In the Company of Minimalists and Cheaters

It’s not easy being 15. It’s not easy being 15 and in a new school. It’s not easy being 15 and one of only three kids in your school of African descent. It’s not easy being 15 and African and in a new school where your Papa just happens to be the principal. It’s not easy having your Papa know exactly what homework you have with his daily access to your teachers. It’s not easy being a good, well-prepared student in a class full of sports students with little interest in academics. It’s not easy being asked daily by classmates to hand over your homework for them to copy. It’s not easy handing over your homework, when your Mama is an American who despises cheating. It’s not easy NOT handing over your homework to students you will have to share a classroom with for the next 4 years.

It’s not easy transitioning from being a popular class speaker and lead singer in the school band to being the principal’s egghead daughter in the company of minimalists and cheaters.

Before the impression sets in that I am judging my daughter’s new classmates too harshly, I will add that I do have some understanding for their attitudes. I believe they are – to some extent – the products of the educational system they are going through. And it is NOT because of “bad teachers”. It’s because they have had teachers who are no longer allowed to teach to their full potential. It is because they all – students and teachers alike – are living in a culture that is simply not conducive to joyful and successful learning. It is all about verifiable results, about benchmarks and numerical values and cost/benefit analyses. It’s about raising test scores and international reputation. To succeed in this world, you need a strategy. Not in terms of work ethics or good practices (teaching methods and study habits), but in ways to game the system.

I should probably add here, that I am comparing the current Austrian school system to the American one I went through almost 40 years ago – so the comparison could be unfair or ill-informed. Maybe minimalism and cheating have arrived in the States too. I don’t think so, but I can’t say with absolute certainty, having been away for so long. At the same time, I have become something of an expert at the cultural differences between the USA and Austria, and I believe the school systems truly reflect the most fundamental of these differences. Let me take a step back to explain.

I’ve been asked by Austrians many times over the years what I miss most about “America”. It is understood that I should name something cultural – not the obvious answers like “family” or “friends”. It was a question that stumped me for years and I usually ended up saying something silly like “cheddar cheese”. (I am from Wisconsin, after all.) Some years ago, it finally dawned on me what I was missing.

Compliments. Praise.

I don’t know what it is about people here, but it is a fairly unusual experience to hear “Hey, you did that really well!” or “Good Job!” or “I really like the way you . . . (xyz)!”  Not only are Austrians sparing with the praise, they tend to be somewhat suspicious when receiving it. I remember the reactions of my university students when I complimented their work or the discussion they had just had. It was often clear that the experience of being complimented by a teacher was new for them. Some of them wondered what my agenda was – I must be saying those things for some reason . . . ? What did I want from them?

In both the Montessori world and the newer research on learning, the concept of rewarding students for good work is called into question. A convincing argument is made that once students start earning rewards for their work, they lose their intrinsic motivation to learn and start striving for “plus points”. I can accept the logic of that idea, but stop short at the idea of ceasing to praise good work. (And this has led to more than one convoluted discussion with colleagues.) All of the articles admit that “recognition” is important and “good” and that “praise” is not constructive and therefore “bad”. Tortured attempts to define those two terms and differentiate them ensue.

I think a lot of this comes down to culture. As an American, I believe people need to hear “Well done! Good job!” once in a while – simply for their sense of esteem or well-being. In Austria, this statement is seen as a manipulative means of modifying behavior in an almost Pavlovian sense. You see this difference permeating the two school systems.

A friend of mine grew up in The States until she was 12 or 13 and then moved to Austria with her parents. She told me that she started at her new school here with all the habits and attitudes of an American pupil. She raised her hand and contributed to discussions. She asked questions and showed interest. Within a month, not only her classmates, but also her teachers made it clear to her that enthusiasm was not appreciated. She learned to keep her mouth shut and blend in. She quickly realized that the teachers were focused on her mistakes and not on her accomplishments, and so minimized her contributions to earn as few “minus points” as possible. She summed up the difference this way: “My American teachers were always trying to show me what I had learned, where I was good, and what I could do with it. My Austrian teachers were only pointing out my deficiencies, what I hadn’t learned well enough yet and had to work on.”

I’ve seen the same emphasis in the education my own children are getting. It all revolves around the tests and grades and those are based to a HUGE extent on how many mistakes were made. These are counted up and subtracted from an often arbitrary total point score. If the number of mistakes is less than 10% of the total, the student has done a “very good” job. So, what message gets through to the students? Whatever you do, DON’T MAKE MISTAKES!!

