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.


bokanon said...

You are correct in attributing the ‘sciągawki’ phenomenon to a ridiculous system of testing. My friends who went to med school used to say that they could memorize a telephone directory if only requested. I was lucky enough to study economics where there has always been a premium for understanding the root of things. Still, my first open book exam in the UK was a breeze of fresh air. I am surprised though at the giggles you report from your conference. At my high school at least, cheating was always present, though always persecuted.

By the way, you did put an unusually positive spin to Polish state of affairs. Yes, there is a certain momentum post-EU entry which is hard to de-rail and the markets recognise that. Though letting Leeper into the corridors of power is pushing it. These are crooks salivating at the sheer idea of dipping into agricultural subsidies and forestry rents. And much as I do not mind PiS social conservatism, their economic policy bears some resemblance to old fashioned French industrial policy in its crudest form. And these are less encouraging thoughts than yours. But then, I am Polish, so not complaining would be a faux pas.

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


Adam Kovacs said...

Can't speak about Poland, but having experienced Hungarian higher education, much seems to be the same here.

One of the greatest differences I've seen between the North American and Hungarian systems is the relationship between student and professor, which (generally speaking) is asymmetric and highly adversarial.

(The best reason I have heard for this is that the communist higher education systems never underwent the educational reforms in the West of the late 60's.)

Additionally, in comparison to North America, the quality of the lectures is often quite poor -- for instance, 'dry' theory may be emphasized at the expense of practical knowledge.

Nevertheless, the lectures are extremely well attended, because one of the quickest ways of raising a professor's ire at exam time is by "disrespecting" them by not having showed up to his all important lectures.

At the same time, many of the examinations are based on the individual lecturer's esoteric subfield that has little real life relevance, but lots of rote learning.

Given all of these differences, is it any surprise that students resort to cheating?

pricklypole said...

The kind of self-effacing zeal that permeates posts from Poles here and elsewhere on your blog defies your somewhat stereotypical dignosis of Polish to your observant precious piece under endearing title "A nation of cheats...": "ściągawki" does not mean "little things you pull out" - it would have to be "wy-ciągawki"; what it means is "little things to copy from" or maybe "scrolls" or "memory helpers" - that's one thing. "Kombinować" - does not mean "get together against authority" or whatever it was you wrote. I can't see why you say its untranslatable - its simply "scheme", "plot"; but also: "figure out".
Generally, I would be cautious with this kind of patronising talk. For one, there is nothing particularly wrong in this invention - its natural for young people to look for leeways - as long as it is not approved of by teachers - and it isn't and never has been. In fact, I am sure every Pole would agree, it has almost alway meant disqualification - period, if it was exposed and the more serious exams the stricter this praxis is followed. Drawing far fetched conclusions is rather amusing here, even more so including in them the whole education system. One has nothing to do with the other - it is enough to think for a second to see that some disciplines, like medicine mentioned by your first commentator, require much more material to be memorized thaN others, like economy, where the subject matter is to a ;arge extent the science of process, dynamic interrelations between a relatively limited number of basic elemets. Studying morphology of a human body is inconceivable without learning "by heart" and no education system no matter how creative is not going to change that. As for your frivolous title... your sense of humour has neither sense nor humour, I am affraid. By the way, reading The Times and Daily Telegraph as I do regularly, just last week I came across a news about "crackdown on cheats" about to be unleashed upon an inconspicuous group of 700 000 (yes seven hundred thousand) citizens of the UK who caught on camera while speeding notoriously lied about "aliens" behind the wheel to avoid having their D.L's withheld - new cameras will capture faces, you know. They quoted a few examples of culprits already in prison for this; one chap claimed a Bulgarian employee he never had drove the car and went as far as going to Bulgaria himself to post a bogus card...A few days later, I looked at the The Times - the cover story treated about dark clouds over the mischievous Brits who - notoriuosly, I think was the word - forge parking permits (the blue ones - for handicapped which allow free parking time)claiming them for the dead persons' names, among other ingenious tricks. It said not less than 5000 permits have been annuled in one of London's boroughs and in Merseyside in Manchester (was it?) only last month. And one thing of 'ubiquitous cheating' in admisions at universities... that too is a bit steep and to this I might recall recent case of top ten British schools (Oxford among them)caught in the nasty collusion to fix fees on a common, higher level - it was not an incident of one or the other crooked academician but involved managements of all ten schools. Good night.