Back to School, On Your Honor

Back to School, On Your Honor

Written by Sally Valenzuela, Vice President, Education Services

August 16, 2016

It’s back to school time again!  September is great time for new beginnings, a fresh start, and a reminder of the potential of children, youth and adults. I remember my time as a science teacher and how busy I was with so many planning details, professional development meetings, and lesson plans to create.  But I was also excited about the new students that I would meet and the infinite possibilities of what we could explore together.  And during that first week of school, it all came together. 

One of the earliest memories I have of my own schooling is the classroom rules that my teachers posted on the bulletin board.  Those lists seemed to get longer as I went through the grades, and as a teacher, I had my own set of rules.  In my science classroom, the rules were mostly about physical safety.  One set of rules I probably did not emphasize enough was rules about honesty and ethics.

Students come to school with their own ideas about what is and is not acceptable behavior.  By far, most students want to understand what is expected of them, study hard, and do well.  But our technology culture – the internet, social media, mobile apps –  has changed things since I was a teacher.  Children of all ages have access to examples of what many adults would consider unacceptable behavior: cheating in school or in business, lack of integrity in some public figures, open leaking of private information, and “news” articles that don’t really tell the whole story. Some situations even challenge adults in determining appropriate ethical behavior, so how do we direct our children?   How do we set expectations for student behavior in the learning process in classrooms? Even in today’s modern contexts, there are standards that we want to pass down.

Honor codes are one way to set ethical guidelines for student behavior in schools.  Honor codes can lay out expectations for students from personal behavior and respecting others to doing their own work on classroom assignments and neither giving nor accepting help from others on tests.   

Do honor codes work?  Scientists have researched this question of why people cheat.  Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, found, on average, that the majority of people cheated in scientifically controlled experiments at Harvard Business School. He also found that signing an honor code, or reviewing a set of ethical standards before the experiments began, eliminated cheating completely! Other research has shown that signing an honesty declaration at the beginning of an activity (as opposed to the end, like a tax return) can also significantly reduce dishonesty.

Providing students with performance-based data and clear expectations for achievement helps them take more responsibility for their learning, even when the path is hard.  The use of honor codes provides a positive context for both individual and classroom work.  As you are getting ready for back-to-school, think about emphasizing an honor code as part of your classroom environment. Many school handbooks contain these statements that have been developed at the local level.  And when you are reviewing your security plans for local or state testing, consider honesty declarations on assessments as part of test administration activities.  In a sometimes uncertain world, students need clear ethical expectations.  Providing this guidance will help students and teachers have a successful year!

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