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Sometimes, cheating is allowed

No lying, cheating or forging parents’ signatures – school children basically want to be honest. Depending on the school situation, however, they make exceptions and adopt unconventional honesty rules. Then they are sometimes dishonest to get a better mark.

Not lying is regarded as a learned and well-known rule of honesty among 14 and 15-year-olds at Zurich’s high schools. Additional theoretical moral knowledge also includes conventional rules of honesty such as not using unfair aids during school tests or forging parents’ signatures.

What might seem like a duty to live up to school expectations at face value is actually a very different story beneath the surface. After all, dishonest practices are permitted for young people in certain classroom situations and with individual teachers. “In such cases, young people deem it acceptable to cheat on exams, withhold information or sign their parents’ signatures themselves,” explains Emanuela Chiapparini.

The youth researcher from the University of Zurich studied the virtue “honesty” from the perspective of school children, conducting 31 in-depth interviews with high-school children aged between 14 and 15 in the Canton of Zurich. Based on the reports and accounts, she pieced together the explicit and implicit honesty rules among young people.

Pragmatic and social, not moral criteria

According to Chiapparini, there is a discrepancy between morally legitimate, conventional honesty rules and individually founded and peer-based unconventional honesty rules. Particularly in real dilemma situations, young people do not make decisions based on moral principles, but rather take their cue from pragmatic and social criteria. For instance, Thomas owns up to an incident to save the class from a collective punishment even though he did not damage the chair. For his false conduct, he has to stay behind after school one afternoon. In return, however, he is looked up to by his peers and his standing improves.

Pupils expect scrutiny

School children fundamentally expect the teacher to take in or at least check their homework. Some of them are appalled if teachers eat or mark other exams during school tests instead of checking the pupils’ independent work. If teachers behave in such a way, pupils might resort to cunning cheating techniques while the teacher’s importance as a point of reference diminishes. Young people strongly criticize the lack of control and test how far they can get away with unconventional honesty rules, which sometimes border on provocation. “If Miss can’t be bothered to check, that’s her problem; it’s open season for cheating!” seems to be the honesty rule pupils have come up with in response.

Apart from expecting checks, school children would also like understanding teachers who welcome discussions. The same goes for parents. There particularly seems to be a desire for empathy on the part of legal guardians if a child receives poor grades on school tests and the results need to be signed by the parents. In such delicate situations, such criteria as appropriateness, collegiality and fear influence dishonest behavior in young people.

Productive processing of everyday school life

Based on the results of the study, Chiapparini concludes that young people, if they are dishonest, are not so much interested in rejecting moral norms. Instead, their behavior represents a productive processing of everyday school life, which is governed by institutional rules. For instance, school children weigh up the potential threat of punishment and go out of their way to behave dishonestly based on their experiences. The school parameters thus promote many unconventional honesty rules: Situations that are caused by a teacher do not have to be rectified if advantages are gained among peers within the class. If the teacher changes the deadline for handing in a piece of homework, for example, the pupils do not have to announce this according to their rules. Or they can withhold information if the teacher does not request it, it is not about anything important or the facts are not going to be checked.

Ambivalent honesty

Even though considerable importance is attached to the virtue “honesty” as desirable conduct in school practice, the notion of virtue in the theoretical approaches of school education has largely disappeared since the 1960s. “In the current debate on schooling, all too often the idea of virtue is used unilaterally and normatively,” says Chiapparini. “The empirical results, however, reveal the virtue ‘honesty’ to be an ambivalent mode of behavior in young people that depends on the situation, context and individual.”

Further reading:

Emanuela Chiapparini. Ehrliche Unehrlichkeit. Eine qualitative Untersuchung der Tugend Ehrlichkeit bei Jugendlichen an der Zürcher Volksschule. Verlag Budrich UniPress.


Emanuela Chiapparini
Institute of Sociology
University of Zurich
Tel.: +41 44 635 23 29


Beat Müller | idw
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