School Climate & Safety Opinion

Ethics Are Essential for Everyone In Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 30, 2017 4 min read
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Why is it important for public schools to be concerned about graduating students with a developed set of ethics? College and career ready—what does that really mean? Immediate thoughts go to skills and information. Secondary thoughts may include maturity and judgment. But, we remember those college decisions and moments that called for an internal compass. There were no parents to account to and no elder watching. It was when we were tested—not on what we knew or on some standardized test, but on who we were and would become. It has been obvious for some time now, with the explosion of scientific possibilities accompanied by explosions in communication technologies, that ethics play an important role. Read or listen to the daily news and we realize that we have an urgent need to consider where ethics are being learned.

Teaching Right and Wrong

Teaching right and wrong has been mainly the role of family and religion. Why is it an arena schools should be stepping into? And how? Ethics are less about what one thinks and more about the connection between what one thinks, one feels and then acts. How can schools develop “how one feels” about things without being certain about the values being taught? Having and acting ethically means being moved to act based upon a set of moral values. Does the teaching of morals have a place in schools? We think yes.

There are some seriously clear right and wrongs we can teach. For example, children are taught about the “dangers” of posting photos or communicating with strangers online. We can either warn of such dangers, or help students come to a decision about right and wrong on their own. Telling students what is right and wrong, and teaching what is right and wrong are two very different things. Once our intended outcomes are clarified, the method used to teach these and other ethical lessons are better informed.

Teaching More Than “Don’t Do It”

If we are teaching social media ethics, what will that include? Certainly, it will address posting photos of themselves or others in compromising poses. We will teach that words hurt, even if they are texts or tweets. Insults and demeaning language, name calling, and threats are not without consequences. But we will teach more than “Don’t do it.” We teach about dangerous results and the permanence that exists in the cyber world. But, where does it land? Children and adolescents may add our warnings to the long list of “don’ts” that grows as they do. As educators and as members of families, we know with certainty that as children grow into adolescence they push against the adults who surround them as they reach for their independence. No doubt, some of the “don’ts” become “do’s” simply because it is part of their growing process. So knowing that, shouldn’t we rethink our tactics?

Model and Teach Ethics

Schools are a K-12 experience. In the best of circumstances we have a child for 13 consecutive years. In the most challenging of circumstances we have them for only a few months. No matter, it is important that every adult in the system knows and agrees that ethics must be embedded in the teaching and learning process. Teachers and leaders have the responsibility to raise the question, invite the conversation, and tie examples as they arise to the teaching of ethics. It is neither a course to be taught, like digital citizenship, nor an elective, like ethics for seniors.

The teaching of ethics begins with the modeling of ethics. It is the manner in which everything is taught, including lessons in behavior. Ethics are taught in hallways, classrooms, and in offices by every adult and student. Mixed messages are dangerous in that they can handily undo the work of a previous effort. How each member of the school community fits into this ever-important effort calls for ongoing thoughtfulness because this, unlike other things taught in school, has to become a lifelong part of every student. How to accomplish an engineering problem is a mental skill. How to use those engineering skills to solve humanity’s problems or to build a bomb involves ethics.

Ethics, a Graduation Requirement

In the medical research and practice world, the future is now. Students in our schools, whether headed for a career in medical research or medical practice, are already living in a world in which ethics plays a role, in some ways, more than ever. Unless we understand that the possibilities this research offers for curing disease is coupled with possibilities for destruction. Scientists are discovering new ways to fight disease through gene mutation called CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). Exciting and life saving...but it also raises ethical issues. Here from a Time Magazine article entitled A New Technique That Lets Scientists Edit DNA Is Transforming Science--and Raising Difficult Questions

...most microbes driving infectious diseases are just a few DNA edits away from becoming superstrains that could wipe out unprepared populations.

Doing the research, reporting on, or applying these advances can become some current student’s job. Schools can support the ongoing work of families and religion. Schools can also fill the gaps. If we are seriously committed to graduating students who are college and career ready, then we have to recognize the opportunity we have for a continued, systemic, shared responsibility to develop ethical action.

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.

Photo by Herney 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.