Saturday, July 14, 2012

Teaching Ethics in High School and Middle School

I'm in Vermont at the Bread Loaf School of English, a Middlebury College program in which the students, primarily high school and middle school English teachers, can get a Master's degree in the course of five summers. My wife has been teaching here every summer since 1992 and I've been enjoying the potential for (a) telecommuting and (b) swimming and hiking in Vermont.

This year the Bread Loaf program has a new format for elective workshops, and I'm doing one next Friday on teaching ethics in high school and middle school. I've never taught at that level, but I've taught medical ethics at Harvard Medical School for many years, and I wanted to see whether and how that experience could be extended to pre-college English classes. I hope the participants learn as much as I have in preparing for the workshop.

Since the content of the medical school course isn't relevant for pre-college English classes, I dissected out the underlying goals I have for the medical students. I identified five:
  1. Strengthen ability to identify ethical issues, ideally combined with a zest for tackling these issues – a capacity that can be called “moral imagination” or “moral sensitivity.”
  2. Impart systematic approaches to resolving ethical questions – approaches, not answers.
  3. Enhance skills and attitudes that promote considering the views of others in a respectful manner – listening to those we’re talking with and, imaginatively, to the views of other stakeholders to the issue. 
  4. Cultivate the habit of using our own "gut" reactions as “data” for ethical reflection, not necessarily as “truth.” This doesn’t come naturally to most adults, and is even more challenging for adolescents. 
  5. Enhance capacity to reason to a justifiable conclusion and articulate the rationale for our conclusions.
In preparing for the workshop I came upon the work of Tom Wartenberg, Professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke college, who teaches a course in which undergraduates (a) examine children's books through the lens of articulating the implicit philosophical content of the stories and (b) train to lead discussions for fifth graders at a nearby charter school. (The website is very worth a visit.) In an interview he described his objectives for elementary school children as essentially the same as my objectives for Harvard Medical students. His aim is to teach children how to "philosophize," not about the content of philosophy per se. The children dove into the discussions with the same gusto that makes teaching the course to medical students such  a privilege and pleasure.

Apart from the specific content focus of ethics education, the attitudes and skills required for reasoning about ethical issues are the fundamental requirements for democratic participation. I'll depend on the teachers who participate in the workshop for ideas on whether and how including ethics in high school and middle school English classes is (or is not) a promising practice in an era dominated by standardized testing.

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