Sunday, July 2, 2017

Teaching Ethics in High School and Middle School

I'm again 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 4-5 summers. My wife has been teaching here every summer since 1992 and I enjoy the potential for (a) telecommuting and (b) swimming and hiking in Vermont.

For the past five summers I've been doing a workshop on "Making Ethics Part of High School and Middle School English Class." The idea for the workshop came from recognizing that my underlying goals for teaching medical ethics were similar to the teachers' goals for their students in English class. Working with the teacher-students at Bread Loaf is a pleasure and a privilege. Their commitment to fostering development in their students is similar to the commitment to fostering health and well-being I see in the medical students and residents I work with.

This year the topic we chose to focus on was an experience several of the teachers had (a) teaching courses that explicitly included "justice" or "ethics" in the course objectives and finding (b) that the courses didn't work well. We asked: what was the problem and what could be done about it?

The group identified three main reasons the "justice"/"ethics" courses fell flat:
  1. Adolescent cognitive development. Kids of every age show great variation, but teen age thinking tends to be black/white, with the result that for many the idea that thoughtful people may reasonably differ is a foreign notion. Discussions of ethical and political dilemmas may seem to them like a "politically correct waste of time." I'm still embarrassed at a piece of my own black/white thinking from when I was 17. My parents, born in 1905 & 1907, were from a martini-drinking generation, and the practice they and their friends had of drinking several martinis after work and forgetting that there was a child in the home (me), led me to a very moralistic view of alcohol. So when my friends proposed going out for beer when I was a first year college student, I replied "If we're going out for alcohol, why stop there? Why don't we go directly to heroin?"
  2. The school environment. Kids recurrently encounter high stakes tests. Many feel that their future depends on getting good grades, which means "getting the right answer." Their anticipation of being judged inhibits curiosity and limits the pleasure they might take in deliberating about moral dilemmas. Some years ago when medical ethics was an elective at Harvard Medical School (now it's part of the required curriculum) I had designed a session on "personal mission in medicine." I thought it was a great plan, so when the class completely bombed I was puzzled and asked the students to help me figure out what the problem was. The students told me what I'd missed: "This is our first semester in medical school. Our mission is not to flunk out. We have no interest in speculating about what our mission  should be 5-10 years from now!"
  3. Culture of narcissism. Several teachers commented on a culture of narcissism symbolized by the popularity of "selfies." This isn't a new idea. Christopher Lasch popularized it in his prescient 1979 book subtitled "American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations." The teachers felt that social media reinforced the longstanding cultural pattern. I was especially struck by the observations of two teachers who also coached high school sports teams. Both commented on the decline of "teamness" and the tendency for young athletes to be preoccupied with their own goals and achievements.
The participants exchanged tips on what teachers can do to bring moral reflection to life for their high school and middle school students:
  1. Careful planning. It's important to find works of literature that entice teenagers into moral reflection. Two teachers mentioned The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a short story by Ursula Le Guin I'd never heard of, no less read. It's a moral fable that can be seen as challenging capitalism and the division between the rich and the poor. (The story is just 4 pages - I encourage you to follow the link.) Other teachers emphasized the value of "warm-up exercises" like improv to get the students loosened up and readier to experience curiosity about themselves and others.
  2. Role modeling. It's important for teachers to demonstrate open mindedness, readiness to be questioned & challenged, and interest in the views of others in their interactions with the class.
  3. Drawing on established frameworks. One of the teachers leads a course called "Theory of Knowledge," which is part of the International Baccalaureate curriculum. The course focuses on what it means to claim to "know" something and what forms of evidence apply in different realms of activity. It encourages students to examine their own presuppositions and to recognize their biases. Another teacher uses the Harkness approach - a discussion method developed at Phillips Exeter Academy. Since a central goal in ethics teaching is to cultivate the habit of thoughtful inquiry into the basis of views held by self and others, it makes sense for teachers to do this themselves by learning from each other about how best to pursue this important goal.
  4. Trust the students. Open, thoughtful deliberation requires activity on the part of the high school/middle school students. Telling them what's required doesn't do this, just as telling an athlete how to carry out a skill doesn't take the place of practice. The term "safe space" was used to describe the aim of fostering an environment that supports curiosity and inquiry. Of course, teenagers, like all human beings, are not always trustworthy. This part  of the discussion reminded me of one of my clinical rules of thumb - start with the most optimistic hypothesis that is safe and prudent and retreat from it as necessary. Thus if a patient with depression was not suicidal or at risk in other ways, we could start with the hypothesis that the condition would be readily reversible. If that proved true - great! If it didn't we'd move on to a more demanding approach.
Over the years of my work with high school and middle school teachers, I've come more and more to 
see their work as similar to health care in the shared aim of enhancing human capacity. If health care is a sacred calling, which I believe it very much is, so is the work the teachers are doing!

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