Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Philosophy and Ethics/Teaching Ethics

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to: navigation, search
How should teachers teach ethics?
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

—Robert Waldo Emerson, Ryan & Bohlin, 1999

What are Ethics?[edit]


Before we can begin this philosophical journey of education, we need to define the word itself. What are ethics? Ethics deal with a human philosophy, with respect to what is right and wrong, good and bad, and the motives behind those actions (

As I looked into this subject I had to define morals, values, and character because they all flow evenly through each other and build upon one another.

  • Morals are the principles or habits with respect to right and wrong conduct
  • Values are the beliefs of a person or social group in which they have an emotional investment (either for or against something)
  • Character is a moral or ethical quality in respect to honesty, courage, or integrity (


It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them- the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas.

—Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Ryan & Bohlin

Throughout history there have been varying thoughts on the purpose of teaching. Plato debated whether teaching was to provide students with practical skills or to make them virtuous people. Today, “teaching is essentially a moral endeavor, in that the purposes of teaching - to make people more knowledgeable, more skillful, more thoughtful – mean making them better than they were before,” (Hansen, 1993).

Social Need[edit]

The purpose of ethics is to rationalize morality. This forefront of values and rules, guide the choices and actions of individuals within a larger community (Ethics and Policy Integration Centre, 2003). Schools can contribute to this development by first expanding our children's knowledge of personalities. During school, children are able to interact with people whose families differ from their own. Secondly, they are exposed to new group norms and institutional practices (Thorkildsen & Walberg, 2004).

Implementing Ethics in the Classroom[edit]

Sometimes we teach one specific subject, and the results of our teaching are unintended. Many morals that are taught are unanticipated. For example, an act as simple and common as raising one’s hand establishes order and teaches us to take turns (Hansen, 1993). You do not have to write a lecture in order to teach ethics. There is no VA-SOL curriculum to follow. Ethics are all around us, everyday. It is up to teachers to develop their own philosophy of ethics and determine the best way to introduce them into their classroom. There is no question; teachers can teach ethics through the application of our daily school requirements and routines.

The Teacher's Role[edit]

If we as teachers are going to be responsible for teaching ethics, it is important be aware of our personal beliefs, what we value and treasure in human nature. It may be helpful to define a teaching philosophy or character guidelines that you want to be the foundation of your classroom. It is important to be aware of our values and biases, and it is our duty as teachers to present both sides of the spectrum and not to reflect all of our personal beliefs onto our students. Only then can we truly guide our students to define their own.


In the American school system, there is established distinction between morality and religious dogma. The idea of teaching religion and morals in public schools causes many teachers and administrators to feel uneasy. Because many moral convictions are common to popular faiths, some social scientists believe that teaching morals is to promote the establishment of religion. On the other hand, some church leaders conclude that ethical behavior will disappear if religious beliefs are not taught to all young people (Zakariya, 1987). The battle between religion and moral principles does not need to deter teachers from providing our nation's youth with positive character traits.

The Building Blocks of Character[edit]

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

—The Golden Rule

When I think of this topic, a title of a book continues to echo in my head. Robert Fulgram wrote the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. As I pondered all the ways in which teachers regularly teach ethics, I decided that ethics, like all other subjects, begins in kindergarten and we elaborate on them each year. There are 5 character traits that we learn early in school and build upon for the rest of our lives:

1. Honesty – “Did you hit Johnny?” This is a common kindergarten question, which challenges children's first instincts to lie to their teachers. This is why we create consequences, like the loss of privileges. These same choices will continue through life, only the loss of playground time could turn into jail time.

2. Responsibility – “It is your job to feed the hamster every morning this week.” In the first years of school we are taught that animals, plants, and people need each other. Even being the line leader gives us the feeling that our class might not make to art without us. In a sense, it is our first feeling that society depends on our help.

3. Sharing – “Can you share the doll with Sally?” Giving something that belongs to you, or that you initially possessed, is a challenge for children and even many adults. We teach that life isn’t fair, and quickly learn that if we share with someone then they might share with us. As children grow, the scope of their sharing becomes larger, and we encourage our students to collect food for the homeless or volunteer for an organization. Learning to help those less fortunate is a fundamental characteristic of our society.

4. Respect – “It is not nice to tease people; please stop.” It is necessary for teachers to create a safe, comfortable environment for all of their students. This entails role modeling acceptance and tolerance for all races, ethnicities, religions, and genders. It is important that students know that they are an important part of the class; they learn respect for themselves. “Please do not write on the desks.” This is the beginning of respecting others people's property.

5. Success – “Tommy, that is a wonderful picture you have drawn.” From the beginning of our lives we need to be nurtured. As we become little people, we begin to have a desire to be praised. And quickly this feeling forms into an aspiration to succeed. We continue through life with this desire. We wouldn’t be here without it.

As we aim to become the best teachers that we can be, it is important to define our moral ground. Our students will need our guidance and direction when it comes to the skills they acquire and the people they become. We cannot control the decisions of our children, for that is human nature. We can provide them with all the information they need to become the remarkable members of our captivating society.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Ethics are defined as
A. A sizable group of people with a common, distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage.
B. Laws of a country
C. Rules in a school
D. A human philosophy, with respect to what is right and wrong, good and bad, and the motives behind those actions.

