School trains kids to reinvent the wheel

Cheating is really a build-or-buy decision. Should you develop in-house competency or just get it done and move on? Cheating is a really only a word to denigrate someone who refuses to reinvent the wheel.

When you refuse to reinvent the wheel, you are putting aside what you can get easily from other sources so you can focus on what you don’t know: what you’ll come up with next. So these cheating kids are wild cards in school but big assets everywhere else. Kids who cheat are much better prepared for the work world than kids who try to learn everything themselves. 

The Atlantic reports on the widespread and lucrative industry of cheating. It’s an arms race of sorts. Kids become increasingly brazen in their techniques and teachers become increasingly technological in their traps.

The efforts teachers will go to stop cheating are extreme. For example, there are typing programs that learn to track a typing speed or style to catch an anomaly in someone’s test-taking style. What a total waste of money for school but a great invention for a sci-fi spy movie.

Kimberly Williams, professor of education at Cornell, points out that the key to preventing cheating in the first place lies in the teaching itself.  “We need to make sure what we teach is meaningful to students so that they actually want to learn it or see value in their own learning of it,” she said. “If they don’t, then we’re sunk and they are wasting their time anyway. It is a wake-up call for higher education that we need to teach better and in more meaningful ways so that learners want to learn.”

If you tell your kids to never cheat on a test, what you’re really telling them is to never look for a faster way to get something done. You are teaching kids to react without thinking: if someone tells you to learn something, do it the hardest, most time-intensive way, rather than the easiest way, which is probably to use the Internet when you need to recall something.

But cheating goes beyond just taking a test. Because in the work world, the best companies are stealing ideas.  The Wall St. Journal summarized the importance of copying good ideas in an overview of the Chinese Internet arena. The biggest IPO in history will be Alibaba, a Chinese company that copied Amazon but made it better. And the next big IPO coming out of China will be Weiblo, a (copy and) improvement on Twitter.

The people making the most money are using the work other people have done as much as they can. Because the world is set up to reward people who can add to other peoples’ thinking, which is what teachers call cheating.

Marc Andreessen is the inventor of the Intneret browser and has subsequently funded a slew of the major Internet technologies you are familiar with today. He wrote:

49 replies
  1. Alina
    Alina says:

    Cheating is not just about getting an answer faster or with less effort; cheating is about trying to get credit/praise for something that one doesn’t know/deserve, and That’s the real problem with cheating. Cheating is not an entrepreneurial approach to getting information, it’s “not wanting to study, and yet wanting to get a good grade on the test”.

    Here’s a relevant link: good students do well on any type of test (open book, closed book, or cheat sheet allowed), and bad students do badly in any type of tests.
    So, cheating seems to be related more to poor character and work ethic than to entrepreneurial thinking.

    Anti-cheating schemes are not designed to separate the kids who really know their stuff from kids who don’t know their stuff; they are designed to separate the kids who have good work ethic / character and those who don’t. We can argue whether it’s the school’s job to teach character (vs. just teaching curriculum), but that’s another topic.

    • Jay Cross
      Jay Cross says:

      “It’s about not wanting to study, and yet wanting to get a good grade on the test.”

      Isn’t that similar to the build or buy decision Penelope alluded to?

      When Facebook bought Instagram, they were really saying “we don’t want to build our own photo sharing app, but we definitely want all those users.”

      Which is an implicit admission that they don’t understand how to build their own app or don’t feel capable of building their own app in an acceptable timeframe. Just like a grade school kid copying the answers.

      Only difference is FB wasn’t punished for it. Indeed, their stock price went up.

      Penelope, this is a really interesting framework. Not sure if I’m ready to endorse cheating wholesale, but it’s given me something to think about.

      • Mark
        Mark says:

        When Facebook bought Instagram, they traded value for value.

        When people cheat, they do no such thing.

        Maybe if Facebook had said, “Hey, let us take a look at your source code” and then appropriated it as their own, the comparison would be more accurate.

        Passing off the work of others as your own is fraud, however one tries to dress it up.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Hold on, companies do that all the time. That’s what “barrier to entry” means when you are pitching VCs. The question is, what keeps a company from building it themselves if it turns out to be a good idea.


          • Mark
            Mark says:

            Companies don’t steal source code all the time. They might look and it and they might end up buying it, but they don’t steal it. At least not if they don’t want to end up in court. That’s just a crazy assertion.

            If the question is, what keeps a company from building it themselves if it turns out to be a good idea, the answer is that it is cheaper to buy the code than to replicate the functionality or the existing customer base justifies the cost. That’s not even remotely the same as appropriating the software without paying.

