Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Turning Detective to Uncover the Truth

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Turning Detective to Uncover the Truth

Article excerpt

Disciplining students for telling lies is one of a teacher's most important duties, but it must be handled sensitively. Here's how

We all lie. And one of the first untruths we tell is about how much we lie. It's a self-protection thing - we don't want to be thought of as deceitful - and some of our daily deceptions are good lies and don't count, right?

Even when we believe we are being honest about how much we lie, we are still lying, because the human mind is startlingly good at deceiving itself. As the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers writes in his book Deceit and Self-Deception: fooling yourself the better to fool others, humans developed self-deception as a way of better pulling the wool over other people's eyes - we won't look as if we are telling a whopper if we don't think we are. Hence, studies into the frequency of lying are problematic.

All this makes a teacher's job pretty difficult, given that they are tasked with hunting out liars on a daily basis. They have to see past the sheen of seemingly solid alibis and excuses and seek out the fake among the genuine. Late work, stealing, fights, arguments, plagiarism, sporting opportunism, flattery...the list of opportunities for fabrication is endless. And teachers have to deal with these falsehoods with little idea of the prevalence of lying, few methodologies for spotting it in action and the knowledge that many liars are extremely good at their craft.

So what can they do? Well, we have asked a primary teacher and a secondary teacher to reveal their best strategies. They say they work. But, then, I guess we have to face the reality, however remote, that they may be lying...

How to expose a liar in primary school

"I never poured strawberry yogurt into her coat pocket, OK?"

Kayleigh is still refusing to confess. At 8, she has already perfected The Look. It is a combination of shocked innocence and wounded pride. How dare I even suggest that she would commit such a crime?

The age of litigation has infiltrated the primary classroom and its key maxim - never admit guilt - has turned the sweet face of innocence into the deadpan of the habitual liar. And because primary teachers are forbidden from using medieval instruments of torture, lie detectors or scopolamine in their search for truth, there is only one resource left.

My do-it-yourself guide to dealing with primary school liars is based on painful experience and an extensive study of police dramas on television.

Psychology of the classroom liar

Classroom liars fall into three categories: the impulsive, the compulsive and the strategic.

Impulsive liars tell fibs at moments of panic. Theirs is an instinctive response to an unplanned moment of wrongdoing and they are easily identified by their red-faced guilt and wide-eyed desperation. Usually it takes only the slightest probing to elicit a tearful admission of guilt.

Compulsive liars, on the other hand, cannot help lying. Although they are often easy to detect, getting an admission out of them is impossible. I may cite 50 witnesses, reveal photographic evidence and provide indisputable forensic proof but their response will always be "it wasn't me". With compulsive liars it is best just to punish and be damned.

Strategic liars are the ones we need to target. Such children are generally intelligent, motivated and skilled in the art of appearing innocent. This makes them difficult to convict unless you can get help with your enquiries.

Getting help with enquiries

With teachers no longer permitted to beat confessions out of suspects, the investigation process should include one or more of the following procedures.

Launch a public appeal when there is no obvious suspect. Children will always respond to this. It is a fact that they enjoy witnessing the humiliation and ritual punishment of one of their friends and will do all they can to facilitate it. …

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