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Courting Controversy: Why (and How) We Teach Ethics

By John Prosser & Ryan Prosser — September 12, 2012 5 min read
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We teach ethics to our 8th grade students—and we do it from the very start of the school year. A lot of our colleagues wince at that. Aren’t we nervous about teaching a subject usually reserved for parents? And whose ethics are we teaching, anyway? Here’s how we respond.

As the study of morality, ethics is not the teaching of a specific set of beliefs. Rather, ethics is about learning to analyze and evaluate beliefs. As long as you communicate that clearly—and practice it in your classroom—there’s no need to worry about “whose ethics you’re teaching.”

Middle school students engage in ethical decision-making daily. Listen closely to nearly any student’s social musings and you’ll hear a lot of talk about justice and injustice, about “right” and “wrong.” Students constantly evaluate their experiences in this way, critiquing the fairness of the dress code or debating whether iPods should be allowed in class. Why not harness this interest for an intentional unit?

Middle school students are fascinated by morality. But ethics is often treated as an off-limits area of expertise “best left to adults” because “it’s complicated.” Go ahead and tell that to your students, who are eager to prove their mettle.

A little controversy can be a good thing. While no teacher wants unnecessary drama, the controversy that arises from ethical debates provokes intellectually challenging discussions, presents novel ideas, and encourages students to develop and answer meaningful questions.

Using ethical dilemmas as the basis for classroom instruction promotes critical thinking, participation, and self-efficacy. And that’s why we like to start the year with ethics, hooking kids right out of the gate.

The Trolley Car Dilemma

We begin by adapting Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s lesson from Justice, Episode 1. Sandel presents his students with a hundred-year-old ethical scenario called “The Trolley Car Dilemma.”

Using a simple PowerPoint, we tell the story: “You’re on a trolley car (a train) that has no brakes. On the track ahead of you are five workers. Because you are unable to stop the train, those five workers will soon be hit and killed. However, you can press a button that will change the track ahead, altering your direction. Only one worker is on that track. If you press the button, he will surely die.” We diagram the scenario on the board.

We ask, “Will you push the button, killing one but saving five? Or will you choose not to push the button, allowing five to die while saving one?” First, we give students a couple minutes of private think time. Next, students talk with a neighbor. Finally, we begin the whole-class discussion by asking students to share their answer or their partner’s answer.

Likely, most will advocate for pushing the button, remarking, “It’s better to kill one and save five.” Sandel’s Harvard students reacted this way, too.

The second scenario asks students to imagine they are standing on a bridge. If they push a man over the railing, they could save the five workers. Ask whether they’d do this. You’ll likely hear responses opposing their initial responses. Now you can raise a new intellectual challenge: “Why did you change your mind?”

As students’ brains churn wildly, attempting to justify the discrepancy, capture this moment. Facilitate an all-class discussion, prompting students to reason through and question their positions.

Finally, present the students with Sandel’s 20-minute discussion, which includes additional examples that will make them laugh and squirm. By the end of this lesson, the students will understand they have reasoned as well as the Harvard students did. And that’s the payoff: your students’ transformation into confident, critical thinkers. (Bonus: The next time a student says, “I can’t do this,” you’ll be able to remind the student that Harvard begs to differ.)

The Cold Equations

Next, we introduce students to “The Cold Equations” and “The Lottery,” two short stories steeped in sacrifice and moral dilemmas. Fresh off their discussion of Justice, the students will again consider, “Is it better to sacrifice the one to save the many?”

In Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” Sandel’s dilemma gets a modern twist. An innocent girl on a space craft must die a violent death in order to ensure that humans on a frontier planet receive critical medical supplies. We prompt students to stand in the shoes of the craft’s pilot: How would they handle this impossible situation?

As the girl nears the end of her life, students will search desperately for solutions. Have them record their proposed solutions—then allow the class to gallery-walk and discuss these artifacts. At the story’s conclusion, your students will have experienced that right and wrong are not the same as happy and sad.

The Lottery

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is another viciously vivid story reminiscent of the reaping from “The Hunger Games.” (As you may recall, the prize in “The Lottery” is not an especially desirable payout.)

Prior to reading the story, hold your own class lottery. Students draw equal-sized slips of paper from a box, and one slip will have a black dot. Once the winner is determined, tell the student you’ll let them know what their prize is after reading the story. (This exercise allows students to reflect on how they felt about winning or losing before—and then after—Jackson’s story.)

“The Lottery” will shock your students. Focusing on an avoidable and seemingly arbitrary social dilemma, “The Lottery” will goad your students into realizing that justice can be defined in many ways. Here, justice is the sacrifice of one for the traditions of the many. They’ll remember the story’s cold-blooded conclusion for the rest of their lives.

Challenge students to imagine how they would respond if they won the lottery. What if they were bystanders? Give students the chance to identify the traditions and values of their community. Can they identify current social conflicts or dilemmas that go unquestioned?

Ethical dilemmas present students with authentic problems that summon rich critical thinking. If you use Justice, “The Cold Equations,” “The Lottery,” or similar texts as entry points to ethics and the year, you’ll prompt your students to see themselves as college-level thinkers contemplating real problems. Also, you will feel more comfortable tackling ethics without fearing that you might step on someone’s toes.

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