This question is prompted by two very similar examples reported online: this one (also on Twitter) and this one. In both, teachers introduce aspects of the political system described in the 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four to a classroom in which they are (or will shortly be) studying the novel, as an aid to understanding the issues it raises. Essentially, the teachers ask students to secretly or publicly report on the behaviour of other students, introduce points systems and punishments, etc.

In both cases, as far as I can tell, the students are unaware that the experiment is going on, and it’s more of an exercise than an experiment; its purpose is not to gather any data or test a hypothesis.

My question is: from a legal and an ethical review standpoint, what would a lecturer typically need to do before introducing these sorts of activities into their class, in the way described above, as part of a learning exercise?

I am not asking for personal advice here, I’m just interested in how this sort of thing would be assessed by a typical ethical review panel. I work at a research institute where we do have a very well-defined ethical review process but only for animal studies; we don’t do research involving human subjects. Furthermore, several of the steps we would normally be expected to provide (sample size, etc) do not actually apply here since the purpose is not actually research, it is teaching “pretending” to be research: the experiment does not need to generate any meaningful data to fulfil its purpose (unless you redesigned it as a study of the effectiveness of this method in raising understanding of certain issues).

Several of the comments on Twitter noted that this would probably be considered unethical as described; the participants have not consented to be involved, for example. Does the fact that the ‘experiment’ is not (scientifically) actually an experiment make any difference? Lastly, these experiments sound like they are high-school environments; does the answer change depending on whether the students concerned are above or below 18?

Somewhat related: Ethics of conducting research on a class.

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