Risky Business

Published: February 3, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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“If you could take a drug that would improve your test-taking ability by 25%,” I asked a group of High School students, “but the drug was illegal, would you take it?

How illegal?” one student asked.

Although everyone laughed, this student’s response clearly mimicked behavior by some adults with a keen ability to parse an issue in order to justify unethical conduct.

Speaking to several classes at a local High School about ethics and integrity recently became a wake-up call to the level of academic dishonesty taking place in many schools around the country.  While copying homework and cheating on tests were common in the past, with the advent and access to the Internet, plagiarism was becoming a much larger issue.  Two teachers expressed great concern over the fact that students seemed to demonstrate little or no remorse because they felt that pressure to achieve high grades was more important than doing work based on individual merit.

The challenge for my immediate work was to inspire and reinforce in students the aspiration to be a person of good character   The Lesson Plan consisted of a questionnaire about trust along with several scenarios involving ethical choices.  Their responses became the basis for a lively class discussion.

“You arrive at your English class,” one scenario read, “to find that your teacher has called for a snap quiz.  You’re a good student and don’t have a problem with this.  However, a troublesome student next to you is always struggling.  After answering the questions, the grading protocol calls for you to exchange papers with your neighbor.  The troublesome student announces that you and he will only pretend to exchange papers, allowing him to cheat.  What do you do?”

While the initial discussion centered on what individual students would or would not do, the conversation quickly segued into questions about the integrity of the entire class if other students knew and allowed the cheating to go on unchallenged.

Later on, I explained that the events I described had actually happened to me. After earning a level of trust with the teacher involved, I was ashamed to admit that I helped another student cheat. Although the cheating was never discovered, I realized the cost to my own integrity.

The discussion led to my offering definitions of character, ethics and ethical values based on my training at The Josephson Institute of Ethics.  I briefly defined Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship and explained the three-step decision-making model put forth by the Institute and used by schools and organizations around the country. I then asked the students to re-examine the scenario using the criteria in the decision-making model.

During my time in class, I witnessed several examples where students demonstrated a good grasp of ethics – likely due to parental influence.  Two students, in particular, refused to be swayed when I kept changing or ratcheting up the pressure on a scenario.  At one point, one sophomore said, “Look, we all know what the right thing is; some students just use a double-standard.”

So, how did these students respond to the questionnaire about their own character?

Read the results in Friday’s post.



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