Ethics in Education - What Role Should Teachers Play

John Dewey, the father of progressive education, promoted the revolutionary notion for his time that formal education should be about more than the acquisition of bodies of content knowledge. He strongly believed education should go beyond the mastery of knowledge and skill to include learning to use classroom content in daily living. Not only that, the practical application should be towards promoting the "greater good."

Buried in his approach was the belief that there are in the world actions that can be deemed to be "good" and some that can be deemed to be "not good." A sense of what is right and what is wrong, or what is fair and what is unfair is the underpinning of ethical or unethical behavior.

Daily living can be thought of as a series of choices made, many involving discriminating between things that might be considered "right" and things that might be considered "wrong." A set of principles allowing one to make these judgments forms the ethical core of the individual. Dewey disciples believed ethical considerations should permeate the classroom.

However, this view was not universally accepted and even today there are educational environments where those in control believe education should be about knowledge acquisition with the ethical considerations of using or abusing knowledge reserved for other venues.

Other environments, particularly those seeking to incorporate student-centered teaching approaches into educational practice, take the opposite view. In either case, teachers can play a role in raising ethical issues with their students.

The most pragmatic role might be to serve as "devil's advocate", constantly introducing alternative choices into class discussion. Posing a contrarian view followed by questioning the class or allowing group discussion on the "rightness" or "wrongness" of both the original assertion and the contrarian point provides students the opportunity to express and test their own ethical positions.

There are some who believe ethical formation stems from religious beliefs. This, however, cannot be; as the world is filled with individuals with no religious affiliation of any kind who still manage to develop a well defined set of ethical principles.

While religion, legal prohibitions, and societal norms might contribute to the ethical development of some, the process that applids to everyone is self-discovery. Think of it as the kind of informal education or learning that has been taking place for centuries. A young child pushes another child in a playground setting, evoking a punch in response. The child begins to learn that pushing is not good. In the future, faced with a similar situation, the child experiments with a different approach.

The teacher as devils advocate is merely presenting students with alternative choices. The cycle needs to be completed with a discussion of the consequences, positive and negative, of each choice.

In theory, there is no reason teachers cannot play a role in influencing the individual ethics of their students. In practice, the question is not whether teachers could play a role, but rather should teachers play a role. Introducing ethical dilemmas is consistent with the requirements of an active learning or student centered learning environment, as long as the dilemmas represent issues relevant to the student.

Today more and more educational environments are moving towards more student involvement and alternative teaching methods where ethical concerns should be a welcome addition. Teachers in settings that still emphasize traditional approaches may face a tough choice.