Core Values of Education and Why We Have To Oppose “Pranking”

I’ve had a lot of time to think about education this year (roughly 400 hours at current reckoning) so it’s not surprising that I have some opinions on what constitutes the key values of education. Of course, as was noted at the Creative Innovations conference I went to, a corporate values statement is a wish list that doesn’t necessarily mean much so I’m going to talk about what I see when education is being performed well. After I’ve discussed these, I’m then going to briefly argue for why these values mean that stupid stunts (such as the Royal prank where some thoughtless DJs called up a hospital) should be actions that we identify as cruel and unnecessary interpretations of the term ‘entertainment’.

  • Truth. 

    We start from the assumption that we only educate or train our students in what we, reasonably, assume to be the truth. We give the right answers when we know them and we admit it when we don’t. Where we have facts, we use them. When we are standing on opinion, we identify it. When we are telling a story, where the narrative matters more than the contents, we are careful to identify what we are doing and why we are doing it. We try not to deceive, even accidentally, and we do not make a practice of lying, even to spare someone’s feelings. In order to know the truth, we have to know our subject and we try to avoid blustering, derision and appealing to authority when we feel that we are being challenged.

    There is no doubt that this can be hard in contentious and emerging areas but, as a primary value, it’s at the core of our educational system. Training someone to recite something that is not true, while still popular in many parts of the world, is indoctrination, not education.

  • Respect.

    We respect the students that we teach and, in doing this, we prepare them to respect us. We don’t assume that they are all the same, that they all learn at the same rate, that they have had all the preparation that they need for courses or our experiences, nor do assume that they can take anything that we feel inclined to fling at them. We respect them by treating them as people, as individuals, as vulnerable, emotional and potentially flawed humans. We evaluate their abilities before we test their mettle. We give them space to try again. We do all this because it then allows them, without hypocrisy or obligation, to treat us the same way. Respect of effort and of application does not demand perfection or obsession from either party.

  • Fairness.

    We are objective in our assignment and assessment of work and generous in our interpretations when such generosity does not compromise truth or respect. We do not give false praise but we do all give all praise that is due, at the same time giving all of the notes for improvement. We strive to ensure that every student has the same high-quality and fair experience, regardless of who they are and what they do. When we define the rules, we stick to them, unless we have erred in their construction when, having fixed the rules, we then offer the best interpretation to every student. Our students acting in error or unfairly does not allow us to reciprocate in kind. The fairness of our system is not conditional upon a student being a perfect person and its strength lies in the fact that it is fair for all, regardless. What we say, we mean and what we mean, we say. A student’s results are ultimately the reflection of their own application to the course, relative to their opportunities to excel. Students are not unfairly punished because we have not bothered to work out if they are prepared for the course (which is very different from their own application of effort inside the course, which is ultimately their responsibility moderated by the unforeseen and vagaries of life), nor does the action of one student unduly influence the results of another, except where this is clearly identified and students have sufficient autonomy to control the outcome of this situation.

These stupid pranking stunts on the radio are usually considered acceptable because the person being pranked is contacted after the fact to ask if it can be broadcast. Frankly, I think this is bordering on coercive (because you risk being a bad sport if you don’t participate and I suspect that the radio stations don’t accept a simple first ‘no’) but some may disagree. (It’s worth noting that while the radio station tried to contact the nurses, they failed to get approval to broadcast.)

These pranks are, at heart, valueless lies, usually calculated to embarrass someone or expose them undertaking a given behaviour. They are neither truthful nor respectful. While this is often the high horse of pomposity (haven’t you got a sense of humour), it is important to realise that truly funny things can usually be enjoyed by everyone and that there is a world of difference between a joke that involves old friends and one that exploits strangers. The second situation just isn’t fair. The radio station is setting up a situation that is designed to elicit a response that everyone other than the victim will find amusing, because the victim is somehow funny or vulnerable. Basically, it’s unfair. You don’t get to laugh at or humiliate someone in a public forum just because you think it’s funny – didn’t we get over this in primary school? A lack of fairness often leads to situations that are coercive because we impose cultural norms, or peer-pressure, to force people to ‘go along with the joke’.

I had a student in my office recently, while another academic who happened to be my wife was helping me clear a backlog of paper, and before I discussed his final mark, I asked my wife if she would mind leaving the room. This was because there was no way I could ask the student if he minded discussing his mark with my wife in the room and not risk the situation being coercive. It’s a really simple thing to fix if you think about it. In order to respect the student’s privacy, I needed to be fair in the way that I controlled his ability to make decisions. Now I’m not worried that this student is easily coerced but that’s not my call to make – it’s not up to me to tell a student if they are going to be comfortable or not.

The Royal prank has clearly identified that that we can easily go down very dark and unexpected roads when we start to treat people as props, without sticking to the truth or respecting them enough to think about how they might feel about our actions, and that’s patently unfair. If these are our core values, and again many would disagree, then we have to stand up and object when we see them being mucked around with by our society. As educators, we have to draw a line and say that “just because you think it’s funny, doesn’t mean that you were right to do it” and we can do that and not be humourless or party-poopers. We do it because we want to allow people to still be funny, and have fun, muck around and have a joke with people that they know – because we’ve successfully trained them to know when they should stop, because we’ve correctly instilled the values of truth, respect and fairness.


2 Comments on “Core Values of Education and Why We Have To Oppose “Pranking””

  1. I found this sentence a bit of a weird extension of the notion of fairness: “Students are not unfairly punished because we have not bothered to work out if they are prepared for the course.” Perhaps it is a difference between where you teach and the university I teach at—here we setup prerequisites for our courses, but students can get permission to skip some prerequisites. It is the teacher’s job to be clear and correct about the prerequisite skills and knowledge required, but the students’ responsibility to ensure that they are prepared to take a course, not the teacher’s.

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    • nickfalkner says:

      Well, there are a number of ways to look at pre-requisites. The first is that there is no guarantee that the students will be pedagogically prepared (if we focus on pre-requisite content) but the other is that I have seen numerous cases where the assumed level of knowledge (surely everyone must know this) is just plain wrong and the pre-requisites are not actually adequate. I think that we’re basically ferociously agreeing with each other that it is the teacher’s role to set the pre-requisites but I think that many people do not do a very good job and then then end up blaming the student.

      Our local situation is compounded by having to determine course equivalences that span countries, because we have around 30% international students and our intake students can range from people who enter from an identical system to students who have a programmed for two years on paper and have never seen a computer. These students could have a theoretical knowledge at the right level but not the application practice, or even the familiarity with fundamental processes.

      Yes, when we apply pre-requisites properly, then they work. But that’s us being fair and, frankly, I’ve seen that fail epically, because of what people assume the students already know.

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