Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

This is #13 of an ongoing series of discussion starters from the case files of Charis Denison. The situations presented are very real and are changed monthly. Please try them out with your students and share your results with us. You can find the complete archive of dilemmas here.

(present this to your students)

This month we offer a hypothetical instead of a case history:

It’s midway through the spring semester, and you are taking a math test. You’ve been struggling all semester in this class, and you know that this test will form a big part of your grade. You feel like you are doing quite well on the test until you come to the last problem. It is worth 20 points and you just can’t remember how to solve it. As it happens, the class math whiz is sitting right in front of you and you can see he’s just finished it. You are close enough to see how he solved it, and you know that no teacher can see you if you cheat.

What do you do?

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.

(this is for you)

Currently, the issues of cheating and academic integrity are rampant in both public and private schools. High achieving students will openly state that everyone does it and if they are to succeed on the path to college, they have to do it too. I talked to a senior recently who applied early to Brown along with a classmate. The classmate cheated on a regular basis.  He discussed the situation with his parents and decided to stick to his ethics. He is bitter and angry about his decision because his classmate was accepted and he was not. He feels if he had cheated, he would have been the one accepted. On the other hand, lower achieving students feel cheating is one of the only ways to keep afloat in increasingly stressful learning communities. They feel in competition for limited resources and opportunities for both help and success.

The other factor that is relevant here is a growing separation between “self” and “community.” Loyalty to self is becoming increasingly more emphasized than loyalty to a larger community. One’s own purpose is trumping a larger one. The fact that my students go from class to homework to “myspace” and then go to sleep isn’t helping.

Our communities need reminding that character education and ethical behavior reflect more an attitude or approach than a program or honor code. Instead of talking about inappropriate or appropriate behavior in our schools, we need to talk about right and wrong. We need to realize that our kids need to feel a loyalty and larger sense of purpose in connection with their schools or communities. If they don’t feel that, understanding the significance of ethical behavior becomes more than a challenge; it becomes next to impossible.

(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.)

  • Would you cheat?
  • Whether you respond yes or no, explain your reasoning.
  • Think of someone you have a great deal of respect for. Would that person cheat? Why or why not?
  • What would you do if you cheated and then a fellow student confronted you and was angry about what you did?
  • Suppose you cheated. If the teacher asked you the next day whether or not you cheated, would you confess or make something up?
  • Have you been in this situation? Would you change anything about your decision now?
  • Have you ever seen someone cheat in class? What did it feel like?
  • If one person cheats in a class, do you think anyone else is affected? Why & how / Why not?
  • How big an issue is cheating in your school? Do you think it affects you?


SHARE YOUR RESULTS WITH US. How did your students resolve this dilemma? Did anything surprising happen? Tell us about your discussion and we may publish your comments. Click here to send us an email.


For some very helpful articles about conducting productive, lively, meaningful classroom discussions (including Socratic method), click here.


For an archive of dilemmas, click here.


For some excellent character education videos and DVDs that will give your students a lot to think about, talk about, and write about, visit Live Wire Media.


haris (KAIR-iss) Denison, founder of Prajna Consulting, is an expert in Community Involvement, Human Development, and Ethics.  She has built her experience primarily by working with schools and non-profits for the past 15 years.

After initially teaching middle and high school English and Creative Writing, Charis began to develop curricula and publish articles related to social justice, ethics, human development, community involvement, and experiential education.  She has received national recognition for her work in those fields, as well as for her community-based work with American teens and Tibetan refugees in Central Asia.

Charis co-wrote Tolerance for Others, a middle school human development text, with Leni Wildflower.  She currently works as the national Service-Learning consultant for the Durango Institute for Co-Curricular Education.

Charis also teaches at Marin Academy in San Rafael, California, and runs Prajna Consulting.  Through Prajna she consults with schools, parents, students, and businesses both organizationally and individually.  Charis also facilitates workshops and speaks on a wide variety of topics.

Charis can be reached at:



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