Teaching & Learning: Creating a Culture of Academic Integrity

For a recent assignment, I asked my third and fourth grade students to share their work with a neighbor, have the neighbor put their name on it, and turn it in. Their reaction could not have been more predictable. They were confused, outraged, and argued that it wasn’t fair. When I asked them why it wasn’t fair, they said it was their work and they didn’t want someone else taking credit for it. I said, “You’re right; it’s not fair. It’s not fair to use someone else’s work and claim it as your own.”
It has never been more important for our students to learn how to responsibly curate and create content. As information on the internet continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for kids—and most adults, for that matter—to discern fact from fiction. “Every day approximately 50,000 web pages filled with information come online—ranging from the weird, the wonderful, and the wacky to the serious, the subjective, and the spectacular,” according to an article posted on the Google News Initiative blog. While Google and other search engines do a great job of sorting and ranking all this information, it’s ultimately up to the reader to determine the validity and credibility of the media they consume, I explain in my new course at The Langley School (VA), which is geared to helping students learn how to conduct research on topics they find meaningful and relevant.
As education leaders in a rapidly changing world, we need to be more intentional about why and how we teach information literacy in our schools. According to Skyline College, information literacy is “the ability to find, evaluate, organize, use, and communicate information in all its various formats, most notably in situations requiring decision making, problem solving, or the acquisition of knowledge.” It is the skill of gaining knowledge to answer questions, make decisions, or solve problems. And with recent technological advances in online learning tools, we need to help our students appropriately use them in the classroom.
For our students to be knowledgeable in any subject area, they first need to become what I like to call "knowledge-able”—the ability to independently and collaboratively acquire new information and skills. In this context, we should be helping our students develop the character, confidence, and competence that is needed to responsibly construct knowledge and communicate their findings. If our students can master these skills, then I believe they will be better positioned to answer any question, accomplish any task, and succeed in any environment.

Developing the Skills

As a director of technology and innovation, I am deeply committed to helping students build their information literacy skills so they can contribute as informed citizens in a global society. But one of the biggest challenges teachers face is helping students develop the necessary skills to ethically retrieve and apply their knowledge to demonstrate their learning and understanding on academic assignments.
There are systems and structures that school leaders can put in place to support students in developing skills in character, confidence, and competence. I recommend thinking about them in three categories.

Design programs that integrate common language. Most independent schools operate on a shared set of core values. These values can be used in programming to help teach students about academic integrity. For example, at The Langley School, we integrate our core values into our morning meetings, daily routines, restorative practices, and digital leadership curriculum. We also dedicate a core value to each of our all-school assemblies.

Meanwhile, The Langley School also offers a social-emotional learning program called REACH (Raising Emotional Acuity, Cultural Responsiveness, and Healthy Behaviors) that helps students in preschool through eighth grade navigate challenges throughout their arc of development. Teachers leverage our core values to discuss appropriate and relevant topics with students at each grade level. This common language allows students to engage in academic integrity conversations around matters such as honesty and trustworthiness.  

Develop policies that foster community. It’s a good idea for schools to develop policies that set clear expectations and guidelines for community members. A community contract can integrate a school’s common language to create a shared ownership of responsibility. It can be particularly helpful to differentiate the community contract for each stakeholder (parents, faculty and staff, and students).

Common language should also be included in schools’ Responsible Use of Technology policies. At The Langley School, we integrate our five core values into our student technology policy. The policy has separate sections that identify expected behaviors for using technology within each core value. For example, under the core value of respect, the policy states that students should respect themselves, other people, and their devices. This serves as a great teaching tool when having conversations with students about plagiarism and respecting creators’ rights.

Dedicate pedagogies that support student growth and learning. With the rise of ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence tools in the classroom, educators have mixed reactions. Some see them as an opportunity to accelerate and amplify learning, whereas others fear the technologies might encourage cheating. It’s important to reground in effective pedagogy and positive relationships with students when confronted with technology that could become revolutionary. Rather than trying to catch students in the act of making a poor academic choice, consider meaningful conversations that can support and guide student behavior.
In 2017, Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, visited The Langley School as a guest speaker on the topic of raising digital natives. Heitner suggested that parents and educators should teach positive behaviors so that kids learn to use technology in a healthy way. She believes in the idea of “mentor over monitor.” When we mentor students, we are helping them make good decisions rather than trying to protect them from everything that is out there. When we explicitly model our expected behaviors, we can teach students how to appropriately and responsibly use technology to assist in their learning while maintaining their academic integrity.

In Practice

Take a moment to reflect on your role as a leader in your school. What resources and strategies are you using to help students responsibly leverage the latest technology tools to augment their learning? What systems and structures does your school already have in place that support students in developing skills in character, confidence, and competence as learners? What might you consider removing, adding, or changing in your current programs, policies, and pedagogy to reinforce information literacy?
Consider including your students in the discussion to hear their ideas and perspectives on this issue. When we empower students to take ownership over their learning, they begin to hold themselves accountable for their actions, which is ultimately what we hope to instill in them—academic integrity.
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Bradley Lands

Bradley Lands is the director of technology and innovation at The Langley School in McLean, Virginia, and is the author of the book Knowledge-ABLE: Igniting a New Generation of Lifelong Learners.