Academic Honesty lessons using a complex systems approach

(3500 Words)

Complex systems thinking provides a holistic framework for discussing Academic Honesty with students. Complex systems thinking leads us away from hierarchical structures of power and authority toward an emphasis on connections, dialogue and individual autonomy. Complex systems thinking embraces individual identity and diversity where students construct their own meaning through respectful and meaningful interactions with their peers. Rather than attempting to homogenise student understandings of academic honesty, a complex systems approach provides a rich context for individual and shared understandings to emerge by fostering interactions, collaboration and iterative feedback.

The imperative from the class teachers: “We are concerned that academic misconduct may be on the rise and while teachers have discussed this with students having someone different to lead some sessions with this grade level may help them to understand academic honesty better and understand the importance of academic honesty with the hope that their behaviour will improve”. So the librarian was invited to take two sessions with this grade level which included 29 students.

Purpose of the lessons:

To enable students to be active & engaged participants in their own learning by building their understanding of the framework and codes of academic conduct. With these understandings, students will be more confident in how to engage in creative problem solving, critical thinking, respectful collaborations and capable communications without fear or uncertainty.

Learning outcomes (for teacher and student learning)

(a) To gain an insight into student understandings, conceptions and misconceptions.

(b) To bring these issues into the light of common publicdiscourse by creating space for dialogue about academic honesty.

(c) For students to build an understand of the importance of acting with academic integrity.

(d) To build greater understanding of terms and definitions.

A hypothetical linear approach for comparison

To start with a brief description of an hypothetical, relatively linear approach will give us a point of comparison when considering a complex systems approach.

Using a linear approach, I could start the lesson with a pre-test to determine student prior knowledge using questions based on scenarios and definitions of the terms “collusion”, “plagiarism”, “duplication” and “cheating (unfair advantage)”. I could then follow this with a PowerPoint presentation and some readings that define these terms to clear up some misconceptions. Throughout the presentation I could ask them to raise their hands if they had any questions or if they needed clarification. Once I had made this clear and impressed upon them the seriousness of the issue, I could retest their knowledge and understanding. We could go through the answers to clear up any further misunderstandings. Job done! Or is it? Is it the finish?

If there are any future infringements then teachers can say, “you were warned”, “you knew the seriousness of this and you have done it anyway so it is now time for some serious disciplinary measures”. Other students watching another student face the consequences of their infringement may be dissuaded from any future malpractice. Again, job done! Or not.
This model of academic honesty instruction is based on an authoritarian structure that fosters fear, suspicion and stress. Fearful students may feel that despite their most conscientious attempts, they may still be found guilty of plagiarising due to an unintentional omission or they may fear being accused of collusion when they were simply trying to collaborate with their peers. Instead of fostering energetic creativity, collaboration and communication, we are creating an oppressive atmosphere of fear. It is also an atmosphere that impresses the authority of the school and reinforces power imbalances within the school culture. What I am trying to do here is to extrapolate beyond the lesson possible implications of a linear approach to the issues of academic honesty. While we could also lists a number of positive outcomes of the process outlined above I am firmly of the opinion that the oppressive outcomes far outweigh potential positive outcomes.

To build a culture of academic honesty we must take a more holistic approach that builds student confidence and agency in their own learning.

A complex systems approach

While an understanding of definitions and example scenarios is helpful, the reality is that even if the students can reproduce a clear definition of “plagiarism”, “collusion” and “falsification”, we still do not know what meaning they attach to these terms and if this understanding actually leads to academically honest behaviour. The reality is that what these definitions mean for each student in their own context will be different. Their circle of friends, pressures from parents, their relationships with their teachers, their previous experiences and their hopes for the future, are all highly individualised. A common understanding of the terms used when discussing academic honesty is important however this knowledge is a long way from addressing the issue of academic honesty effectively and holistically. I doubt very much that an authoritarian approach leads to the learner attributes we are all striving for in a student. We may have suppressed the behaviours and even reduced the incidence of academic misconduct but at the expense of open, risk-taking inquiry, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.

