Teaching Ethics in Schools

This is a guest post from Riya Sander.  Riya is an overseas teacher. She has spent her past 5 years teaching in Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines.

All too often, I hear adults tell children to simply “do the right thing”.  

This is not enough.  We need to help children figure out:

  1. what is the right thing or
  2. how to decide what is right.

Teaching in various schools, in various countries, I’ve seen a wide range of responses: from completely ignoring ethics to teaching ethical decision making at all levels of the school curriculum.

Some parents ask if ethics and education belong together. Ethics are the shared values of a given group or culture. There are some ethical values that are widely shared, and others that vary widely depending on the local culture. This is one of the conflicts that children must be taught about.

Not just “It is Wrong”, but Why is it Wrong?

photo: Riya Sander

photo: Riya Sander

One ethics teacher, Alyssa Kelly, described teaching ethics this way: “The emphasis is not on moral instruction but on finding reasons why something might be right or wrong.” Instead of teaching students what is right or wrong, ethics courses for primary school students focus on teaching them how to decide for themselves what is right or wrong.

Students are faced with challenging social situations on a regular basis. Not every moral instruction can be blindly applied to every situation. When I ask my students if it’s okay to lie, they respond “no” in unison every time, in every class, regardless of what country I was teaching in. The nuances of “right” and “wrong” are more subtle when students have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Ethical Decisions are Never Black and White

I once had a female student whose friend was contemplating suicide. The suicidal girl told her friend what she was thinking of doing to herself, but asked her not to tell anyone. She asked her friend to keep her plans a secret. The friend, my student, was distraught. Someone was in danger, but she was asked to keep that danger a secret. Thanks to her ethics classes, she was able to reason her way through the situation. She later told me that, although she felt bad about breaking her promise to keep her friend’s secret, the resulting intervention and the fact that the broken promise helped to save her friend’s life was worth it. The suicidal girl was angry at the time, but became very thankful to her friend after therapy.

Ethical choices apply to what students say as well. With the growth of social media and its use earlier and earlier by students, we do them a great service by teaching them how to make ethical decisions about what to do and what to say before they reach the quagmire of social media. An acronym I frequently use with my students, which fits well in the ESL curriculum, is before you post/write/speak, THINK. Consider these factors: is what you’re about to say True, Helpful, Informative, Necessary, and Kind. We then discuss what these words mean to each of us. Students always enjoy the play on words: they learn about thinking, and each of those factors requires serious personal thought.

Did you T.H.I.N.K.?

“Sitting in a circle listening to other people is a skill set that many adults could benefit from.” Alyssa Kelly

Once we’ve learned this acronym, students often help each other remember what to do: “May, did you THINK before you said that to Kai?” This is one of the great benefits of having these kids talk through questions that make them think. As teacher Alyssa Kelly said, “Sitting in a circle listening to other people is a skill set that many adults could benefit from.”

One of the keys to this type of program is starting early. The earlier primary school students start to learn about how to think through ethical questions, the easier it will be for them. Skills learned early in life are foundational. This type of problem solving will lead to greater skill in more and more complicated problems that students will encounter later in life.

The Benefits of Early Ethical Education

Ethics and education go hand in hand. In addition to teaching children facts and figures, teaching ethics begins to lay the groundwork of metacognition: thinking about how we think. If we can help them develop an awareness of how they think about things and how they make value decisions early in life, we set them up to make better choices throughout their lives as well as preparing them for higher level thinking that will be of great use later in their education.

About the Author: Riya Sander is an overseas teacher. She holds a master’s degree from Australia Institute of Business & Technology. She has spent her past 5 years teaching in ESL countries i.e. Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines. She currently works for Point to Point Education, a dynamic education recruitment company.

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