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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Designing an Ethics Class

A course in ethics allows students to examine what they believe and why.

Often when I tell people what I teach, they respond with surprise, “Ethics? Sounds interesting. I wish I'd had a course like that in high school.” I reacted with even stronger surprise when three years ago the head of our school told me that I would become the new teacher for this course. The three previous teachers had all been graduates of divinity school; I was a Latin and French teacher. “Ethics?! Are you sure? Do I have to have any?” Teaching assignments in private schools being what they are, I was told I was perfect for the job and sent on my way to figure out what the course would look like.
The Ethel Walker School, in Simsbury, Connecticut, is a small boarding and day school for girls in grades 6 through 12. Our 180 students come from 20 states and 15 countries; about 17 percent are American students of color, while 15 percent are from overseas. As in most schools, many courses—literature, history, science—discuss questions of morality, and we try to develop students' character in various ways outside of the classroom.
The course on ethics is a relic of the now-defunct religion department. As the influence of religion has waned in the lives of many of our students, this one-semester course, required for all students in their junior or senior years, is the one place remaining in our curriculum that is devoted primarily to discussing values and character.
Our school's mission statement says that our students will, among other things, be able to “value individual differences” and “make sound moral and ethical judgments.” But how can we teach them to do these things? And how are we to determine what constitutes a sound judgment?

What Do Students Believe?

Given freedom in designing this course, I wasn't sure where to begin. I was fortunate to have Donald Robinson-Boonstra, a college counselor and former science teacher, co-teaching with me the first year, but we both felt equally “clueless.” We got some ideas from other schools that taught ethics, but mostly we created our own script.
Our biggest decision was to concentrate on what students thought instead of having them memorize and spit back the thoughts of various moral philosophers. We wanted them to figure out what they believed was right. What were their ethical principles, their guidelines for living? How do they make decisions? Most of us are rarely conscious of the grounds on which we make decisions. We know what seems right, but we don't necessarily know why. Requiring students to seriously consider the foundation of their morals and to communicate them effectively seemed to us a worthwhile goal.
The course begins with an introduction to the ethics of care and justice, as students study the work of Harvard psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan. We then examine the ethical assumptions behind the school's disciplinary system and look at the school rules to see what we agree and disagree with and on what grounds. Next, we consider a series of dilemmas (found in Nau 1982) that touch on topics including lying, stealing, and plagiarism. As the term progresses, we discuss a series of complex subjects, including abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, animal rights, the environment, spirituality, homelessness and poverty, homophobia, and racism. As this list suggests, our class discussions are interesting and lively.
The thought behind holding discussions is that getting students to vocalize their opinions and to listen to one another accomplishes a lot. In devising the course, Don and I based our discussion methods on the assertions of Ronald Galbraith and Thomas Jones: Individuals may develop their moral reasoning by engaging in discussions of moral problems.... Students need the opportunity to confront difficult decision-making situations; they need to endorse a position and to think about their reasons for selecting their positions; and they need to hear the reasoning used by others on the same problem (1976).
So I talk as little as possible, acting primarily as a facilitator. When students are confused, I take it as a sign of open minds and healthy growth. As long as they respect one another's views, no idea is rejected. The education lies in the debate, the exposure to a diversity of attitudes.

Suggestions for Teaching Ethics

“We have no basis for morality,” high school students tell their teacher. Addressing this dilemma, the Connecticut Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has developed a booklet recommending ways to teach ethics to K–12 students, The Teaching of Ethics and Moral Reasoning in the Public Schools, edited by Ann Serratore and William Barney.

The recommendations are based in part on a survey conducted by Connecticut ASCD in which 200 students and adults identified the moral and ethical situations facing students today. At all grade levels, students identified issues such as the use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; pressure from peers and parents; teenage pregnancy; violence; stealing; and lack of security.

To help educators address these issues with developmentally appropriate moral education strategies, the booklet briefly presents several moral development theories. Goals for teaching K–8 students about values are suggested, and a course on ethics for secondary students is outlined.

The booklet also presents a case study suggesting how to deal with community conflicts over the teaching of ethics. A bibliography is provided.

Available from the Executive Director, CASCD, 134 Southport Woods Dr., Southport, CT 06460; (203) 256-8998. 1993. 52 pp. Paperbound. $9; $8 within Connecticut.

Designing Evaluation

Because there are no quizzes or tests in the course, Don and I had to devise some system for evaluation. Daily work, including reading articles and reacting to the authors' assertions, constitutes a quarter of the grade. Articles come from magazines, newspapers, and the Opposing Viewpoints series published by Greenhaven Press. Students play a computer simulation game called Decisions, Decisions and are graded on their participation in decision making (Dockterman et al. 1990). They do oral presentations in small groups, researching and analyzing an ethical issue or system of their choice.
Students also write several papers in which they must (1) discuss an ethical dilemma in their lives, explaining how they resolved it and why; (2) discuss some behavior they've changed based on moral grounds; (3) apply five different viewpoints to a situation from a Greenhaven pamphlet called Making a Moral Decision, in which a woman must decide whether or not to commit adultery in order to be released from a prison camp and reunited with her family (Bender 1985); and (4) research and discuss the ethics of a public figure, telling whether or not they would emulate that person. For the final course project, students define their ethical principles and explain how they would apply them.

Reactions to the Course

Studentsapos; evaluation of the course has been mostly positive: I discovered a lot about myself. I thought about my principles, which I'd never thought about before.There should be more courses like this where we discuss issues affecting our lives. It gets boring when we always study the past.For one period in the day, you get to think for yourself. It's as easy or as hard as you make it, and this was one of my hardest courses ever.
Having taught the course six times now, I am not only convinced of its worth, but also enjoy it a lot. It's rewarding to be involved in aspects of my students' learning that affect their lives more immediately than mastering the passacutee composacutee or the passive periphrastic (not to discount the study of language).
What at first looked like a daunting task now looks like a challenging opportunity. I'm continually looking for new resources and ideas, seeking outside speakers (so far we've had a Hindu swami, a Unitarian minister, a rabbi, a journalist, and a lesbian activist), and searching for new films, software, and articles.
All students should have a chance to examine their values in the classroom. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was right.

Bender, D. L., ed. (1985). Constructing a Life Philosophy. 5th ed. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press.

Dockterman, D., T. Snyder, and A. Lewbel. (1990). Decisions, Decisions: The Environment. Cambridge, Mass.: Tom Snyder Productions, Inc.

Galbraith, R. E., and T. M. Jones. (1976). Moral Reasoning—A Teaching Handbook for Adapting Kohlberg to the Classroom. St. Paul, Minn.: Greenhaven Press.

Nau, D. S. (1982). The New CRIS Case Studies. Washington, D.C.: The Council for Religion in Independent Schools.

Richard Prager has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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