Getting to the Truth
One of the time-consuming things teachers face is trying to get to the truth of student disputes. Despite the protests of many parents who insist ‘their child would not lie’ it is a fact of life that kids will lie on occasion especially if they are trying to avoid trouble! This is an unpleasant job but it is an inevitability for those running a classroom or school.
I came across an article in Scientific American by Roni Jacobson ‘How to Extract a Confession … Ethically’ and it referenced the process used by President Obama’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG). In the wake of the unethical interrogation techniques used in the Abu Ghraib prison during the second Gulf War, there was a demand for guidelines that authorities could use when interviewing ‘suspects.’ The process described in the HIG report meets the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association.
There are times when you will need to get to the truth to:
· Teach the student that has made a mistake that there will be consequences eventually
· Protect the student (or teacher) who is the victim of the lie
· Demonstrate fairness in the school setting
Also, remember there are some students who will immediately ‘spill their guts' and they are not the problem. This technique is for students who are practiced in avoiding facing the consequences of their inappropriate behavior.
The following are the steps developed to get to the truth of the matter in a practical and still ethical way:
1. Build Rapport
Think about the ‘good cop – bad cop’ scenario and then eliminate the bad cop. Develop an empathetic approach to the student you are questioning. You want to build an atmosphere of cooperating as you approach the problem. Forming such a relationship is the critical step, not only to get to the truth but because you are genuinely concerned for the student, relationships can survive even after you get a confession. The action and the child are separated.
2. Fill in the Blank
Don’t just ask direct questions straight from the start but begin by telling what you know about the situation in a manner that suggests you already know what happened. As you go on the guilty student will start to add details or correct part of your story without realizing they are doing so. Don’t go ‘in for the kill’ when this starts to happen – you are building a case, be patient. Research conducted in 2014 indicated that people who are interrogated using this method tended to underestimate how much they were telling the interrogator.
3. Surprise Them
The students who know they are under suspicion often practice their answers ahead of time. In the age of mobile phones, I have seen texts between students where stories are ‘coordinated.' Under the pressure of the interview they try to keep the story intact while they struggle to remain calm and relaxed. If you ask them something unexpected, something out of the blue about the incident they often slip-up while they try to fit the new facts into their fabricated story.
4. Ask Them to Tell the Story Backwards
It might appear counter-intuitive, but students who are telling the truth will add more details as the retell their story. Those students who lie will stick rigidly to their tale being careful not to make changes. Inconsistency is part of how memory works. This technique exploits the difficulty liars have reconstructing their story from the back to the front. Again the HIG investigation found that liars produced twice as many details when telling their story in reverse order often contradicting their original story.
5. Withhold Evidence Until the Crucial Moment
A study showed that when people were confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing early in the interviewing process, they either clammed up or became hostile. After a period of time, when you have established the ‘right’ conditions, that is they think they are safe the release of evidence will often be accepted because they give up trying to sustain the lie.
Finally, this is just a technique to get to the truth; it is not a set of tools to BEAT the student. When it works beware, you might be tempted to take pride in how ‘clever’ you are. It is never a competition, finding the truth is just to help all the students!