          • VegGal
            VegGal says:

            Musicians do this all the time too. They just modify a rhythm or composition to their own liking and call it their own.

        • Will
          Will says:

          You’re making a big assumption about the cheating scenario involving stealing the information. Cheating is often, if not always, a mutual exchange between the individual receiving the information and the person that created it. (Full disclosure: I paid many a student for their work or to complete mine.) The same technique applies to outsourcing talent or acquiring companies as in P’s example.

    • Jayson
      Jayson says:

      Your link is about availability of information to students during tests. While the words “cheat sheet” do appear, it is not about breaking rules.

      Cheating is defined as breaking a rule. Nothing more, nothing less. The morality of which is entirely subjective.

  2. Bryan Johnson
    Bryan Johnson says:

    Wow, this post may have flipped the bozo bit for you in my mind. Cheating is not the same thing as replacing memorization with lookup.

    Alibaba isn’t Amazon:

    Weiblo’s advantage may have something to do with Twitter (and Facebook) being blocked in China, since at least 2009.

    “Because the world is set up to reward people who can add to other peoples’ thinking, which is what teachers call cheating.” No, cheating is copying someone else’s work without bothering to understand a word of it.

    Schools train kids in fundamentals because if you don’t understand the fundamentals you will never be able to advance the state of the art. Copying from the smarter kid next to you is exactly the kind of behavior which will eventually doom you in the work world once the Peter Principle takes effect, and which will therefore doom your organization.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I don’t get this at all. Great developers copy peoples’ work all the time without understanding a word of it. That’s what open source is. You take the code. You look for the one tag you need to change to make it yours. You make it yours and then you sell it to the company you’re consulting for.

      It’s a total waste of time to understand everything you use.


      • Redrock
        Redrock says:

        …. But there are actually people writing the code who are ok with having it open source, they should know what they are doing. So, someone actually has to write code which you copy and sell. The system does not work on everybody just taking.

      • Mark
        Mark says:

        Great developers understand they code they use. Script kiddies and hacks flail around trying to change particular aspects of the code without understanding it.

        And open source is explicitly made available to others. That’s a completely different situation than trying to pass off the work of others as your own.

        I’m beginning to think that some people here cheated their way through logic classes. Not reinventing the wheel — not writing Visual Studio for yourself if you want to code, or using libraries other people have made available for free or for a price — is not the same thing as stealing code and cheating. If I buy a code library and use it, I am not reinventing the wheel. If I bit torrent it and use a hacked key, I am stealing.

      • Tracy
        Tracy says:

        You can “make it your own” as long as you respect the licence and attribution requirements that every piece of open software comes with. Otherwise it is cheating and taking the risk of getting caught or not. And sure people do it all the time and profit from it – doesn’t make it a model to aspire to.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I LOVE THIS SO MUCH!!!! That’s a great discussion to have. I love it as a discussion for adults as well.


  3. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    “Talent borrows, genius steals.”
    —T.S. Eliot

    (at least I think that’s who said it. I’m too lazy to Google the quote).

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      I believe it was Oscar Wilde.
      TS Eliot said Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

      Both wonderful quotes.

  4. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:

    Funny you posted this today. Art of Manliness just put up a great post called “Want To Become a Better Writer? Copy The Work of Others.”

    FYI, this site is huge on old-school traditional values and devotes many posts to the value of hard work, persistence, etc. So the fact that they posted this is pretty strong testimony to the power of (at least some) copying.

  5. Jayson
    Jayson says:

    Part of what bothers me about this post is that it is not a complete concept. Unrestricted, tacit endorsement of children cheating on exams is acceptable to the extent that they understand the consequences of their actions. These consequences are somewhat defined in Academe, but in work are not so obvious. For example, a person who takes work and presents it to others as their own will suffer social isolation or some other punishment (unless their name is Mark Zuckerberg). It’s not entirely clear to me that a child understands the problems with this until they actually get caught.

    The parallellism of work and school here is broken. A purpose in work is to build a project or complete a sale where speed and time to market is a huge factor. A purpose of growing up is to learn fundamental knowledge (ie. how to build a wheel)…which takes time. Cheating as a way to shortcut to proof of learning (a grade, for instance) does not resonate well.

    What’s becoming clear in the comments, is that the definition of cheating is important. I (and Webster), and perhaps you, are defining cheating as breaking the rules to achieve an end. The outrage comes from those who define cheating as “stealing from others to improve one’s lot”.

