From Day 1, we are taught that cheating is bad. Copying homework from your peers, however common it is or innocuous it feels, is a punishable offense and if you ever feel the wandering eyes of a neighbor on your exam, the instinct is to wield your body as a shield and protect your hard-earned answers. Honor codes, tutorials on proper citation, and Turnitin.com are all dedicated to ensure that each student does their own work. The war against plagiarism may be ingrained into the American school system, but this was not the case at the Shree Shanti Niketan School.
For the older students in grades 9 and 10, we often gave them writing prompts to practice their English and prepare them for the standardized exams they’d have to pass at the end of the year to move on to the next grade. If you could go anywhere is the world where would you go and why? What do you want to be when you grow up? Those types of questions. We wanted to give the students a chance to think creatively and stray away from memorizing things out of a textbook. I got called over by a student to check her work, fixed some spelling mistakes, and tweaked some grammar.. “Good job”, I’d say as I hand back the notebook. A couple minutes later, her neighbor would raise her hand, I’d go over and do the same thing, thinking hm, maybe it’s just a coincidence that they both want to be teachers. Another student in their desk row raises her hand and I read for the third time an identical paragraph about why being a teacher is the best job.
This happened in every class and at first, I was shocked. The entire GROW team was confused that the students didn’t seem to recognize that cheating was wrong. They never tried to hide it from us and never showed any guilt over it either. It was one of the most glaring differences I recognized between American and Nepali schools. Once you gave that first student the affirmation of a “good job”, all of the other students recognized it as the only right answer to the question and therefore jumped to copy it. This was the problem – students assumed that there was only one correct answer to our prompt, one correct sentence structure, one correct word choice. Their mindset was a product of years of rote learning – repetition and memorization of material to get good test scores even if students didn’t understand the concepts. PHASE’s teacher training initiatives aim to break away from traditional rote learning and introduce new teaching techniques that encourage students to be more engaged with their classes. We echoed this, emphasizing that there is more than one right answer and that we didn’t care whether their answers were correct, we just wanted everyone to try. As we spent more time with the students, I believe that our message began to resonate with them. Shy students felt more comfortable participating and there was less cheating as students began to take ownership of their own work. Seeing this was an encouraging start for the GROW team and a deft reminder of why PHASE’s investment in education development in rural communities is indispensable.
Linda Jiang is a senior majoring in Economics and Community Health. She is on the GHU team.