Teaching Ethics

David Streight

The course itself seemed fascinating: Ethics and Film. Great film clips from relatively recent, good films, and discussions about the ethical situations they portrayed. Probably a paper at the end. A good, solid research paper where students needed to read and cite noted experts, a paper designed to maximize the chances that the semester’s ethical lessons—or at least one of them—might stick.

I listened, hoping that what the administrator really meant to say was that the course was the most exciting part of a broader, more overarching initiative at the school to accomplish a set of carefully defined ethical goals. Unfortunately, such did not seem to be the case. Rather, the message was, and I quote, “This is how we do character education at our school.”

The school in question is far from the only one like it in North America. Many either allow or lead people to believe that they are creating ethically solid citizens for tomorrow’s world by virtue of mandatory course on “ethics.” Whether the course is one on moral philosophy or one studying and debating moral issues in a field like biomedical ethics, there is too often a disconnect between what we offer as coursework and what people think the outcome will be. There is a similar disconnect between what our goals are as teachers or schools and what we accomplish in a single ethics course.

Teaching ethics can be a great and important endeavor. But it is only great and important if what is done in the course is consistent with both the school’s mission statement and the public’s impression regarding the reason for, and assumed outcome of, the course. If we are to be honest, we must make sure our students, their parents, our prospective students and their parents are aware that what will be covered in this course is only a tiny piece in the large, complicated, yet immensely important responsibility we as educators have to lay ethical foundations for tomorrow’s citizens.

And, if it is indeed our goal as educators to lay ethical foundations for the world of the future, then our ethics course should be integrated into a broad, comprehensive effort to create school cultures 1) where ethical life includes a certain amount of knowledge, 2) where a certain number of ethical skills are taught, and 3) where we have helped students to learn to feel like acting positively on the knowledge and skills they acquire. In other words, the formation of ethical individuals includes developing “heads” (knowledge), “hands” (skills), and “hearts”—the disposition to use, to act on, ethical knowledge and skills. After all, the tremendous ethical breaches so visible in the Enron fiasco, in parts of the recent financial debacle, and in too many other news headlines in recent years were not perpetrated by individuals who did not know better, or who did not have the skills to act otherwise, but rather by individuals who were more disposed to think of inner circle gains rather than wider community benefit.

The message here is not that we should give up ethics as a course of study. After all, in the head, heart, hand framework, an ethics course can offer important knowledge. The message is, rather, that an ethics course can add greatly to a school’s character / ethical education initiatives if it fits into the school correctly.

Let me offer suggestions regarding how to do this by way of two questions.

What are your school’s goals for ethical education?

All schools have mission statements. All mission statements entail academic growth, of course, but well over 90% of schools mention character goals, also. Sometimes they are stated in terms of creating responsible citizens for tomorrow’s world, or compassionate leaders for the 21st century; sometimes they mention creating ethical people or individuals of character. Or sometimes they mention their ethical goals in terms of important virtues, like respect, responsibility, compassion or integrity.

Since those “character terms” are your school’s goals, then—in theory—everything at the school (including its ethics course) should lead toward one, and preferably both, of the mission goals: academic excellence, and citizenship, or leadership, or character.

An ethics course can then best contribute to the quality of tomorrow’s citizens, leaders, or people of character if it is designed to complement and fulfill a school’s mission statement.

How can you best create a classroom culture that will foster ethical education?

Ideally, this question follows from the first. Here are four solid suggestions toward fostering the kind of classroom climate that will help students want to act ethically (i.e., the “heart”) on what they know to be ethical (i.e., the “head”), assuming that knowledge about what is ethical is gained from the course in question.

Be a role model. Talk about ethical situations and your views on them. If possible, let students know about ethical situations you personally have faced. Let them know about struggles you might have had in dealing with a certain situation. Doing so helps students understand that ethical choices and ethical actions are sometimes complicated, and often not easy. We are the most powerful tools of ethical education we have.

Foster the building of relationships. Diminish competition, maximize cooperative goals and projects. Put students in groups, or in situations, or involve them in tasks where they have the opportunity to get to know others in the class and to work with them. By diminishing competition we raise the level of trust and support that allows students to practice the skills of ethical development—skills most of us are reluctant to practice when we feel like we are living on the defensive.

Create democracy, empower students. Yes, adults must be in charge in the classroom, and everywhere else at school. There are nevertheless countless opportunities to hand responsibilities to students. When we do this the right way, students feel empowered; when they are empowered they have more investment in their learning, and they care more about the place where they are learning.

Make rewards intrinsic rather than extrinsic. There is far more impetus for positive growth in a teacher’s sincere, face to face statement that “I was really appreciative of the way you worked to make today’s discussion better” or “The way you broke down that issue in your paper into its discrete parts—and then dealt with each separately—was amazing” than there is in “You got an A for the day.” In most of our schools, we need to give grades. Whether grades are seen as carrots or as sticks, they do little to foster academic growth in most students, and they do nothing to foster ethical growth in any student. If you must give letter or number grades, find other ways to validate students wherever they excel, and find better ways to correct them when they need correction. Rewards are powerful, but if we want them to be both powerful and positive, they must be intrinsic. They must be as far from “if you do this, I’ll do that” as possible.

Spread the word. And last, help colleagues understand that ethics is being taught throughout the school, whether we think this is true or not. In a sense, everyone is an ethics teacher; their work complements what is being done in the school’s ethics course, just as the ethics course complements what everyone else in the school is, presumably, doing. The more of your colleagues who can join in the effort—regardless of what they teach—the better off all will be.♦

David Streight is Executive Director of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education (www.csee.org). He can be reached at ds@csee.org.

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HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Fall 2011