D. A human philosophy, with respect to what is right and wrong, good and bad, and the motives behind those actions.

Who questioned whether teaching was to provide students with practical skills or to make them virtuous people?
A. Homer Simpson
B. Plato
C. Forko
D. Elmo

B. Plato

According to the article, what do some religious leaders believe about ethics in schools?
A. It should be the only subject taught.
B. Ethical behavior will disappear if their particular religion is not taught to all young people.
C. Math has Wrath
D. Morals are a joke

B. Ethical behavior will disappear if their particular religion is not taught to all young people.

Johnny tells Joe to steal the candy bar from the grocery store. Johnny refuses and says, “I wouldn’t want someone to steal from me!” What is this an example of?
A. Being honest
B. Being respectful
C. The Golden Rule
D. All of the above

D. All of the above

Name a character trait we learn in kindergarten and build upon for the rest of our lives?
A. Respect
B. Honesty
C. Responsibility
D. All of the above

D. All of the above

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

If you were the speaker at a high school graduation, what 5 character traits would you want to impart upon the students? Explain why.

High school seniors are ending one large portion of their lives and preparing to embark on a sometimes scary journey into the "real world." If I were to leave them with 5 character traits that would help them on their expedition I would choose trust, responsibility, success, forgiveness, and respect.

Trust is an important trait that people should acknowledge. These young adults should remember that you cannot trust everyone, but allow everyone to trust you. Knowing that someone can depend on you is one of the most valuable assets in the workforce. This leads into responsibility. I am sure that this word has echoed in the heads of all of these students for the past 12 years. "Don't forget your homework! It is your responsibility!" Well now, it is your life that you are responsible for, and that may seem scary. You all have taken responsibility to make it this far. Continue on this path, you hold this in your hands. Hopefully your parents and teachers have guided you in the right direction.

Next we have success because without the desire to succeed, no one would ever amount to anything. None of you would be here, including your parents and teachers. This is something that is innate, you are born with. Don't be scared because you will be amazed on how your instincts will kick in!

We also need to have forgiveness. I want to pass this trait onto you because you should always remember, we are all human. This means we are imperfect. We will not succeed at everything and someone you love will disappoint you. The most important thing to remember is to forgive yourself and forgive your loved ones. Life is too short to waste your time hating people, including yourselves.

Last but not least I want to leave you with respect. Never let someone take advantage of you, respect yourself. But make sure that you are respectful when asserting respect for yourself. Don't burn bridges that you may want to cross later.

Having the responsibility to speak at graduation is a grave one that is often not taken seriously. Not only do you have to worry about stand in front of a group of your peers and their families, but you also have to think of something to say that will be uplifting without sounding too cliché. There are many aspects that you want to convey about going into the future, however you yourself can only guess what the future will be like. If I were giving the speech, I would want to convey the characteristics of honesty, responsibility, sharing, respect, and success. These lessons are learned at an early age, and just grow as we do.

Honesty is one of the most important ones. We must be honest with ourselves to get were we want to go in life. Although it seems that we live in a some what corrupt world, it is important to carry the trait of honesty. It makes the quality of life better. If you live an honest life, you are more likely to succeed in your every endeavor.

The next would be responsibility. This too is a very important part of life. Now that one is out of high school, they are beginning a new life that Mom and Dad are less in control of. If you get a bad grade, you have to deal with your teacher. If you get thrown in jail, it’s on your record for life. Al; of your actions from this point on you are responsible for. It’s time to step up to the plate!

Third, sharing, is often forgotten now a days. People are so consumed with self that they forget to think of others. It can be something as easy as sharing the sugar with a next door neighbor, or something larger like helping people less fortunate than yourself. It is important to remember that we do not exist in the world alone, and to co-exist harmoniously, we must appreciate and share with each other.

Respect is a very important issue that is a necessity in our society. It goes along with sharing. We must all learn to respect each other in order for us to live the best way. Finally, success. I believe that if you have all four characteristics above, you will be successful. Its important to know success is not defined by money or what you have but instead by what you accomplish. Stay humble! —Jamie LaCava

I thought that the concept of the question was quite good, however when I think of character traits that I would desire to impart upon the young people of tomorrow, I thought about five entirely different traits. I determined that being a graduate about 8 years ago, and being a graduate in the years to come will be an entirely different journey for young students to embark on. With that in mind, I chose perseverance, awareness, focus, strength, and lastly assertiveness. Now while some of the traits could possibly be interchangeable, I felt that the overall sense of what our children will need is strength. I did not feel that the traits listed in the above essay were necessarily character traits.

Essentially I agree with your thought that this world is not all peaches and cream, however if you really want them to make their mark, they will have to assert that mark. Privileges are not being handed out, and an individual with a lot of resolve will go a long way. Ultimately I feel that we can hope to assert all of these personality traits in our students while they are in out class, but ultimately we can also guide them academically and make them deferential, and intellectual beings.


  • Dictionary.Com. 2007. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. 9 Feb. 2007 <>.
  • "Ethics, Especially Organizational Ethics, and How It Relates to Economics and Politics." Ethics and Policy Integration Centre. 2 May 2003. 9 Feb. 2007 <>.
  • Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. New York: Villard Books, 1989.
  • Hansen, David T. (1993). From Role to Person: the Moral Layeredness of Classroom Teaching [Electronic Version]. American Education Research Journal, 4, 651-674. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2007 from JSTOR database.
  • Ryan, Kevin, and Karen E. Bohlin. Building Character in Schools. 1st ed. San Fransico: Jossey-Bass, 1999. 5.
  • Thorkildsen, Theresa A., and Herbert J. Walberg, eds. New York: Springer, 2004. 137.
  • Zakariya, Sally B., ed. (1987). Religion in the Curriculum [Electronic Version]. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 3, 570-571. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2007 from JSTOR database.