Thursday, May 18, 2006

À nation of cheats? Only joking

Polish con themselves with cheat sheets

By Edward Lucas

It's as hard to translate as it is to pronounce. Sciagawki (sh-chong-aahf-ki) are literally "the little things you pull out". The English word "cheat sheet" doesn't do justice to what is a thriving industry in the world of Polish education.

Sciagawki are usually just scraps of paper, tightly folded, with teeny-weeny writing. That's fine, but they are not very durable. More diligent students laminate their bits of paper (the truly skilled producers make them both laminated and foldable).
But there are commercial ones too. A Cracow-based publishing house, Greg, actually produces textbooks with readymade sciagawki: little pamphlets you can keep up your sleeve, with the contents of the main textbook printed in microscopic type. Then there are 'cheating pens' with spring-loaded rolls of paper inside. And there are 'secret writers' - pens with ultra-violet ink and a tiny bulb at the end to reveal the secrets of what seems to be a blank sheet of paper.
One reason why cheating is so endemic in Poland is that the exams are so strange. The toughest exam at Oxford is for the prize fellowship at All Souls' college. It includes an essay paper where the biggest brains in the university are presented with a choice between intimidating subjects such as 'God' and 'water'. Not much room for cheating there.
But Polish exams are largely a memory test. I was visiting a school in Cieszyn, on the Polish-Czech border, and I asked a bunch of students to show me their «sci aþgawki. They were heading for a geography test, so most of the scraps of paper bore painstakingly compiled features of physical geography (the biggest lake in Africa in cubic metres, the population of Bogata and so on). This seems to me to be pretty pointless. If you want to teach people memorisation skills (which is a good thing) make them learn poetry, not statistics.
I wanted to highlight cheating in my survey of Poland, published in The Economist last week. But sadly the space needed to explain the intricacies and idiocies of Polish politics over the past six months meant that there was little room for such colourful extras. But I did mention it at the press conference which launched the survey. Cheating in schools, I said, is far worse in Poland than in any other post-Communist country, and it affects competitiveness by devaluing the educational currency.
The participants' reaction was a ripple of unselfconcious laughter. That's the oddest thing about cheating in Poland: nobody takes it seriously. It's seen as an amusing bit of rascaldom, no more serious than parking on the pavement or breaking a visa rule. On several other occasions when I have raised this with Poles, the response was "Didn't you cheat when you were at school?" When I say that a) I didn't; b) I can't remember anyone else doing so and c) it wouldn't have helped anyway, the reaction is offended disbelief.
Cheating reflects, I suspect, a deep-seated Polish scepticism towards authority, highlighted in the commonly used verb kombinowa«c. This is also barely translatable, but means roughly "to get together against authority". The social pressure in Poland to help your pals against the bosses must come, I think, from the many decades when the bosses were foreign.
Like other post-Communist countries, Poland needs to change its education system to emphasise problem-solving and critical thinking, rather than raw memorisation. That should make «sci aþgawki redundant. But the morally soggy culture that tolerates cheating will take longer to change - and damages much more than just the education system.

Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist.


Edward Lucas said...

thanks for the feedback. I was rather more positive in the survey itself than in the leading article that I wrote in the same issues. The survey was actually completed before the new coalition was formed, so most of the judgments were based on the minority government, rather than the one including Lepper & Giertych. However, my overall conclusion remains the same: Polish governments are mostly bad; this one is probably one of the least bad; despite everything, the country progresses.

Tom Adshead said...

Hello Edward
In Russia, they are called shpargalki, and they have a similar level of approval. I saw a press report a couple of years ago about a museum of shpargalki somewhere in the provinces - Tver, I believe.
Tom Adshead

kpjas said...

I believe cheating is widespread at all levels of levels of education. I witnessed all kinds of cheating during my education. A few years ago there was a scandal involving cheating at entrance exams to the Lodz Medical School. In the 1990s I heard rather credible rumours about buying examination tests of postgraduate medical exams.

The most striking thing about cheating is that people feel self-concious admitting that they don't cheat. They'd rather lie and say they have passed cheating. The honest are looked down upon, treated as dumb or even worse traitors/collaborators. Cheating at school is regarded as the norm and being honest something to be ashamed of. Sad, strange but true.

richardlith said...

In neighbouring Lithuania, the school Lithuanian langauge exam is to be held for a second time on June 9 because it was "leaked" beforehand and available to buy on the internet for 100 Litas. Naturally, nobody is taking the blame yet.

Edward Lucas said...

richardlith: I am going to be in Vilnius this coming week and would be glad to meet you. Sorry I don't have your e-mail address