Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 12/12.5.2

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How Should Teachers Teach Ethics?[edit]

I never thought ethics was something that could formally be taught. I thought ethics was something you learned growing up at home, in school, and in church.
—Robert Fomon

Learning Targets

After reading this article, the reader should be able to:

  • identify the pros and cons of teaching ethics
  • describe the different techniques to teach ethics


Teaching ethics in the classroom, and how to go about doing so, has long been a topic of debate. Everyday society is shifting, and thus more problems are arising that once did not have to be dealt with. Places that were once thought to be places of ethical learning: home, church, and other organizations, are slowly decreasing in importance and are taking a backseat to more "unethical" venues. Our children, on a count of peer pressure, the media, and other everyday influences, are losing the hindsight of the importance in ethics. Teachers, who spend an average of 1,260 hours per year in the classroom working with children, are faced with the difficulty of coming up with new strategies of teaching necessary ethics to their students. The debates, however, are what are the pertinent ethics that should be taught, and how the teacher should go about doing so.

What is Meant by Teaching Ethics

The practice of teaching ethics in the classroom is also known by the term "character education" (Kohn, 1997). In the broad sense, it refers to almost anything that schools might try to provide outside of academics, especially when the purpose is to help children grow into good people. In the narrow sense, it denotes a particular style of moral training, one that reflects particular values as well as particular assumptions about the nature of children and how they learn (Kohn, 1997). In summary, teaching ethics and character education is a way for the teacher and education systems to provide knowledge in how to be what one would consider a good person; one of upstanding morale and ethical beliefs. This approach moves beyond the regular courses offered, such as mathematics, biology, or history, and deals with teaching the students these pertinent lessons of character, such as trustworthiness, caring, and reliability, in addition to the regular curriculum.

Where to Start

Schools, being required and the common ground for every child, is the obvious choice of place to incorporate ethical training. Home life for children may be a place full of immoral character, and some do not have, or do not share, a religious belief. School is the one place where the students can have an environment full of different beliefs while all being taught to have a similar moral character.

The question, then becomes, how should the teachers actually teach these morals. Many different approaches have been tried, and many have been denounced, as well. One approach would be simply for the teacher to model acceptable behavior and provide an example of an honest, patient, caring, unbiased person, etc. This approach is known as Teacher as Role Model, but falls short of being a perfect method because the teacher's personal beliefs, be it religious, ethical, or moral, may make certain students partial to certain ethics or offend others who do not share the same beliefs. Another approach would be to reward good behavior demonstrated by the students. As simple and easy as this approach sounds, however, there are of course drawbacks. The drawback to this certain approach is that children will act, although in genuinely, good to only win the reward (Fabes, 1989). If there is no reward in the end, the children will less likely be provoked to do the good deed (Kohn, 1997). A third approach would be to have an actual class catered to teaching ethics. In this approach, you would have a regular classroom environment, with a qualified teacher, teaching the importances and differences of a moral and ethical character versus one that is not. Again, there is always drawbacks to certain approaches. This method poses the problem of which ethics to teach; which ethics are important and which ones aren't? Also, who is to say who is qualified to teach on this subject, and where, in the students already busy schedule, do you find time to include this class?


In today's society, there are many, many reasons and necessary situations where a moral and ethical character is vital. Schools were founded with the intent of making good, moral citizens, and this intent is still being focused on today. There are several pedagogical approaches in terms of teaching ethics and how teachers should go about doing so, but there are always problems that arise for each approach. The teacher as a role model seems to be the most promising, with less drawbacks or inconveniences. However, like most educational problems, this seems to be a subject that is still being discussed and debated over, and we are still far from finding an answer.


1. "Character education" is another term for:

A. Teaching students about characters in a book
B. The practice of teaching ethics in a classroom
C. The practice of helping students learn a role in a play
D. An after school program that specializes in teaching morals

2. Which place is not considered a common place to learn ethics:

A. School
B. Home
C. Gang
D. Church

3. A teacher gives a student five minutes of free time for sharing. This is an example of:

A. Favoritism
B. Teacher as a role model
C. Teaching a class on ethics
D. Rewarding good behavior

4. A teacher demonstrates the idea of Karma to help the students behave ethically. The teacher is promoting their religion, which is a problem of this approach:

A. Teacher as a role model
B. Rewarding good behavior
C. Separation of school and state
D. Teaching a class on ethics

Answers to Quiz

Question One: B
Question Two: C
Question Three: D
Question Four: A


Fabes, Richard, Jim Fultz, Nancy Eisenberg, Traci May-Plumlee, and F. Scott Christopher. "Effects of rewards on children's prosocial motivation: A socialization study." Developmental Psychology 25 (1989): 509-15.

Kohn, Alfie. "How Not To Teach Values." PHI DELTA KAPPAN. 1997. Alfie Kohn. 8 Feb. 2009 <>.

Soltis, K. A. (2004). The Ethics Of Teaching . New York: Teachers College Press.

Steeles, Craig. "Thoughts on a Professional Teaching Ethics." Pedagogy and Curriculum Development. Faulkner University. 8 Feb. 2009 <>.

"The Ethics of American Youth- 2008 Summary." Character Counts. 2009. Josephson Institute. 8 Feb. 2009 <>.