I co-facilitated a workshop yesterday titled Teaching For Ethics and Integrity at The Bay School, hosted by the Bay Area Teacher Development Collaborative (BATDC). I was invited to lend some expertise to ethical dilemmas related to technology that are faced by teachers, students and parents. Interestingly, as we took the first part of the session to build a conceptual framework for the discussion, technology rarely came up at all. But when participants related situations that concerned them, many of them involved mySpace, instant messaging, and other electronic communication services.
Some schools have organized programs for teaching ethics within their curricula. The Bay School has a Buddhist chaplain on staff who has assembled a set of 10 guiding precepts to define their school culture and provide a common language for conversations around ethics and integrity. The Branson School has assembled an ethics initiative that includes faculty, staff, and parents. They put on a Character Matters speaker series, have an Ethicist In Residence, and teach a senior seminar entitled The Good Life. Branson students have taken up the banner of holding schoolwide conversations about ethics and dilemmas that students face. Mount Tamalpais Schools adopts the Heartwood Ethics curriculum, a literature-based program built around seven character traits: courage, loyalty, honest, justice, respect, hope, and love.
A consensus developed during the day that the health of a schoolwide culture has greater impact on the ethical behavior of children than the presence of particular kinds of technology. Yet, when discussing individual cases, participants exhibited a lot of concern about the effect of public social networking web sites on student safety, privacy, and school culture. More than one participant related scenarios in which student gossip about particular teachers made its way back to the school. In all cases, students and parents felt that the school took the comments more seriously than they should have. However, schools have pretty consistently taken the position that the public/private line is crossed when a member of the community brings external communication to the attention of the school. Though students and parents do not always see it this way, this school position seems very solid to me. High school students are only in the process of internalizing notions of community and the effects of one’s actions on other people.
nother lesson from the day is that the arguments that resonate with adults regarding online behavior and ethics do not necessarily persuade adolescents, because of where they are in their psychological development. You won’t get far talking about the morality of cheating, the risk of self-harm from drinking, or the damage done to a community from graffiti. A much more effective tack for high schoolers is to talk about the risk of harming one’s friends. Students value social connection to peers and have a strong sense of loyalty and fairness.
I did show off the UHS Forums, of course, including the discussion entitled “mySpace and its connection to evil,” in which a ninth grade student poses the notion that students should be concerned about the motives for FOX’s ownership of mySpace. I presented this as an example of how high school students (yes, even ninth graders) can think critically about a social networking service such as mySpace. I also explained that the UHS Forums provides a safe, adult-supervised space for students to learn community norms for online conversation, which then hopefully may translate into their online interactions in public, unsupervised spaces.
A couple of teachers took me to task for allowing profanity in the forums. Our Dean of Students and I decided some time ago to intervene only when one student abused another in the forums. Quickly, students realized these norms, and now they moderate themselves. However, we decided that it was not a priority for us to keep students from swearing if they felt like using such language in their social conversations with each other. Other teachers disagree with this approach.
UHS is lucky that we have not yet had to deal with a case of student bullying or slander in a public web site. When we do, at least we will have reflected thoughtfully about appropriate responses in advance.