    Breaking rules is great! Knowing which ones to break is even better. Understanding penalties for breaking them is for a mature mind…most likely learned by getting caught cheating in school. However, stealing from others to improve one’s lot is a different matter.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, the inherent belief behind the idea that cheating is okay is that it’s a waste of time to prove to a teacher that you’ve learned something the teacher told you to learn. It does not help kids in life to devote themselves to learning what they are told to learn. So then, it seems smart to me to just get past that as fast as you can so you can learn whatever you want to learn instead.


      • Mark
        Mark says:

        Cheating is fraud. If you think the end justifies the means, that says more about your life philosophy than it does about cheating.

        If you found out your kid’s doctor cheated her way through med school — or just bought a degree from a diploma mill — would you praise her ingeniousness or look for another doctor?

        • Jayson
          Jayson says:

          Cheating is not fraud. They aren’t putting people in jail for it…at least not yet. As I mentioned above, the definition is critical for certain people in this thread. Some try to equate it to something illegal or unethical. If anyone can equate cheating to a lack of ethics then most people are unethical according to Stanford, but what do they know . Wikipedia places the number that admit it at 70%

          If they aren’t unethical or committing a crime, then what is it? The argument presented in the post is that they are exhibiting efficiency. Presumably at a gain in some other area. This concept of cheating whih exists only in Academe has ethics which are entirely created by the system. Reduce the problem by taking away the entire structure of schooling and performance based metrics and you just have a kid who wants to learn one thing over another.

          • Mark
            Mark says:

            Where did you get the idea that fraud was only criminal? Fraud is also a civil matter.

            The first definition of “cheat” in the dictionary: to defraud; swindle. Another definition? to take an examination or test in a dishonest way, as by improper access to answers.

            The first definition of fraud in the dictionary: “deceit, trickery, sharp practice, or breach of confidence, perpetrated for profit or to gain some unfair or dishonest advantage.”

            Yeah, cheating is fraud.

        • Jay Cross
          Jay Cross says:

          People go to medical school in their mid to late 20’s, by choice, because they personally see value in it. For all you know, some of the most successful doctors practicing medicine right now cheated their way through middle school classes that didn’t interest them.

          Two years ago I needed emergency throat surgery. An amazing doctor got out of bed at 2AM and rushed into the hospital to perform it. The next morning, I back home recovering.

          I never asked if he cheated on his U.S. History final twenty years ago. I did thank him for being a master of his chosen profession.

  6. Ryan Finlay
    Ryan Finlay says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Full disclosure, I cheated my way through public school from 6th or 7th grade on. I cheated in almost every class because I didn’t see the value in what they were teaching. I didn’t cheat in typing class in 7th grade (this was back in the early 90’s) because I figured I would need to know how to type. I was right. Now Spanish class was another matter. I didn’t learn a single thing the entire year, and haven’t needed that “knowledge” even once in the past 15 years or so. That can be said for most of the rest of the “education” we receive in public schools.

    Great post!

  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    Plagiarism is a form of cheating yes. But you know what? if someone is going to get caught then they are too stupid for it. And if they get caught they deserve the consequences.

    Focus more, then, in building character but praise working smarter. Whatever that may be.

    It was really hard for me to understand the concept of plagiarism to begin with (in high school). I wasn’t sure what I had to cite and what I didn’t. The teachers were doing pretty terrible explaining it. They kept throwing around the phrase “if it’s not common knowledge cite it” and it drove me nuts because I felt like learning and then writing a report on what you learned is plagiarism! and then, if you are supposed to cite sources and this was a brand new topic for you then you’d be citing pretty much everything you’re writing. It was nuts.

    I understand how it works now. But to begin with I had to cheat. I had to cheat because I didn’t know when to cite so I would just turn things around and present them as my opinion rather than quote them verbatim. Otherwise I’d go over the word count just in citations.

    I wouldn’t take someone’s work and take credit for it. But I would definitely find a way to make things easier and faster and not have to go through it myself if I know I won’t need the knowledge of it’s inner workings in the future.

    PS. When I talk to people about certain things I have just stopped referring to Penelope’s website and just talk about my opinions and people think I am so smart! (in truth, I learned a lot of it here). People were getting annoyed because they thought I was name dropping. Or I sounded incredibly insecure. I just didn’t want to plagiarize.

    At some point I just said “screw it” and presented my opinions as mine because I had internalized them enough even though initially a lot of it grew from the conversation in these blogs.

