My cheating art

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Science cheats are now regularly outed. Barry Cartwright, a self-confessed tweaker of lab experiments, explains where he acquired the habit

It is interesting to think of where my cheating know-how came from. I can remember being introduced to the phenomenon by my O-level biology teacher. When a particular practical which relied on the outcome of a sugar food test failed to work, he stood and scratched his head.

Then he admitted that it should have worked since he had introduced some extra sugar surreptitiously. It transpired that the illegal sugar was sucrose. We pupils eventually pointed out that it wouldn't work because the sugar was non-reducing and didn't give a positive result. With a "damn and blast" he proceeded to tell us what should have happened.

We couldn't believe that a teacher would do such a thing and trust was never given easily after that occasion. To this day I am still not sure whether this was an example of gross incompetence or whether it was a case of inspired teaching - which lead us to look up the results of sugar tests and work out for ourselves what should have happened.

The next exposure to cheating was in my probationary year at Dinnington comprehensive in 1976. Many of the teachers there were expert at rigging "experiments".

I was shown some clever wheezes, such as licking the palm of my hand, dipping it in glucose powder, concealing the white powder by sleight-of-hand and then using the palm to cover a boiling tube while ostensibly vigorously shaking the contents of the tube to mix it with the introduced Benedicts solution.

This was done to make sure that enough glucose was in the water surrounding the visking tubing in the "model gut" demonstration. This was only necessary if there was not enough time to leave the demonstration tube to get a satisfactory result.

The pressure of the need for knowledge in examinations and the lack of a need for critical reflection was the driving force behind the subterfuge.

Until I read Jerry Wellington and Mick Nott's article (TES Science: Subject of the Week, May 8 1998), I did not see any parallel between fixing demonstrations and the moral rectitude required for doing research. For me, they were different scenarios and not directly related in the world of science teaching.

Wellington and Nott's mention of the addition of sodium hydrogen carbonate to water in photosynthesis investigations reminds me of the Elodea investigation at A-level of the inverse square law in the effect of light on the rate of photosynthesis. I have marked many practical investigations where near perfect results were obtained. This is miraculous since I and many of my colleagues have never been able to obtain good results for this investigation.

Whichever of the three published ways it is carried out, the Elodea is inconsistent in the production of bubbles from the cut stem. It produces gases when the light intensity is high and there is sufficient sodium hydrogen carbonate in solution.

As soon as an attempt is made to increase the distance of the light source (even in a dark room) the drop-off of bubble production is not consistent or in line with what would be expected invoking the inverse square law.

This is an ideal practical for students as they can discuss the shortcomings of the investigation and the apparent anomalous results. But no, when students do the investigation they appear to need to get results close to the received wisdom in one of the three texts. Their results and their discussion nearly always avoid controversy (a big giveaway as far as I'm concerned).

Ironically, the NEAB has used the same experiment in training materials for GCSE practical assessments. The results are too perfect, and would not be possible, given the crude way many GCSE practicals are carried out.

As a result, the conclusion and evaluation are probably a fiction. This, I feel, is a more serious incarnation of cheating. Is the drive for higher and better marks causing pupils to cheat? That would be intolerable, especially if such a successful candidate went on to become a professional science researcher.

Cheating is less important to me nowadays, since results which do not fall into line give opportunities for discussion about why and how rogue results occur. It also goes to demonstrate that science isn't always predictable and that even teachers can get it wrong (I don't really mean wrong).

In the future, will we see a brave new world where all teachers are honest with their pupils, and where pupils are completely honest in the production of their investigations? I doubt it.

There will still probably be plenty of proficient science cheats for people such as Jerry Wellington and Mick Nott to out.

There are still many science teachers who have not thought philosophically about scientific method, and who are not all that bothered about the higher moral ground when examination results are their main concern.

In fact, I have had many conversations with Sheffield science teachers about this subject. But, for years, my greatest wish has been to come out as a cheat - I feel much better already.

Barry Cartwright is head of science, Handsworth Grange School, Sheffield.

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