School Climate & Safety Opinion

As Science and Technology Push Forward, Ethics Must Follow

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 14, 2017 5 min read
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We may have gotten along with leaving the teaching of right and wrong, cause and effect, action and consequence to families and religious teaching but we can no longer rest comfortably in that belief. Working adults are raising today’s children and less time spent around the dinner table discussing the events of the day. Fewer families are affiliated with religious organizations. Although many identify themselves with a religious group, less are attending church and a growing number are identifying as unaffiliated (PewForum.org). At the same time that this is true, the growing question in our nation and the world about ethics and the need for truth and moral behavior is growing.

There are many ways in which educators, and all citizens, can step up and be politically active. Demonstrations, letters, attending forums, speaking to representatives in Congress, encouraging others to become active...these are all ways individuals can act. But, as educators, we need to wrestle with our public responsibility as children learn and grow with us. Schools are a major place where children see ethical behavior; they acquire awareness and practice it.

Right and Wrong
Schools teach right and wrong through Codes of Conduct that encourage some behaviors and limit or prohibit others. When students cross the line, they know there will be consequences. Whether those consequences are disciplinary or are punishment lies in the amount of counsel given and the lesson learned.

Digital Ethics, an Example
Where do the legal and ethical issues surrounding privacy belong in the work done in schools? How do schools decide to teach about privacy? Often raised with regard to social media use, students are taught the permanence of photos and how posts threaten future job acquisition and guarantee embarrassment now or later. Students learn from mistakes that words can hurt and once shared in social media they cannot be removed or denied. The focus often is the ‘don’t do it’ message. It takes time but the lesson about ethical consequences to one’s self and others requires information, dialogue, and care.

We focus our writing on leadership. No matter the topic, we hope to share our knowledge, experience, questions, and vision in the hopes that we may open minds or provoke thought and discussion. Yet, in this current time in our country, we feel compelled use our voices to call on all educators to pay special attention, not only to the issues that you may think affect education directly, but to issues that are and will affect the way we do business in this country and can be addressed in schools. We watch the horizon and try to be canaries in the mines when we can. Advances in science and technology are bringing us to before unimagined issues. The field of bioethics expands to direct that pursuit and application. But, inevitably, those advances will impact workplaces and lives and yes, schools.

What Does H.R. 1313 Have To Do With Schools?
There is a bill that has been introduced in the house, H.R. 1313 Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act. The bill, as introduced, it allows employers with wellness programs to require genetic testing of their employees and receive the results. Those results, and the employee’s willingness to share them, can be considered in what the employer may charge for health insurance contributions.

Most educators will not pay attention to this bill and amidst the other demands of their jobs and the general health care turmoil. But this does have to do with all of us in one particular way. The lid to Pandora’s Box has been opened. Privacy is being redefined. Once science began unraveling DNA and the information it holds, good things began happening. Diagnoses and cures were research targets. It was at the beginning of the last century when Earnest Rutherford‘s questions about the atom quickly informed others and led to new understandings. New uses of radiation and the development of the Geiger counter are just two of those new ideas that came out of that Pandora’s Box. Not much later, Einstein’s work informed the Manhattan Project. Robert Oppenheim wrote in the New York Times, “Late in his life, in connection with his despair over weapons and wars, Einstein said that if he had to live it over again he would be a plumber.” This use of his work was not Einstein’s intention.

How Can Educators Make a Difference?
Educators in today’s classrooms were born after, much after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, North Korea makes the news fresh again. It is difficult to wrap heads and hearts around the idea that the United States of America used a radioactive bomb (the only country to have done so to date) to murder over 100,000 Japanese civilians. No, it wasn’t just in response to Pearl Harbor where 2400 military and civilians were killed and ships lost. It was to accelerate the end of the war and arguably reduce further loss of life. This may be an extreme example but it is not only our scientists who need to make ethical decisions. It is every one of us to some degree or another. All of our students will benefit from a district wide open and ongoing discussion about how ethical behavior will be taught. The questions answered by Earnest Rutherford and then Albert Einstein, good, honest, scientific inquiry and findings, led to uses not intended.

The young geniuses who sit in today’s classrooms are filled with questions and waiting to discover answers. They need others to join them and create the ethical boundaries of their discoveries. It is not only our young scientists about whom we must be concerned. It is the young politicians, reporters, doctors, CEO’s, and CFO’s, those who will hold influence and all who vote.

Our young people need help in developing foresight, vision, and ethical behavior. That begins in today’s classrooms. If not, will we arrive at a place where Kindergarteners will be swabbed and from some awesome DNA discovery be tracked based on a belief about their potential. We need a population raised with ethical decision making, ethical models, ethical behaviors developed and engendered. Science is propelling forward. We cannot leave ethics behind.

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.

Illustration by Newpaddy courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.