    • Nuts
      Nuts says:

      I have a masters degree and I still don’t understand what plagiarism is. High school teachers were shitty, college professors expected me to know, and by grad school I was embarrassed.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        Plagiarism is a difficult topic. This link is a good one I give to my students. Sometimes it can be even funny: last year in a take home exam I asked students to come up with ideas for a certain nanotechnology problem – all sources permitted to get ideas, but one had to combine a few things to actually have a good solution. My favourite answer was the one which copied large segments from the book I wrote (no quotation marks, no citation) – in the hope I would not recognize my own writing? It was easy to grade since it also completely lacked a solution to the problem.

  8. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Not sure I buy this argument about all subjects. Trigonometry, however, is absolutely about teaching them to rebuild the wheel instead of just buying a scientific calculator.

  9. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Other business world analogies for cheating:

    -It’s like falsifying experience and references on your resume
    -It’s like taking your colleague’s work off the copy machine and presenting it as your own
    -It’s like skipping due diligence on securities sales
    -It’s like cutting corners on an audit

    • Jayson
      Jayson says:

      Three of four of which are common. Well…they just call falsifying embellishing. They don’t skip due diligence since poor due diligence is practically indistinguishable from good. And the corners don’t need to be cut on audits, since the auditors don’t know what questions to ask.

      As of yet, I haven’t seen work taken off the copier…

  10. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:


    Ran out of “Reply” buttons on the other thread so answering you here.

    The point of that anecdote was cheating in grade school (where you are forced by law to show up and study things that don’t interest you) is not the same as a grown adult cheating at his chosen profession.

    For one thing, it’s not even really feasible to cheat in medical school because you have clinical rotations and other exercises that make you apply what you learn. You can’t BS that. But you also have less incentive to BS it, because if you’re paying to study medicine it’s presumably because you selfishly want to be there.

    Penelope — if I understand her correctly — was saying that cheating in grade school is about skipping what doesn’t interest you.

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      Fifteen seconds on Google turned up this and many others:

      “For years, doctors around the country taking an exam to become board certified in radiology have cheated by memorizing test questions, creating sophisticated banks of what are known as ‘recalls,’ a CNN investigation has found.”

      So is the argument that kids can skip requirements by cheating but adults can’t? That’s an interesting approach, but I’m not sure it is anything more than a rationalization.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      So, cheating is simply the way out of learning something you are not interested in or which does not make sense at the time of teaching/learning…you are then given extraordinary abilities in foresight if you are able to see at grade school level what you will need the rest of your life and make decisions accordingly. Have you never pulled out the most obscure bit of knowledge from your brain which you know you learned in a class you did have no interest in? And which all of a sudden helped you solve a problem?

      • Jay Cross
        Jay Cross says:

        You have a point. There have definitely been times when I thought back to something obscure that later turned out to be useful.

        Does that mean school is overall a good thing, though?

        If I told you there was a million dollars buried in your backyard and you spent the weekend digging and found nothing, would you turn around and thank me for all the healthy exercise I motivated you to get?

        I doubt it. So why do schools promise to make kids smart and engaged and creative, fail at that, and get let off the hook for incidentally doing a marginal amount of good along the way?

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          I don’t think it is so simply black and white. I also don’t think homeschooling versus school schooling is always a clear cut choice or decision. I know many highly creative, smart and independent people who had a good school experience (according to their own statements), I also know the opposite. Well, you can say now that they are smart despite school – but there is no basis for this statement since the diverse experience in school and homeschool defy a good statistical analysis.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            sorry, I mean diverse experiences in homeschool as saying that they differ widely. And the same is valid for school – so a statistically relevant analysis taking into account all the variables seems not possible, and it will always be colored by personal experience. Which is fine – this is a personal decision and what works for one kid might not work for another.

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      Fifteen seconds on Google (cheating in medical school? turned up this and many others:

      “For years, doctors around the country taking an exam to become board certified in radiology have cheated by memorizing test questions, creating sophisticated banks of what are known as ‘recalls,’ a CNN investigation has found.”

      So is the argument that kids can skip requirements by cheating but adults can’t? That’s an interesting approach, but I’m not sure it is anything more than a rationalization.

      — My previous post is awaiting moderation. This is mostly a test to see if that is because I included a link.

      • Jay Cross
        Jay Cross says:


        Interesting findings RE: the medical school exam cheating. I was not aware of that.

        I don’t know. Like I said in my first comment on this post, I’m not 100% sold on what Penelope is saying…but there is something compelling about it, a grain of truth that I cannot ignore.

        I need to think about it some more. Thanks for challenging the thinking behind it.

        • Mark
          Mark says:

          I think there’s a grain of truth in the idea that not everything a kid is “supposed” to learn is equally important. When I evaluate what my kids are learning, being able to place historical events in some kind of order with some kind of context is more important, at this point, than the base pairs in DNA. Being able to do math accurately is more important than learning the names of constellations.

