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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Ethics in Everyday Teaching Practice

By Guest Blogger — May 16, 2016 4 min read

Note: This week’s guest-blogger is Meira Levinson, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Today, she co-authors with Jacob Fay, an advanced doctoral student at HGSE and an incoming Graduate Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard.

Teachers vividly recall disruptive students. Consider, for example, eight-year-old Kate. A charming third grader much of the time, Kate has a diagnosed mental illness that causes her to “lose it” under stressful conditions: shrieking, banging her desk, lashing out. Once she recovers, she feels terrible about her lack of impulse control. So do her classmates. Some exhibit their own stress and even fear when Kate is around, as they worry about triggering her next outburst.

Recently, a contingent of parents have complained to the principal about the emotional and academic toll that Kate’s behavior has taken on their own children. In response, the principal has directed Kate’s teacher, Ms. Brown, to remove Kate from the classroom before she disrupts class. Ms. Brown, a veteran special educator, strongly objects to this rule; the principal, however, overrides her objection. Now Kate is showing signs of stress in the middle of a lesson, in which students are engaged in a vigorous debate over rock classification. To be sure of staving off an outburst, Ms. Brown would likely need to end the activity. Or she could preemptively send Kate out of the class. What should Ms. Brown do?

This dilemma, or some variation of it, is likely familiar to all teachers and school leaders. We have all taught students like Kate. Yet educators are typically taught to understand the challenges posed by disruptive students in a limited way, as problems solely of instruction, leadership, or statutory compliance.

We believe this is a woefully incomplete picture, because cases like Kate’s also present crucial ethical challenges. They raise questions about our values and principles: equality, respect, inclusion, diversity, care, learning, safety, justice. What do these values mean in Ms. Brown’s classroom? What should they mean? In addition, they raise questions about how to respond when important values come into conflict. How should an individual child’s needs be balanced against the collective good? How should students’ academic learning be weighed against their socioemotional learning? What kinds of diversity should be welcomed in the classroom, and what places a child beyond the pale—and why?

Educators and policy makers often struggle with such ethical questions—not just about discipline, but also about promotion and retention policies, grading practices, assessment and accountability measures, school choice, tracking, and myriad other decisions both large and small. Educators tend, however, to keep such struggles private. They are afraid to admit to others that they are unsure about the moral dimensions of their work. As a result, ethical uncertainty is hidden away, unexamined as an opportunity for collective learning.

How can we begin to have these essential conversations?

An important first step may be simply to name and affirm the ethical dimensions of common educational challenges. Yet too often ethics is treated as an abstract domain defined by grand moral theories like utilitarianism or rights-oriented frameworks. This is the wrong kind of naming. In our years teaching in and observing classrooms, we have never met a teacher or principal who thinks, “Wait, let’s apply [insert grand moral theory here] to this question of what we should do with a child who’s throwing a screaming fit in the middle of class.” Nor do we expect to meet one! Something else is needed if we are to delve into ethical challenges in a way that has meaning for and is useful to those working in schools and districts on a daily basis.

We propose that productive conversations about educational ethics require joining together three different forms of insight. Ethical judgment must join philosophical insight into complex and contested values, social scientific insight into empirical patterns and logics, and pragmatic expertise developed by educators and policy makers themselves. Inspired by Aristotle’s concept of phronesis, or practical wisdom, we call this phronetic inquiry. It is also a method for ethical inquiry that marries theory and practice; crosses disciplinary and professional lines; and iterates among field-based, data-oriented, and values-oriented expertise.

In our book, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics, we attempt to model phronetic inquiry. We first provide richly described case studies—like the Kate case above, but in greater detail—to illuminate challenges of education practice and policy. Then we invite a range of philosophers, social scientists, educators, and policy makers to respond to each case. The thirty-six contributors highlight relevant ethical concerns and, in some cases, suggest solutions or ways to weigh competing ethical principles and values against each other. We hope that, taken together, such cases and commentaries can begin to facilitate conversations about the ethical dimensions of educational practice and policy.

--Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay

Note: This blog post previously ran on the Harvard Education Publishing Group’s blog, Voices in Education.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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