A complex systems approach recognises the diversity of individual understandings, contexts, motivations, pressures and social environment for each student and does not require that we attempt to homogenise these factors or to reduce or deconstruct the complexity. To try to simplify and isolate one or two factors is arbitrary and risks isolating or ignoring the real issues and pressures influencing student behaviour. A complex systems approach leads us to a more holistic understanding helping us to step back and consider the bigger picture. For example, in lesson 2 we had a look at the World Economic Forum suggestions for critical attributes of 21st-century learners such as creativity, communication, collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking.  For students to be able to display these attributes with confidence is, in part, provided by a framework of action with integrity. This integrity in our actions enables and builds strength in the necessary connections, networks and relationships by building trust, honesty, transparency and accepted modes of interaction. This is the bigger picture and the true purpose of promoting a culture of academic honesty. Our aim for building a culture of academic honesty is not simply to nurture principled students, it is to enable, activate and nurture people who are empowered to take action, to contribute to society & participate in positive ways.
To this end, we must aim to build trust, foster student agency and invite student engagement. Understanding complex systems requires that we examine the many agents in the system and the nature of the connections between those agents. We also need to consider the impact of the context in which the students are situated. Based on this knowledge, we then have a framework to begin to understand student behaviours. This is based on a complex systems property that emphasises that these behaviours are an emergent phenomenon. Behaviours do not arise from a simple cause-and-effect principle but are the consequence of multiple interactions between the many parts of the system(s) the students are a part of.

In addressing academic honesty, our aim is therefore to foster and build the richness of these interactions between the students and their context. To reduce and simplify our framework (e.g. by reducing academic honesty to a series of definitions that students can reproduce on request) can be helpful to a point but takes us away from a complex systems understanding and is therefore limiting our effectiveness. To build strong and healthy connections within the classroom, our aim was to create a context that promoted and supported dialogue. First and foremost is dialogue between students because these are the people they are with the most and the people they have the strongest social connections with. We also aimed to build strong connections for dialogue between students, the teachers and school administrators. This is not easy because it requires trust and professional relationships – this takes time.

Lesson 1

Figure 1: Initial thoughts.

Rather than launching into a lecture on academic honesty in lesson 1, a far more respectful and holistic approach was to invite dialogue that allowed us to gain a deeper understanding about the perceptions, perspectives, conceptions and misconceptions the students already had and how these changed as we progressed through the lessons together. Invariably, when we ask for student opinions, we will always be faced with new and expected insights that lead us to new understandings which is vital to this whole process.

For the first lesson we started with a visual organiser (Figure 1: Initial thoughts) to gather the students’ first thoughts about key terminology. Reading what they wrote but most importantly, listening to their conversations provided us with important information about their prior knowledge and their perceptions of academic honesty issues. To do this we broke the classes into groups of 4. We did this to (1) take the focus off myself & the teachers as the drivers of learning, (2) foster collaborative connections between students who may not usually interact on a social level and (3) to foster focused discussion. The visual organiser helped to make their thinking visible and provided valuable data about their thinking. Right from the outset the focus was on open dialogue with structure and guidance to foster affective communication.