          That said, cheating isn’t acceptable, at all, period. Not on the less important stuff and not on the more important stuff. The process of learning — and no one goes through life without having to learn things he might consider unimportant — is important. Applying that process only when one feels like it isn’t feasible. On top of that, teaching the lesson that shortcuts are OK if you can come up with a way to rationalize them, is, IMO, an incredibly poor way of establishing senses of right and wrong and of responsibility.

  11. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Teachers of driving may know that their graduates will go on to break the rules, yet they don’t teach breaking rules, nor would I let my niece speed when she had her learner’s permit, not even when she said, “Uncle, everyone speeds along here.”

    I would not want my niece taught in school by a teacher who believes in cheating, nor do any of my friends espouse a belief in cheating… I think even a bigot hates a cheater.

  12. Maria
    Maria says:

    I think the problem in Education is when tests cause such pressures in students that they feel the need to cheat in the first place in order not to be ridiculed, shamed or beaten when they get home. Cause and effect. Then the test is put away and on to the next lesson. There is no learning required nor involved in test taking.

    I successfully home schooled my child. Tests were viewed as a way to eliminate what my child knew and understood so we could focus on what she didn’t know nor understand. No pressure. No grades. Just stickers when she got 100%. She had all A’s in her GED and 1 B. No cheating was involved. And she graduated with 6 college credits in French.

    What is the consequence of cheating as an Adult? Disaster! Fake medicines are created, fake parts with substandard material that can have catastrophic consequences. Who needs standards when we can fake them?

    And in Technology…it won’t “hurt” anyone if we cheat…will it?

    In North Carolina, food stamp distribution software kept crashing causing a backlog of over 30,000 starving families who had to do without due to “cheating”.

    Because he who never learned the basics, who never bothered to learn to earn his certification but instead relied on his neighbor’s answers could fake his competence so far before someone gets hurt.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      You get it, Maria. I’ve seen grown-up “cheating” before as well, and the damage it can do is extraordinary. I’ve seen adults decide to ship millions in sub-par inventory that would later have to be replaced, in order to meet milestone goals. I’ve seen multiple cases of pencil-whipping projections and reports to make up results. I’ve seen the government spend millions on useless equipment because tests were cooked and nobody looked. Management by objective tends to produce this behavior.

      It’s a damn shame so many kids learn this behavior in school, but it’s also predictable. An emphasis on fixed curriculum and regular testing inevitably leads to cheating. We should prefer our children not to learn it, and go on to exercise it as adults. As you say, the best way to achieve it is not to punish kids who cheat in a cheat-inducing system, but to remove them from that system.

  13. Sarah Burgin
    Sarah Burgin says:

    Spot on article Penelope! Keep writing, I really enjoy reading your blog.
    I hope all is well, and I’m looking forward to a new post! Have a great day!

  14. Dave Whilock
    Dave Whilock says:

    Marc Andreessen has a great point, and this entire article is spot on.
    Thanks for sharing your insight Penelope, this gave me some real food for thought.

  15. Chelsea
    Chelsea says:

    I cheated in school a few times and regretted every moment of it. It was not my work, not my learning. I didn’t bother to understand the method nor the question, so therefore I was unable to progress any farther in my studies until I went back and learned how to do it myself, because a lot of what we learned in school had a process that would eventually elaborate. I would NEVER suggest cheating.
    It’s not a good ethic, and it’s dishonest and a bit lazy.

    I’ve had imbecilic managers who took credit for other people’s work and didn’t know how to do the stuff themselves went left alone. Eventually it came back to bite them in the butt and they got fired.
    And good riddance.

  16. Whirlochre
    Whirlochre says:

    Maybe we should steal the concept of reinventing the wheel from the guardians who have it locked in the bunker of haplessness.

    That way we might end up with better wheels.

    Or better cheats.

    Actually, it wouldn’t be stealing at all.

    It would be more like creative ignorance: bypassing an intangible obstacle to get at a seemingly immutable hulk and make with the muting.

    Because we all need better wheels, right?

    On balance, I’m all for bending rules that bind, but cheating (as a rule of heart-or-head over hand-on-heart) merely bends and binds for its own sake.

    Faster wheels, right?

    Run the following thought experiment: Everyone cheats, all of the time.

    Now return to that idea of the wheel.

    Of whatever.

    In its bunker of haplessness.

  17. Turntable
    Turntable says:

    What if you are the kid helping the other kids to cheat?
    I did that in middle school to help the stoner kids who were busy working on playing music and keeping the rest of us smucks entertained.

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