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Ethics and Academics in 21st-Century Schools

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Can academics be taught without simultaneously teaching ethics?  We think no, they can't.  Ethics has not been a front burner conversation of late. In fact, it seems that the erosion of ethics might become a characteristic of our culture going forward. Certainly our attention for the last decade has been captured by federal and state requirements for assessment and evaluation of students, teachers, and principals. If there was any energy left, it went to figuring out how to acquire the funding that would let us do the work we knew was needed.  

Who Has Time to Think and Talk About Ethics? 
Teachers and leaders think about it when a student, or sadly faculty or staff makes an unethical decision. Schools can revisit the place ethics has when the top of the stove gets hot. The marriage of ethics and academics is increasingly significant as science and technology push us into new territories.

We can no longer make an assumption that ethical decisions and choices will be made given the complexity of our world. So, what do children need? They need experience in making choices and they need a construct about ethics. Then they need to practice. And the more schools lean into problem based learning and STEM education the greater the opportunities for this kind of practice. We tend to think about practice in athletics and in music but it applies here as well. Listen to famed musician Itzak Perlman as he describes the role of practice for quality under the pressure of performance.

Consider the proliferation of 3 - D printers and how they are revolutionizing what students are able to produce. Along with this increased capacity comes the question of who benefits in the end. How do we frame access of life changing things like artificial limbs? Are they for the young or old, for the rich or poor?  Consider the recent news about drug companies. There are new drugs that make a critical difference in the quality of life for those with chronic illness. But the cost is so high they are prohibitive for many who need them. The companies rewarded CEO's for profit creation without considering the social impact of the decisions made. Without an investigation of ethics for the young, we rely on government to create policy and regulate our values. That hasn't gone really well. Can we incorporate into our teaching and learning, conversations about choosing between right and wrong and right and right and the individual and community?

As 21st century changes arrive in curricula, manner of teaching and assessing, it is time to pull ethics out of the shadows and make it part of the content, practice and actions of adults and of our teaching. It is still assumed in many places that ethics are taught elsewhere...in families and in churches.  But, we know how the lives of our students are changing and models of ethical choices are missing for so many of them. Yet, public schools have moved away from these issues. It appears that ethics may be organizationally choked quiet and left to individuals to develop on their own.  Like everything else we strive to do well, improving individual and institutional ethics takes planning and practice.  

In his 1992 book, Moral Leadership, Thomas J. Sergiovanni calls on the thinking of contemporary philosopher William K. Frankena (1973) when he wrote specifically about two moral principles:

The principle of justice is expressed as equal treatment of and respect for the integrity of individuals.  Accepting this principle means that every parent, teacher, student, administrator, and other members of the school community must be treated with the same equality dignity, and fair play. The principle of beneficence is expressed as concern for the welfare of the school as a community.  Accepting this principle means that every parent, teacher, student, and administrator is viewed as an interdependent member of the school as covenantal community and that every action taken in the school must seek to advance the welfare of this community (pp.105-106).

We agree. Justice and beneficence should be part of every conversation as the capacity of this century unfolds.  There are no easy steps to offer because each school community is different, each leader, each teacher, each school culture, all have uniqueness. But, the adults, too, need to practice, not being ethical but having conversations about it. Here's a thought for a beginning. Meira Levinson, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and one of her doctoral students are authors of the recently published book, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries. It presents case studies and suggestions for exploring the ethical perspectives on each. Using this as a kick off to discussions in the school community might open the doors to investigating the ethical choices and decisions being made locally. Even if that doesn't happen, it minimally allows us to practice having the conversations. Then, we'll be better prepared to have those conversations with our students.

Resource
Sergiovanni, T.J. (1992). Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement. Hoboken, N.J.: Jossey-Bass

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email

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