An ethical dilemma in my digital practice.

Some years ago I was presented with a professional conundrum. 

At a previous school we had an expectation that all our year 10’s completed a piece of personal research.  The context was personal choice but it had to involve a historical event or person.  As head of Department I was approached by a teacher wo felt one of her students had plagiarised their work.  The student in question was generally quite recalcitrant and rarely completed work.  On this occasion they had completed a full assignment with all bases covered but no bibliography or reference list was present.  The work had some very long and complex words and contained more than one ‘style’ of writing.  After some checking we found that the work was a collection of paragraphs from five different websites that had been copied out by hand onto refill paper.  We had a few students who had plagiarised but this one stood out as the student and later the family refused to accept that copying had taken place.  I sent a copy of the assignment home along with print outs from the websites and a few notes to try and prove to the student and their whanau that this was a cut n paste situation.  A few days later I receive a phone call.  The student and their father wanted me to accept the piece or work even though they now agreed that plagiarism had definitely occurred for a significant portion of the work.  Their reasoning was that:

  1. It was only a year 10 piece of work so therefore wasn’t really important.
  2. The student was generally poor at handing in work and we should be grateful that he handed in anything
  3. Even though it was cut n paste the student had taken pains to write it out by hand and therefore ‘work’ had been completed.

At the time opinions at my school were divided.  Each of the above arguments have merit in terms of maintaining sound relationships between home and school and building self esteem in the student.  I was left to make a decision and I refused to accept the work in the end on the grounds that it was not the student’s own work and while he had done writing it was not acceptable and would not be tolerated in successive years.  I received some flak for this at the time and I am still unsure if I made the right choice. 

Legally I was in the right.  But ethically and morally I am on shaky ground.  My decision did not help the student or support the student’s well being.  It certainly did not support the family in their continued quest to get their child to actually complete some school work.  The new professional standards for teachers that are being worked on by the Education Council begin with four key values


Of the four I was engaging in Pono but I don’t believe my decision had any sort of Whakamana (empowerment), Manakitanga (welcoming) or Whanaunatanga (positivity of relationship) about it.  Had I chosen otherwise I could have built a better working relationship with the student and we as a school could have built on that.  It would have been pragmatic but not honest or just.  So, which is better?  One out of four or three out of four?

Ultimately this remains a dilemma.  Hall (2001) states

“What, then, is required for teachers to be able to arrive at informed and defensible decisions when confronted by ethical problems? One requirement is that they should recognize ethical problems when they occur and be capable of recognizing what is at risk.” Hall, A. (2001). What ought I to do, all things considered. An approach to the exploration of ethical problems by teachers.

This is why my decision all those years ago remains my dilemma.  What is at risk in my scenario?  I am not sure.  If I had allowed the student leniency would anyone have cared?  Would it have affected them adversely in terms of their education or might it have improved their situation?  Would I have helped their whanau?  Perhaps but I would have harmed my credibility and the credibility of work and learning in my subject area.  Above all I think I would have found my position indefensible if it raised its head in later years of the student’s schooling.  “I know I plagiarised but my teacher said I could back in year 10 so…….” I kept myself professionally and legally safe.  But did I make the right decision for the student?

Reference List

Hall, A. (2001). What ought I to do, all things considered. An approach to the exploration of ethical problems by teachers.


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