Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Advance Warning

Students at Saratoga High School learn they have to be ready when confronted with moral choices.

Last spring, when juniors at top-ranked Saratoga High School in Saratoga, Calif., admitted cheating on an advanced-placement history test, Principal Kevin Skelly tried an innovative approach to the problem. Instead of just meting out punishment, he invited Thomas Shanks, S.J., director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, to visit the school.

"I asked him to come in and talk a little bit about how we make ethical decisions in general and how kids could have made a better decision in this case," Skelly said.

The specifics of the case were these: One student got advance notice of the test questions from a friend who had already taken the exam in Singapore almost a full day earlier. About 15 to 30 minutes before the exam began, the student announced the questions to a group of about 70 who had gathered early to study for the test. Many students used the questions to prepare, and no one told the teacher proctoring the exam what had occurred.

Shanks held three hour-long sessions with the young people who had been involved in the incident as well as an open meeting with parents, faculty, and interested members of the student body. "I was impressed with the way the principal made this into a learning opportunity," Shanks commented.

Shanks felt his conversation with parents was particularly productive. "I asked them how many had ever tried to talk with their kids about the difficult moral choices they faced at work and how they sorted them out. Few had ever discussed such issues, but several said they might try to do so now."

Such conversations, Shanks said, might prepare students better for the next time they were confronted with an ethical dilemma. As Skelly pointed out, "After this experience, students are more aware of how ethical decisions are thrust upon you. You don't always have a chance to think everything through. You have to be ready. You have to have thought about these issues before they come up."

Shanks did a similar workshop at Silver Creek High School in San Jose, after a cheating incident there last spring. As a result of these experiences, the Ethics Center is planning to run a summer ethics camp for teachers that will help educators integrate these issues into their curricula. If you are interested, call the Ethics Center (408-554-5319) for further information.