As a language teacher, this idea of not allowing students to make mistakes is especially ludicrous, because mistakes are necessary stepping stones to proficiency. It is not a subject consisting of facts to be learned, it is an ability we are born with that has to be developed by trial and error. When my daughter was a baby, she said “Mitzi nana” and I gave her a banana. I didn’t respond by saying “No, Mitzi, the correct way to say that is ‘May I please have a banana?’” When a 2nd year pupil of mine raises his hand and says “I go toilet now?” I think how great it is that they said it in English instead of German.

Did they make mistakes? Yes. Did they get their points across anyway? Yes. Did they achieve something? Yes. Would it have been helpful in any way for me to point out their grammar mistakes in these moments? No.
Yet that is the modus operandi in so many classrooms. Notice mistakes. Call attention to them. Give the “minus point”.

The strategies that students develop in this system make me want to pull my hair out.

• Do as little as possible to call attention to yourself.
• Do the minimum work required to reduce the number of mistakes a teacher can find.
• Cheat or plagiarize whenever possible.

Okay, that’s all a bit overstated and overgeneralized, but I have personally experienced enough of these phenomena to see them as real, not to mention pretty horrifying.

The first final exam I gave at the university opened my eyes to how prevalent the cheating was. I couldn’t believe how audacious they were about it (not to mention how bad!). In return, my cheating students were shocked that I went around the room calling them on it rather than sitting in the front pretending not to notice. When I later asked a class if anyone there could say they had never cheated on a test, they burst out laughing – what a ludicrous question! Cheating was an integral part of the equation, a rule of the game. It was not unfair – no, it was social, like sharing a good thing or helping a neighbor.

I also experienced many people giving me advice on how to cheat on my taxes. They did it straightforwardly as if it were the most normal thing in the world – like I would be stupid not to do it. Like tax evasion was the national sport and I was expected to play. I once made the mistake of admitting that “I don’t mind paying taxes. I recognize why it is important and what I am getting back from the system.” From the look on the face of my discussion partner, I might as well have come from a different planet.

Or, when file sharing programs came into existence and people started illegally downloading music and movies like crazy, I had many discussions with students and at home about the this activity. I didn’t want stolen property on my hard drive. And why should I? What is so awful about paying 99 cents to the artist whose music you like, I wondered? Yet I never found an Austrian who felt the same.

I simply don’t understand a culture that sees mistakes as bad and cheating as normal. I don’t want to understand it. And I don’t want my children to understand that either.

I have never bashed Austria – my adopted country – this badly before. This is the point where I should say a few nice things, a few compliments, to relativize what I criticized above. I could, for instance, say it is a beautiful country providing a wonderful quality of life and that I am glad in general that I am raising my kids here. But it is not a perfect country. It makes mistakes.

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3 thoughts on “In the Company of Minimalists and Cheaters

  1. Wow! I always thought it was just like The Sound of Music! 😉
    I think cultural change affects us all. I had a similarly change-y upbringing and I definitely noticed the difference between US and UK culture. It took me a while to realise I had to “pipe down” and if I knew the answer I should pretend not to. I even pretended I couldn’t read when I could! It’s an odd idea.

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  2. In general, you’re right about the pointing-out-mistakes and never-praise-the students way of schooling in Austria, that I remember. No mistakes was good. Anything else less than good. So why praise? The only praise at school, I do recall, was when I (totally unexpected, even to myself) handed in a flawless maths test. The Herr Professor expressed his surprise, how a girl did the only mistake-free test (so in a way, he was not even praising me or my gender but more scolding the boys). Same at home. Good grades were expected, praise therefore not called for. Actually, there wasn’t much room for making a good impression, was there?
    What’s new, is the cheating. I don’t recall, it was customary, when I went to school. Nor can I say, that classmates copied homework. But then again, maybe things changed. It’s been a while, since I left school…
    I’m really sorry for your big one. I think, most of it comes from her being the pricipal’s daughter. No matter, how she fares, accomplishments will never be fully credited to her and failures will always be triumphantly blown out of proportion. Such is the heinous make-up of common Austrians, I fear. On the flip-side of this will be those, weaseling up to her, to maybe benefit somehow from being friends with her. But she will find a way to deal with all this, she’s bright. And she’s got you to help navigate through this…

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