significantly, so it's worth handing in excellent work. Alas, not everyone has a "Rolls-Royce mind" and you can often find students in the middle of the night with only a one page of their paper written, nine to go and only a few hours left to write it.

Time is ticking away and the only resort left is to browse the Internet, where they can easily find a source for their essay. They can search by using commonly-known search engines - Google continues to mature into an indispensable tool - or to go straight to one of the many so-called "paper mills", where hundreds of essays are on offer for downloading, usually at a modest price. Interestingly, the web addresses themselves are often impudent, as in the popular, or In the world, where "creativity is great, but plagiarism is faster", is there anything that can be done to deter the newly-born cyber-cheat?

As the problem grows, universities are trying to grapple with it. They have turned to specially-designed web search engines, called detection tools, for help. The most sophisticated ones, such as, not only seek for the same chains of words, but also use more elaborate techniques.

Turnitin itself tries to detect plagiarism by a comparison of digital fingerprints (small chunks of text are analysed by algorithms normally designed to look at brain waves). A laymen's explanation is that detection tool servers hold a number of works in their database (some up to 10 million) and exercise collation adroitly.

However, the universities have to hold their appetites when it comes to the price: above tools cost thousands. In effect, only 4% of British academics use this software. When I asked some professors about it, the response was that they use such detectors, of course. However, they failed to answer adequately when inquired about details.

What do you think? Have you cheated at school or college? Why? Do you know people who habitually do this? Do you think this subject is important, or are all the foreign teachers that come to Poland and make a fuss about cheating, getting worked up about nothing? Please send us your opinions on this important issue by e-mail to, or pop a letter in the post and address it to: The World of English, ul. Dzielna 6/8, 00-162 Warszawa.