Is it still cheating if I don’t get caught?
That’s the question we sought to answer in Grade 10 English. We read a book, of that title, by Bruce Weinstein. He’s the ethics guy. No really. That’s his registered trademark. Check him out.
The first 30 pages or so of the book is Bruce explaining ethics, myths of ethics, and his own 5 “Life Principles.” I really enjoyed teaching this mini-unit on ethics, because it’s a topic that I’ve previously shied away from, for one big reason. Ethics and morality are deeply personal. Of course we have a common standard of ethics, but beyond those, what we believe is right and wrong – and why – is varied from one person to the next. If all teachers began teaching their own personal set of beliefs, students would be confused and teachers might be upset with each other, not to mention parents wondering why their child was coming home with a certain idea that may differ from what was being taught in the home. However, we also don’t want to go the other way and have a classroom devoid of any ethical teaching, and in a lot of ways, it’s impossible NOT to teach your own set of values in some way. The key is balance. And the ironic thing about it is that the best way to find balance is to explicitly teach ethics. When you teach it directly, students learn how to recognize society’s ethics, what shapes and influences those ethics, and how they are learning and developing their own moral code of ethics.
We read the first 30ish pages together, discussing the author’s ideas and where students agreed and disagreed with him. The rest of the book are questions that teens have asked, and Bruce giving his answer according to the 5 Life Principles he explained at the start of the book. It seemed to me that it was a great time for a contract, as some of the students were really passionate about the topic and had a lot to express, while others just wanted to know what they had to do to pass. I’ve only done a contract based project once, as a novel study, and was pleased with the results, so thought I’d try it on a smaller scale.
I’ve already made a few tweaks and changes, as one of the difficult things in a contract based project is to ensure there is balance between the tasks for each percentage (and ensuring there aren’t any loopholes of ‘shoot for a 90 and do half the work and still get a 60 but it was less work than a 60’). If you’re wondering what the “Answer 2 ethical questions” task is: I had students write down two ethical questions. We put them in a bucket and then to complete that task, students drew two questions and answered them. My favourite question was, “Is stealing a peanut from Safeway wrong?”, because students would read it and laugh, and then I’d say “Well, is it stealing?”, and they’d say, “No”, and I’d say, “Iiiiissss iiiiitttt?” and give them a really high-eyebrowed look, and they’d look at the question again and say, “Noooooo?”, and I’d say, “What if I stole a whole bag of peanuts, is that stealing?”, and they’d say, “Yea”, and I’d say, “Well isn’t stealing just stealing?”, and I’d tilt my head with just one eyebrow up and back away to leave them think about it. I literally did that to like eight students. It wasn’t so much about them agreeing with me as it was to get them to think with their critical ethics hats as opposed to their whimsical peanut thieving hats.