Cheating or Cooperation?
aka The Individual vs. the Group
Early in my career teaching ESL in China I got a surprising story when I asked my junior-year medical students to write about "the most exciting day of my life." One girl told about her first day of school when she was six. She had been raised in the country, away from other children and was shy and frightened but filled with anticipation, too. Early on her first day, she said, the teacher called on her to answer a simple math problem and she froze. She stood to answer, as Chinese children are taught to do, but had nothing to say. Then her seatmate in the two-person desk whispered the answer. Her heart soared – not only was she able to satisfy the teacher, but she had found her first friend.
I thought about this anecdote often as I watched my students whisper to one another in my classes, openly prompt speakers who faltered, and spell out words for one another with their fingers in English and Chinese on the two-person desks. This all looked like what my own teachers in America would call cheating. Yet these were bright, diligent students here, and they passed help without furtiveness, apparently as a sign of friendship.
As time went by, I came to see in how many ways Chinese learning is far more a "cooperative" endeavor than in America. When one student began to lag far behind in any class, I only had to drop a slight hint and one or two others (often the brightest in the class) would quietly change seats the next week and begin coaching the weak one. I believe this help continued outside of class. Even among equals, there was constant cooperation. I once walked in on a group of Chinese teachers of English, reading over an assignment: One read it aloud while others called out corrections in pronunciation or repeated an unclear phrase. Whoever knew it called out a translation of the phrase and the whole group moved, easily and quickly, through the reading.
I came to believe that the differences in how Americans and Chinese study are rooted deeply in core values of our respective societies. Everything in America, and this includes the educational system, is designed to foster the individual's unique talents and to develop the ability to stand alone. Almost everything I saw in China seems to me to do the opposite. I believe the Chinese might say that their core value is to shape the individual for the good of the whole.
At a simply human level, American teachers new to the Chinese classroom must realize that most groups of students they teach will live and study together almost every minute of every day for their entire college careers. When these students are freshmen, they are far from home for the first time and look to their classmates for emotional support. By the time they are juniors, they have strong ties and suffer deeply if one of their friends fails to succeed in the program. Even in classes of adult students working together for only one term, the idea that the group welfare precedes individual wants is so strong that you will see that subtle shifting of seats so that, say, an engineer can whisper a translation of your instructions to a doctor. Is this cheating or cooperation? Are these students helping or hindering the teacher?
Each American teacher must answer these questions alone, in a strange country in a dramatically different educational environment. Since most Americans have a strong moral reaction against cheating, an important step for teachers new to China is to refrain from judgment for at least a month. The Chinese teaching term is very long (often 20 weeks), and there is plenty of time to get through any realistic syllabus. Go easy at first. Get to know the students. Try out a range of activities – take-home, in-class, individual recitations, group projects, impromptu readings, and memorized dialogues. See what they do well and watch how they work. Remember: Students in prestigious Chinese colleges scored in the top 10% on a national exam. In their own culture, they must be doing something right.
In planning your teaching strategies, ask yourself frankly: What's wrong with cooperative learning? Find out exactly why they are taking your course. (This is a very good project, either orally or in writing, for the first class. It helps everyone if you give them a long list of possible options and let them select or add.) If they want to learn English primarily to pass a test, then of course it is important that they learn to function alone and under rigorous test conditions. But what if they primarily want English to search the internet or to talk with foreigners or to read and write scientific articles? What if (perish the thought!) English is just a required course, of very little use to them outside of school? In most situations where they might really use English, remember that they will seldom be alone. Consider that opportunities to share information might even enhance their learning.
Whatever you decide to do around cheating versus cooperation, consider introducing it as an exploration of a difference between our cultures, rather than as right versus wrong. My writing students, for example, were indeed studying primarily for 30-minute exams. It was very important that they learn to work alone and under a strict time limit. They strongly resisted my "no notes, no talking, no dictionaries" rule, and at first I had to tear the papers from beneath their pens at the end of 30 minutes. I constantly explained that, because I was an American, my requirements were probably far more rigorous than they would ever have on an actual test in China. And I stressed that this was a game, just practice, to help them get comfortable with a whole new way of writing. I also alternated these practice exams with rewriting assignments designed to be cooperative. And I sincerely praised the phenomenal work they eventually produced under both writing conditions.
The best teaching begins where the students are and moves them in a direction that both teacher and student agree is good. But for new teachers in China, "where the students are" is often a near-mystery and agreed-upon goals can be hard to find when our cultures start so far apart. I found it helpful during the dark periods to remember how I learned my own language the first time and how I began to learn Chinese – by simply hearing it and hearing it; by having mother, father and friends prompt me over and over and laugh out loud when I got it right. In the long run, perhaps we do not need to decide whether anyone cheats or not. We just need to talk often with one another and to listen.
© Phyllis L. Thompson for the Colorado China Council (1992)