The power of collaborative learning

Getting it Right: Ethical Decision Making in the Classroom @revphilipgreen

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Philip Green has been teaching business subjects in a variety of contexts for 25 years. He has been a member of the Aldenham staff for 10 years. He combines his work in school with being a Curate in the Church of England. Find him on Twitter @revphilipgreen

As a Year 9 tutor, I spend a lot of my time trying to get my tutees to make good decisions. I believe that all of us have a duty to do so, in the classroom and in our pastoral roles. Yet what we mean by “good” decisions might not be that straightforward.

At a recent Breakfast Club, we worked through the classic Trolley Problem. Essentially, the problem requires you to decide which outcome you would take to stop a runaway train (or trolley, i.e. tram in the original version), none of which is ideal. We had plenty of discussion afterwards, not only on the decisions we made but on the basis upon which we made those decisions. You might have seen this article on the problem of how to program Google Cars, which covers many of the same issues. My argument which follows centres on the idea that we need to understand ethics a little more if we are going to guide our students into making “good” decisions.


Ethics in the Classroom

There are three branches of ethics.

Descriptive ethics refers simply to “what is” and makes no judgement as to the correctness of a particular type of behaviour. An example of this might be to note that crime is higher in areas of higher unemployment.

Normative ethics enables us to think about “what ought to be” and is much more useful to us as teachers in trying to shape decisions made by students. Good teachers pose questions in this framework (such as “should the punishment for doping in sport be a lifetime ban?”) in both written and verbal form.

Meta-ethics takes things a stage further and attempts to assess the meaning of being right or wrong; for instance, we might discuss whether a moral statement can be said to be true or false. Where we get into trouble is when we start suggesting that normative matters are in fact descriptive, as this assumes that there is not an alternative position to take on an issue. (On a personal note, I would argue that the discussion on British Values is an attempt to portray an issue of normative ethics as that of descriptive ethics.)

So, why do we need to talk about ethics in the classroom? Well, I would argue that most, if not all, of the unethical characters in business, politics and other spheres of public life did not learn to lie when they left school. We need, therefore, to ensure that our students leave with a strong ethical basis in order that they don’t make the decisions so evident in our world. Fifa, Hillsborough, BhS, Enron… need I say more?

On a practical level, how can we talk about ethical decision-making in the classroom? Again, three approaches might be useful here. The first of these is to offer a case study involving an ethical dilemma or conflict. When dealing with these, I tend to use the “Is it ever OK to…” type of question as an extension task. For instance, is it ever ok to withhold information from someone?  A second approach is to play devil’s advocate and put forward an outrageous ethical position and invite challenges to it. And the third is to stretch your students by discussing issues of meta-ethics – what do we mean by truth, for instance?

All of these issues lend themselves nicely to the use of big questions – which could be changed on a weekly basis, for instance and used as starters or plenary exercises.

It’s important to remember that students will also take our lead when looking at ethical issues. If we plagiarise work by pulling resources from somewhere else without acknowledgement, that sends out the signal that they can do likewise. We also need to ensure that we challenge prejudices as soon as they arise. It’s good to show a bit of vulnerability from time to time and admit that we need to do some more thinking about an issue, too. Demonstrating that we haven’t got all the answers to difficult ethical questions can be very powerful.

We owe it to the next generation to ensure that they leave education being able to make sound ethical decisions. By having a greater understanding of ethics ourselves, we are half way to being able to do that. We need to get things right so that our students can get things right.



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