The Desert Diorama Dilemma

In Year 1, my daughter was asked to make a desert diorama. She was barely six then. We received the home project question on a Thursday, as was the school’s practice to upload the home learning announcements then. I remember feeling apprehensive reading the details of the project. I remember having to look up the word “diorama”. I remember thinking, “Really? You are expecting my Year 1 child to make this model?”

From the beginning, I always encouraged my daughter to try to make her own projects, help where necessary (buying material, using hot glue gun, and such). I made it a point to appreciate her work, her poems, her spelling errors on her posters, her wiggly lines because they were done by her. But I also had to support her emotionally when she would make the effort to write her first winter poem, with rhyming and all, only to have the teacher select two poems and inviting those two students to the stage to read them out – poems that were clearly written by their parent(s)!

Since my daughter began her schooling some seven years ago, I have repeatedly faced this dilemma when she came home with a project. I had begun to dread them. The projects barely ever seemed appropriate for her age group and year group, and it seemed almost expected that the parent(s) would not just help, but actually complete, the project for their children. 

Getting back to the desert diorama. 

Once I found out what the word meant, I went to see the teacher to learn that the children were not expected to really do the project all by themselves. Even though apprehensive, I went along, took my daughter to buy all the materials, collect sand, sat her down next to me while I went about making the diorama, occasionally asking her to place a model here, a model there, pouring in the sand, placing the cotton clouds. Finally, the diorama was complete. 

This wasn’t the worst part of the experience. 

The next day, we were invited to a “Show and Tell” where the children presented “their” dioramas, proudly, confidently!  My hands began to sweat, light beads of perspiration formed across my eyebrows and my throat dried up because it was clear almost none of the children had made their dioramas. Yet, they were each coming to the front of the classroom with their models and presenting them to the class, beginning with a statement “My desert diorama”!

Why did I suffer such anxiety over what might seem like a regular practice in most schools globally? Well, it’s quite simple. At that moment, I was shocked, horrified and frozen in my seat because we just told the students they could take credit for someone else’s work. We told the students it is acceptable to have someone else do their work and present it as their own. It was OK to… contract cheat! 

My daughter’s school was a prominent one, following the UK National Curriculum, catering to “high-end parents” and having a high rating from governing bodies. But, it seems they were not the only ones regularly following this practice. A quick and casual word around town, among friends and colleagues and I found a regular pattern of projects expected to be completed by parents from schools with varying backgrounds in syllabi, parent community, and so on. Parents who were clearly aggrieved, working parents who felt added pressure to complete these projects for their children, and often felt competition to do them better, bigger, more impressive that others in the class.

What’s more, in the process of asking around, one of my assistants, Swathi Venugopal, and I stumbled upon a stationery store that had now converted part of its shop to making models and school projects for moms that came to them with reasonable payments “…as the moms didn’t have time to make them,” said the store keeper to whispered to us. 

The message we are sending our children from such a young age is not only scary, but dangerous because most of the teachers and parents don’t have a clue to the damage they are doing to the children’s values of integrity. 

From then on, I began to groom my daughter to start by telling her class that she had help from her mom or dad or cousin or nanny whenever she did receive help in completing a project. As she moved to higher primary classes, I began to get her to write on her models and projects next to her name “with help from” – making it a visual message and announcement. 

My daughter has been practicing this for a few years now. Sometimes it intrigues her classmates, sometimes we face backlash from her teachers. But I stand steadfast beside my daughter, ensuring nothing deters from the right message and nothing emotionally or educatively scars her.  

Now my daughter tries to ensure she completes all her projects on her own “because mom I want to write only my name on the project.” She tries to get her classmates to follow the same practice, and has successfully cascaded this practice to her cousins. 

But this is just the story of one mother and one child. Thousands of children across the world are receiving the dangerous and scary message daily. And that makes it crucial to get the message out there to as many schools, management, teachers and parents as possible, for could it possibly pave way for some insight into why students at higher education level feel it is OK to contract cheat, students who otherwise might score high on upholding ethical values index.

About the Author
Dr Zeenath Reza Khan is an assistant professor at Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences and recently became head of the Integrity in Academia and Beyond Research & Learning Forum at the university with a multi-disciplinary nine-member committee that has come together to work hand-in-hand on research and campaigns across the campus and beyond on academic integrity and beyond. Zeenath is a leading expert in the MENA region on academic integrity Dr Khan completed her PhD on Academic Integrity in 2014, chaired the International Conference on Academic Integrity -Middle East Chapter in 2016 in collaboration with ICAI and is currently chairing the 2020 Plagairism Across Europe and Beyond Conference to be held in Dubai.
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