On test day for my Behavioral Ecology class at UCLA, I walked into the classroom bearing an impossibly difficult exam. Rather than being neatly arranged in alternate rows with pen or pencil in hand, my students sat in one tight group, with notes and books and laptops open and available. They were poised to share each other’s thoughts and to copy the best answers. As I distributed the tests, the students began to talk and write. All of this would normally be called cheating. But it was completely okay by me.
Who in their right mind would condone and encourage cheating among UCLA juniors and seniors? Perhaps someone with the idea that concepts in animal behavior can be taught by making their students live those concepts.
Animals and their behavior have been my passions since my Kentucky boyhood, and I strive to nurture this love for nature in my students. Who isn’t amazed and entertained by videos of crafty animals, like Betty the tool-making crow, bending wires into hooks to retrieve baskets containing delicious mealworms? (And then hiding her rewards from a lummox of a mate who never works, but is all too good at purloining hard-won rewards of others?)
Nevertheless, I’m a realist. Almost none of my students will go on to be “me” – a university professor who makes a living observing animals. The vast majority take my classes as a prelude to medical, dental, pharmacy, or vet school. Still, I want my students to walk away with something more than, “Animals are cool.” I want them to leave my class thinking like behavioral ecologists.
Much of evolution and natural selection can be summarized in three short words: “Life is games.” In any game, the object is to win—be that defined as leaving the most genes in the next generation, getting the best grade on a midterm, or successfully inculcating critical thinking into your students. An entire field of study, Game Theory, is devoted to mathematically describing the games that nature plays. Games can determine why ant colonies do what they do, how viruses evolve to exploit hosts, or how human societies organize and function.
So last quarter I had an intriguing thought while preparing my Game Theory lectures. Tests are really just measures of how the Education Game is proceeding. Professors test to measure their success at teaching, and students take tests in order to get a good grade. Might these goals be maximized simultaneously? What if I let the students write their own rules for the test-taking game? Allow them to do everything we would normally call cheating?