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THE MARSHALL MEMO

Ethical – and Unethical – Collaboration in Secondary Classrooms

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist
13-Jan-16


This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
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The article: “Nurturing Ethical Collaboration” by Alexis Brooke Redding, Carrie James, and Howard Gardner in Independent School, Winter 2016 (Vol. 75, #2, p. 58-64).
In this article in Independent School, Alexis Brooke Redding, Carrie James, and Howard Gardner (Harvard Graduate School of Education) note that in recent years, many secondary schools have increased the amount of student collaboration in classrooms. “Group activities,” say the authors, “allow students to learn from each other by pooling a range of skills to create work that is – at its best – stronger than any single student could create alone. These activities also encourage students to develop important inter- and intra-personal skills that will help as they transition to both college and the workplace.”
But at the same time, there’s a lot of homework copying (one study found 74 percent of high-school students admitted to it) as well as outright cheating on tests (51 percent said they did). In another study, nearly 40 percent of college students said they consider digital plagiarism either “not cheating at all” or “just trivial cheating.” Scandals at Harvard, Stuyvesant High School, and many other schools and districts around the U.S. make clear that this is a widespread phenomenon. Redding, James, and Gardner see three forces at work in many secondary schools that have soured the collaborative process:
• Pressures that tempt students to cheat – “The growing pressure to achieve at any cost, particularly for students who are focused on selective college admissions, can trump any inclination to follow the rules and complete work ethically,” say Redding, James, and Gardner. Distressingly, high-achieving students seem to cheat the most. Many students regard it as “no big deal.”
• A cheating ethos in some schools – Stuyvesant’s scandal involved students sharing answers in their strong areas with peers who were strong in other areas – a form of “reciprocal altruism” that sometimes resulted in somewhat lower scores for top-notch students but had the effect of boosting the overall performance of this elite school. The widespread ethos had built up over a period of years and students regarded it as worth the risk. An 2010 editorial in the student newspaper said it all: “We as a student body are considered to be some of the ‘best and the brightest’ in New York City, if not the nation, and yet, often our high grades reflect not our hard work and academic aptitude, but rather our willingness to cheat, lie, and game the system.”
• Unreflective digital collaboration – Google Docs and Wikipedia allow students to collaborate and share ideas online. “While these contexts and tools can be (and often are) used in ethical ways,” say the authors, “there is abundant evidence that some students leverage them for illicit purposes.” Schools need to clearly define ethical collaboration and intervene with and identify the moral trip-wires, which means putting in place:
- Vertical support – A mentor or moral exemplar who makes crystal clear what the boundaries are;
- Horizontal support – Other students join the conversations and persuade their peers that the long-term costs of cheating outweigh the short-term gains.
- Wake-up calls for students who are showing signs of crossing the ethical line, sometimes because parents are pushing them to bring home As.
“Ultimately, these actions – among others – can help create the kind of classrooms and schools where ethical collaboration takes place and students can genuinely thrive,” conclude Redding, James, and Gardner. “In time, if there are enough students who can walk the ethical talk, the entire society will ultimately benefit.”




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