Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Philosophy and Ethics/Teaching 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?
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 (Dictionary.com).
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 (Dictionary.com).
|“||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).
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
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
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
|“||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
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- Dictionary.Com. 2007. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. 9 Feb. 2007 <dictionary.reference.com>.
- "Ethics, Especially Organizational Ethics, and How It Relates to Economics and Politics." Ethics and Policy Integration Centre. 2 May 2003. 9 Feb. 2007 <http://www.ethicaledge.com/quest_1.html>.
- 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.