The art of deception

It can be controversial and it comes with inherent risks but Dionne Pohler believes deception in the classroom is a teaching technique that can drive home a point like no other.

The Deception

Here is how a recent deception by the assistant professor in the Edwards School of Business played out. It was the second week of a condensed three-week MBA capstone class in strategic human resource management. Students had already devoted time to gathering materials for the class (Pohler did not use a textbook) and had completed one assignment. But instead of Pohler appearing at the front of the class, Edwards Dean Daphne Taras showed up in her stead and informed the students Pohler had been suspended for disclosing confidential information about the school's merit system. Joining Taras in the room was a confederate posing as Pohler's legal representative.

Pohler had in fact published a case about the merit system and had told her students about it "so the deception was very realistic. The students believed her right away."

Taras then introduced a confederate professor, Scott Walsworth, whom she said would be taking over the class. Walsworth proceeded to tell the students they would be required to purchase a textbook, and that all the work they had done in the class up to that point would be disregarded. He then left the room to get printed copies of a new class syllabus.

As these events were unfolding, Pohler was listening outside the room. What she heard was students offering alternative suggestions to the changes outlined by Taras and Walsworth, but "they were having none of it." The noise level began to rise, and when the confederate professor joined Pohler in the hall, the room erupted. Students were shocked and angry, and talk quickly turned to starting a petition. Pohler allowed the deception to continue for about 10 minutes—10 very long minutes, she said—before entering the room, revealing the deception and talking about what had happened with her students.

The Point

Discussing the events of that class, Pohler said labour relations and unions "can be a fairly dry topic to teach. Students are often bored because it's nothing that really resonates with them. We're training them to be managers and they don't perceive themselves being in a union and if they are, it won't be for very long. What we were trying to convey is how it felt to be treated arbitrarily by quote-unquote management. It's a topic that's challenging to teach because unless you've had an emotional experience, you don't get it."

For Pohler, creating just such an emotional experience was key to the deception.

An advocate for innovative teaching and experiential learning, Pohler said she has tried many techniques to help her students grasp the concepts of labour relations, and the decision to use deception came only after very careful consideration. In addition to carefully planning the deception, she polled colleagues about the idea, and got very mixed feedback. "Some thought it was a really innovative idea, some thought it was borderline unethical. I don't think deception involving emotional learning should be used if there's another way to get across the same message because emotion is what makes it risky."

In preparation, Pohler tried to imagine all possible outcomes, including students storming out or even formal complaints. "I didn't want to cause the students any kind of pain," she said. "I wanted to go back into the room a lot sooner than I did because I could sense the students were agitated but the confederate professor said that if I did, the whole thing would be for naught, and I also knew that it likely caused them less anxiety than a three-hour closed book exam. This was 10 minutes."

The Debrief

So, was the deception a success? Pohler believes it was. She initially noted a wide variety of responses from students. Some said they didn't care, that they would have simply dropped the class. Others felt they absolutely "had to get this fixed" because dropping the class was not an option. Cultural experiences also seemed to influence response. "Students from countries considered a little more collectivist were amazed at how little their classmates seemed to care about my position in all of this," that is having been suspended. "That surprised me."

Other students simply accepted the situation, and one said Pohler should have let the deception go on longer – "they wanted to see how many students would actually sign the petition, and if I'd left it five minutes longer, they might have drafted one." The range of responses, she said, "were very representative of the types of responses you'd get when a union drive is going on."

Partially an exercise in empathy, the technique helped the students understand "why a union might exist in an organization and that having a say is really important. They had lots of ideas about how the class could have been restructured and came away realizing how important it is to understand the rationale behind things rather than it just looking like change handed down from on high.

"This didn't directly replicate a union," Pohler continued, "but it was meant to help them understand that collective action is a very strong way of attempting to try to rectify something, and the ability of employees to be able to do that is an important institution in creating more democracy in the workplace."

The other lesson for the future managers was that "if you're non-unionized and you do something that makes people that mad, you're probably going to end up with a union."

Asked if she would consider using deception again as a teaching technique, Pohler said not any time soon. Surprise is an important element and the story of the class is now widely known, but describing the experience to other students is a powerful teaching tool in itself.

She admits the experience was hard on her emotionally, challenging the important trust bond that exists between teacher and student, but Pohler thinks the deception may have been even harder on Walsworth. "He had to act like he didn't care about the students at all, and they hated him."

Pohler is confident she prepared well, but stressed that deception in the classroom is risky business. "There's always the chance that it could still blow up in your face, no matter how prepared you are, how many possibilities you've considered. If you're considering using this technique, the question you have to ask yourself is ‘What is the worst that can happen, and am I willing to live with that?'."
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