Rights and wrongs

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Jeremy Hayward and Gerald Jones discuss ways to guide moral debate.

Education should not attempt to shelter our nation's children from even the harsher controversies of adult life, but should prepare them to deal with such controversies knowledgably, sensibly, tolerantly and morally," wrote the authors of the Crick Report (Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, QCA 1998).

Ethics enters a classroom in many guises. In an exercise during a geography lesson - what should we do about third world debt? In the enthusiastic chaos of morning tutor groups - why shouldn't people be allowed to demonstrate and riot? In one-to-one pastoral discussions - what is wrong with lying? In the taunts and bullying of the classroom - why should I care about them? In the structured debate of an RE lesson - should I tell my friend not to have an abortion?

Throughout the school day ethical questions and dilemmas are never far away. Teachers' responses vary enormously. Some relish the opportunity to tackle such controversial issues; others avoid them like the plague. Most would agree that ethical discussion in the classroom can be difficult to control, and the chances are that the debate goes nowhere, or degenerates into a shouting match. Ask any class whether they think cult figure Eminem is a good or bad influence on society and a heated exchange of opinions will immediately break out.

Trying to focus students' minds on the ethical principles underlying their opinions is a much tougher proposition, however. As every teacher knows, moral discussions are easy to start and very difficult to move forward. But if we want students to become independent moral decision-makers, then we need to consider just how ethical thinking can progress in the classroom. Moral questions may arise, often unplanned, in almost any lesson, but they also appear in the formal agenda for schools. Spiritual and Moral Development may not have become the core subject that the curriculum authority in the early 1990s (SCAA) originally imagined, but ethics has found its way into the classroom in other ways. For example: in non-statutory guidelines for PSHE key stages 3 and 4 (4g); in GCSE humanities, general studies and religious studies; and in AS and A2 general studies, religious studies, philosophy, biology, psychology, geography and critical thinking. All these subjects require reflection on moral issues. However, the biggest change may arrive with the introduction in September 2002 of citizenship as a statutory entitlement at secondary level (it is already part of the PSHE framework at primary level).

The new subject requires all students to consider and discuss topical, political, spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues. However, debating ethics is not always easy, and classroom discussions all too often lose their way. There are understandable reasons for this.

First, many moral beliefs are also core beliefs, the ones by which people define themselves. An attack on the belief is seen as an attack on the person: tempers fly, and reasoned debate can go out of the window. For example, a discussion on the equality of the sexes, or on whether our goal in life should be to make money, usually brings out the worst in student prejudices, producing jibes and personal taunts.

Second, it is not clear precisely how - or whether - a moral argument can in fact be settled. During a debate on vegetarianism, we could raise numerous facts concerning farming practices, the use of land and dietary information, but none of these facts can prove that eating animals is morally right or wrong. What facts could? Facts may persuade but they will not prove the case either way.

A further cause of muddled debate is a result of the different levels at which ethics can be discussed. Most informal ethical debates at primary and secondary level are about the exchange of opinions on a specific issue along the lines of: "I think that it is OK to eat fish, but not meat, because animals are more like us, more complicated and they look as though they are in pain." A more formal study of ethics may require secondary level students to go beyond real-life examples and consider general ethical theories, such as Christianity or utilitarianism, or at primary level a system of ethics such as The Golden Rule.

The debate may shift to even more abstract questions, such as: do good and bad exist or are they human inventions? Are any moral statements true or are they all expressions of opinions? This more philosophical type of debate is known as meta-ethics. Ethical debate can slip seamlessly between these levels; one moment, students are discussing abortion, the next, Christianity, the next, cultural differences in morality.

On top of all these problems, the teacher faces the question of what counts as ethical learning. In a subject where there are no correct answers, it is difficult to evaluate progress. It is useful to focus on the goals of ethical teaching. In one model we suggest, ethical thinking moves from the concrete to the abstract; students become able to justify their opinions in an increasingly sophisticated manner, as the stages A-D outlined below indicate: Teacher introduces a moral issue Should scientists be allowed to clone human foetuses?

A. Student states an opinion No. It is wrong.

Teacher asks for reasons Why is it wrong?

B. Student justifies belief Because it messes around with nature.

Teacher tests the justification What if interfering with nature helped to save people's lives?

C. Student clarifies the reasons It is OK to interfere with nature to save lives, but not if this means destroying a human embryo.

Teacher tests further What if we could save lives by destroying animal embryos?

What if we could save millions of lives by cloning one human foetus?

D. Student generalises to the rule It is always wrong to harm any living thing unnecessarily.

Although we show it as a dialogue within one lesson, this development could in real life take much longer, with the final steps only possible for students at key stage 4 (GCSE) and beyond.

