In brief

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Moral Questions in the Classroom: how to get kids to think deeply about real life and their schoolwork. By Katherine G Simon. Yale University Press pound;14.50.

At a time when citizenship, spirituality, faith schools and yobbish behaviour are in the news, it is good to see how these issues can look on the other side of the Atlantic. Katherine Simon's book started life as a doctoral thesis and was concerned to investigate moral and existential questions within three American high schools: one Jewish, one Roman Catholic and one non-religious.

After looking at various moral education programmes on offer in the United States, she wanted to see how classroom discussions functioned. Transcripts of live discussion form a key part of the book, but she has a gift for commentary on the ebb and flow of argument and an insight into what skills and qualities make a teacher who can lead pupils to face morally charged issues. What would be the effect on you of knowing in advance the date of your death? Should you give to the poor and, if so, how much? If ultimately you save lives by killing innocent people (Hiroshima, for instance), is it a war crime?

Her point is that pupils respond intelligently when their imagination is fired, and the final chapter gives strategies and tools for making this happen in any classroom. Interestingly, though, she considers that, although religious schools routinely address moral issues as part of the curriculum, the transfer of this material directly into a non-religious school would not necessarily work. She favours the emergence of moral and existential themes through the ordinary course of a non-religious curriculum - though she recognises the quality of work done in religious schools where their context favours their approach.

William K Kay is a senior lecturer in religious education at King's College London

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