The “Look it up” section was the next step designed to open up discussions further by introducing information about possible definitions and applications of key terms. Each group had one term – “plagiarism”, “collusion”, “falsification”, “cheating” or “duplication” and I invited them to use any device they had to search for information about these terms. I also provided the International Baccalaureate (IB) definitions on the sheet of paper for them to refer to if they wanted to. The students tended to focus on finding concrete definitions however due to the use of these terms outside of the academic context they came up with some interesting and varied definitions. Many of these definitions were not exactly as they are understood in academic settings however the students began to draw comparisons and connections to settings and applications beyond the school classroom setting which was an important understanding to approach. If they were getting stuck in their research, I asked some groups to click on the “news” filter in Google which lead them to find many recent examples of academic misconduct in diverse settings, fields and disciplines. During this lesson, the sense that academic honesty is a significant issue outside of the school setting became palpable within the room. As the students engaged in this activity I moved between the groups helping to foster respectful discussions or to provoke discussion if things were slowing down. The aim was not to arrive at a definitive definition but to foster dialogue and feed understanding with discussions based on new information.
The “Now I think” section of the organiser was aimed at making their reflection on this process visible to themselves and to each other. One student wrote “nothing” so I asked him to elaborate – “Things haven’t changed since we searched the word out”. Other responses did show a shift in thinking however whether this was an accurate reflection of the student’s thinking or not, it indicated that I needed to continue to find ways to challenge his thinking and engage him in new ways. Even if he wrote it in front of his peers to establish his reputation or place in the social order (so not really about his learning) this statement – “nothing” – tells me something about what is important for the student and the type of persona he would like to project to his peers. Peer pressure is a critical aspect in classroom culture around academic honesty so it was valuable to get a “nothing” on this paper.

I was going to conclude the session with a quiz to gain more of an impression of the level of understanding however I decided to use another sheet asking them to list some reasons why students may engage in academic misconduct (Figure 2: Why?). This yielded some fascinating responses which I transcribed and included on the sheet for Lesson 2 (Figure 3: Iteration). This is where the 40 minute lesson ended.

The focus of this lesson was on the dialogue, the finding out, the reflections and their insight into academic honesty. This was a little chaotic at times because when you give voice to teenagers, they will act like teenagers but that is not only fine, it is exactly what I hoped for. As academic and ordered adults this can feel unsettling and uncertain but our comfort is not that aim here. With the focus on making their thinking visible and fostering connections between students I was deliberately enabling key features of a complex system such as giving the agents (the students) within the system voice, autonomy and choice. Rather than trying to define their conversations the aim was to reinforce academic discussions and collaboration. The outcome was far more diverse and emergent than would be possible in a more linear, didactic lesson structure.

Lesson 2

The second lesson was built in response to the first lesson which is itself a feature of a complex system. A complex system is iterative meaning that feedback loops based within the connections between agents in a system allow information to flow back into the system and alter the state of that system. Iterative functions can lead a system to stability and stasis or lead to increasing chaos and disorder. Either end of the spectrum in the classroom can be helpful and unhelpful depending on the context.

Lesson 2 Going Deeper
Figure 3: Iteration.

Responses to the “Why?” sheet (Figure 2: Why?) were transcribed and printed on the back of the graphic organiser (Figure 3: Iteration) as an iterative process, i.e. feeding the student data back into the group in a non-judgemental way. I asked students to discuss, expand and elaborate on these initial responses. I felt that some of the responses were unclear and needed a little more explanation to help me understand what they were thinking so this seemed like a suitable place to start the second lesson. I also thought that after a week of thinking the students may generate additional responses that would help us to understand them better. This was not effective in adding or elaborating however feeding their responses back into the group was very effective in provoking discussion between students because it was their own words, not mine. This was an unexpected outcome demonstrating a key feature of a complex system. That is, as a result of the innumerable connections between the different parts in any system and the variability of those connections, the behaviours, responses and observable features are often impossible to predict. The very fact that the behaviours that emerged were not predicted is an indication that I was on the right track – I was fostering the complex systems at play in the classroom.

The next step was to ask each group to consider their own responses and write a news headline that captured the most important reasons listed. The aim was to ask, in essence, for them to synthesise their own data which prompted them once again, to reflect and to make their thinking visible. The responses were very interesting but it was the discussions and engagement that I was after not the headlines themselves. This level of engagement helped to build the connections both between group members building that rich social complex system but also to build conceptual connections within the minds of the students. This again is a feature of complex systems – fractal patterns. In a way, moving from macro (society and school community) to the micro (individual student neural connections) we discover high complexity at every level. This is the opposite to a reductionist simplification. Authoritarian systems of control seek to fracture, divide and dominate where a complex system is built on connections, richness in communication, participation and collaboration. Thinking occurs as an individual, as a group, as a class, as a school and as a society. This is a powerful example of the fractal nature of complex systems.

