Curriculum Opinion

Why Schools Must Engender Moral and Ethical Behavior

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 12, 2017 5 min read
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As science innovation has progressed, and as we celebrate what that means, a new and urgent need exists. As citizens of the world, we all have a responsibility to think morally and ethically about each of the scientific discoveries taking place. One example is CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing technique that was developed at the University of California, Berkeley in 2012. According to an article in THE WEEK (January 22, 2016), scientists can cut out key genes of viruses and store them in order for the immune system to recognize and ward them off each new time encountering them. They can cut out a target gene and replace it with another gene, seamlessly making it part of the DNA. According to the article

...The technique’s most promising application is a potential cure for hereditary diseases. In theory, scientists could use CRISPR to cure single-gene defects like Huntington’s by editing out the disease-carrying gene from the DNA of a fetus in the womb - permanently erasing the disease from the person’s germ line.

The article goes on to talk about how some fear that rogue scientists will create “Frankenbabies”. And of course, thoughts of Jurassic Park rise as we learn of a Harvard geneticist who is working on the combining of DNA from a frozen woolly mammoth and an Asian elephant. The atom and hydrogen bombs are also examples of how good men, talented scientists, can discover ways to interact with things as small as the atom and create energy that can fuel the needs of the world or cause massive destruction.

Those decisions may seem clear in retrospect, but today’s scientific discoveries may be even more dynamic and have even higher moral and ethical ramifications. The general public will have to be armed with understanding of facts AND a strong moral and ethical compass in order to protect itself. We have those who will be in that position in our schools, in our care, right now.

What Does This Have To Do With Leadership In Schools?
For 13 years we have the opportunity to help youngsters learn the basic foundations for life long learning. In many ways, each “course” or “subject” should provide the learner new tools, new ways to think about things, human interactions and the world. Because it is never measured by a standardized test, or any test really, ethical thinking and decision making is not generally a part of the policy conversation. But as we focus on science, technology, engineering, and math and their affect on 21st century life, morals and ethics play an increasingly central role. We are teaching the next-gen scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, doctors, nurses, politicians, social scientists, artists, authors, musicians, athletes, innovators and educators. We are also teaching the next generation of electricians, plumbers, construction workers and culinary professionals. One thing they all have in common is that they will become decision makers.

We need to prepare students not only with the information they need in order to lead productive and meaningful lives in those fields, but with the moral and ethical thinking and actions that will help guide what is being discovered and designed to be for the good of humanity and daily choices that improve the lives of all and keep us safe.

In days gone by, we expected the teaching of ethics to be the work of parents and religious institutions. True today as well, but children are now exposed an expanding world through a variety of communication technologies that influence their thinking. The job of teaching ethics now belongs to everyone who comes in contact with children. And with long hours each day and 13 years, schools have the unparalleled opportunity of influencing children by modeling, teaching, and helping to develop moral and ethical behavior within the growing and developing children.

So how can we contribute to the development of moral and ethical graduates? The school culture provides the foundation. For this, we return to Sergiovanni’s work in moral leadership.

When purpose, social contract, and local school autonomy become the basis of schooling, two important things happen. The school is transformed from an organization to a covenantal community, and the basis of authority changes, from an emphasis on bureaucratic and psychological authority to moral authority. To put it another way, the school changes from a secular organization to a sacred organization, from a mere instrument designed to achieve certain ends to a virtuous enterprise (p. 102).

We believe deeply that educators know their own environments. They can say what is missing, what is needed, and from where to draw the wisdom of the next steps. Sometimes it takes just a nudge, or a reminder, that attention to one thing or another is worth the time and effort. As a nudge or guide we offer one set of thoughts also from Sergiovanni’s work. These are his 5 characteristics that are included in the covenant of the virtuous school. The virtuous school...

  1. ... believes that, to reach its full potential in helping students learn, it must become a learning community in and of itself.
  2. ...believes that every student can learn, and does everything in its power to see that every student does learn.
  3. ...seeks to provide for the whole student.
  4. ...honors respect
  5. ...parents, teachers, community, and school are partners, with reciprocal and interdependent rights to participate and benefit with obligations to support and assist. (pp.112-113).

Of course, it may seem different to think about the school as a virtuous community. For some reason, that nomenclature hasn’t taken root. But, let’s give it a bit of space here. Ask:

  1. Does every person working in the school truly believe that the school must be a learning community, for all, adults and students alike?
  2. Does every person working in the school believe that every student can learn and do everything in their power to help that happen?
  3. Does every person working in the school think about and attend to both the academic and social/emotional needs of every student?
  4. Does every person working in the school treat everyone with respect?
  5. Does everyone in the school welcome and value parents and community members with reciprocal and interdependent rights to participate and benefit with obligations to support and assist?

If the answer to any of these questions is not a resounding “yes”, then the arena in which the work has to be done becomes clear. Having lived in schools where actions are based in moral and ethical behavior, where respect and equity are standard, where models of moral and ethical behavior are everywhere, there is hope for the future.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1992). Moral Leadership: Getting to the heart of school improvement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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 Alexas_Fotos courtesy of Pixabay

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