How can we encourage pupils to be more rigorous in their moral thinking and help them to move through the stages outlined above? One effective teaching method is to give them an activity which already possesses an in-built, stepped structure that reflects these stages.

It is easy to think of morally problematic situations - "a young man breaks a promise he had made to his dying grandmother" - and then invite students to discuss them in groups. However, a more effective and productive activity would be to write out the dilemmas on cards and ask students, using only their intuitions, to place these cards on their desks - on the right-hand side for "morally right" or on the left-hand side for "morally wrong".

Now ask students to justify how they have placed each card, inviting them to give their reasons. The teacher could then give out new cards that stretch the original dilemma in different directions, and students would have to modify their original justifications, for example, "a young man promises his dying grandmother that he'll take care of the antiques that have been in their family for hundreds of years, but after her death he sells them and gives all the money to Amnesty International". With the cards now in two columns in front of them, the teacher could ask secondary students to say what the cards in the "Right" column have in common and why they are different from the cards in the "Wrong" column. The situations put in the "right" column should all be ones that help people in some kind of way.

Finally, try to draw up a general rule covering all the cards in the "Right" column while excluding all those in the "Wrong" column. A situation should always go in the "right" column if it helps people more than it harms people. This activity allows students to arrive at criteria for a moral concept - a difficult task - in a fun way.

Using cards or worksheets is also an excellent way of depersonalising moral issues. If students have to judge various dilemmas written on cards, they no longer feel their own beliefs are being attacked. The cards can help to displace the focus of debate from the person to the idea itself.

For subjects where ethics is a minor component, such as A-level biology or psychology, being able to justify a moral judgment and support it with reasons may be all that is required. But where ethics plays a larger part, namely in philosophy and religious studies, then a more in-depth analysis of ethical systems is required. In this case a progression may occur, as follows: Teacher explains an ethical theory (for example, utilitarianism) A. Student applies a theory putting the theory into practice using various scenarios Teacher invites the testing of the theory B. Student assesses the application comparing the application of the theory with their own moral intuitions Teacher raises more questions to make objections more rigorous and to introduce new criticisms C. Student evaluates the theory examining criticisms, examples and counter-examples.

Once again this kind of progression in ethical thinking is more likely to occur in a carefully constructed exercise than in an open class debate or group discussion of case studies.

In general, ethical learning sees students move from a starting point of gut reaction towards a position where their reason is increasingly engaged. However, even at the later stages of ethical learning, the importance of the emotions should not be underestimated. Teachers must bear this in mind and make clear guidelines within which discussions can safely take place.

When moral issues are discussed, the heightened commitment of students to a particular position is immediately apparent in their emotional responses. At best this can lead to an open and insightful lesson, but at worst it can bring with it anger and polarisation, for example, between those who think meat-eaters are evil killers and those who think vegetarians are puritanical kill-joys. Sensitivity to the beliefs and background of students is needed. If a teacher knows that students may be uncomfortable, they may wish to invent fantastical scenarios that raise similar ethical issues in a defused context. Activities such as cards, instead of debates, can also help by focusing student attention on co-operation rather than public confrontation.

It can be a nightmare bringing ethics into the classroom, but it can also be highly rewarding for all concerned. The importance of teaching ethical thinking should not be ignored.

One of the two overarching aims of the national curriculum is to promote pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and to prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life. Learning how to debate and discuss moral issues is central to the ethos of the curriculum, and likewise an important feature of life.

Students face moral decisions on a daily basis: whether to lie to a friend, or keep a promise to a parent, whether to cheat in a test or help out at lunch break. They also discuss abortion, role models, what they should do with their lives, sexual politics, and the moral behaviour of themselves and others. Learning the language of morality, becoming aware of the concepts and practising the skills of ethical intelligence can genuinely help us all to take better decisions and make better sense of our moral lives.

Effective teaching should allow ethical debate to transcend the playground and become a part of rational, reasonable discourse; for this to happen, the teacher needs a clear idea of what ethics is and how ethical learning can take place.

Jeremy Hayward is education project manager at the Institute for CitizenshipGerald Jones is head of humanities at the Mary Ward Centre adult education college, central London


'Exploring Ethics' by Jeremy Hayward, Gerald Jones and Marilyn Mason (John Murray, pound;35)is a teacher's resource book with activities and games.

'Teaching Thinking ' is a journal published by Questions Publishing (www.teachthinking.com)

'The Philosophers Magazine' (TPM) is a useful resource aimed at sixth-formers. (www.philosophers.co.uk) See also the work of Matthew Lipman, who has written extensively on how philosophical thinking can be developed in children.

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