The “news headline” task was open, nonjudgemental, and simply an opportunity to foster open and safe risk-taking. The actual responses provided important information for me by raising some new issues and ideas such as “test scores” and terms like, “haunting “, “future generations”, “crisis”, “pressure of academic honesty”, “time”, “understanding”, “stressed out”, “outbreaks”, “laziness”, “desperate” and “high expectations from parents”. Clearly students had an increased sensitivity to the seriousness of the issues of academic honesty and the pressures involved. Again these were hoped for understandings that emerged simply through fostering connection, dialogue and iteration. This is in contrast to an authoritarian lecture style of delivery impressing the seriousness of academic honesty. In fact I felt that the session was becoming too negative and potentially too serious.

I thought this may happen so for the final part of the session I introduced the World Economic Forum 21st-century Learners report with the perspective that an interest in building strong learners is far wider than schools. Here, I was trying to deconstruct the notion of the school as the main authority and turn the conversation to ideas that schools should serve such as nurturing students who are creative and active participants in society. The focus is away from the school as the locus of control and enforcement of academic honesty towards the student as the one in control. To be in control and to be affective, the student needs to develop the capabilities to participate in a respectful, transparent and open society based on trusted connections. The key point I emphasised (based on the WEF report) was that facts and knowledge are important but not enough on their own. Students who can regurgitate facts is not enough. The school that is focused primarily on efficient fact regurgitation is actually fostering a culture of plagiarism – replicate and replicate well in your own words. Similarly if academic honesty sessions were simply about them learning the details of academic honesty and compliantly repeating them back to me – that would also not be enough. Academic honesty and schooling in general only makes sense for the future of the students if they leave us as creative problem-solving, critical thinkers, collaborators and effective communicators.

With that thought in the room, I asked “how do you think we (librarian and teachers) can support you better?”. The key idea behind this ending to the second session was not to assess if they had learnt the knowledge about academic honesty but to emphasise the need for dialogue and in particular student feedback on how we were doing as teachers. The subtext of this task was that all stakeholders in the complex system that is the school, have a responsibility in fostering a culture of academic honesty. Also the answer to building this culture is not in the textbook or mere definitions but in feeding the health of the complex system connections through feedback and iteration. To help the students with this question I asked them what they thought there could be “more of” and “less of” (see their responses in Figure 3: Iteration). The varying levels of depth of responses revealed, as you would expect, varying levels of understanding and a piecemeal view of what they are thinking. With this caveat, the student responses did however provide a window into the complex system that is their thinking and the social context that this thinking took place. Although far from comprehensive and also recognising that self reporting is often inaccurate, the responses did hint at some very deep issues that the students are facing and how these pressures impact on their academic conduct.


This is where we are up to. I am not certain of the impact on student academic behaviour but whatever behaviour it is that is observed this behaviour is an emergent phenomenon. It springs from the very complex interactions and forces the students are a part of. Whether I lectured them about academic honesty or tried to take a more holistic approach, the academic behaviours observed will be behaviours that emerge out of the complex systems of the individual, the class, the school, and the society. Embracing the reality of these complex systems provides a far more effective & rich way of engaging in such issues as academic honesty rather than resorting to systems of control, authority, reductionist approaches & simple cause and effect reasoning. I would like the opportunity to feed the data from these sessions back into staff sessions where we could similarly engage with academic honesty through a complex systems lens. One question I would pose for teachers is this: what is our responsibility as authority figures to compensate for power imbalances and build a healthy, robust, dynamic, responsive and flexible learning community? We cannot have the creative, engaged, problem-solving, critical thinking and collaborative students without student agency and student agency cannot thrive in context entirely defined and controlled by the adults in their lives. A complex systems approach gives us a framework to reflect critically on our own practices and to allow our students to become the people they can be.

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