Teaching Ethics in Elementary School

The Benefits of Teaching Ethical Dilemmas

According to Linda Flanagan, advisory board member for The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School, in a recent KQED Mindshift piece, ethical decision-making is a critical component of comprehensive education, but few schools teach ethics. Incorporating ethical dilemmas into the classroom can provide opportunities for not only debate and critical thinking, but also personal growth, empathy for other points of view, and self-reflection as well.

Effective ethics instruction entails more than simply disseminating a list of moral principles; it also entails instructing students on how to navigate their moral decision-making processes (see Figure 1). Students learn “to search for and evaluate their assumptions, to excavate the reasons behind those assumptions, to examine without prejudice another’s an opinion, and to make a thoughtful decision with confidence,” says Jana M. Lone, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children. “They learn to search for and evaluate their assumptions, to excavate the reasons behind those assumptions, to examine without prejudice another’s an opinion, and to make a thoughtful decision with confidence,” she adds.

For example, training at the Kent Place Institute in Summit, New Jersey, begins in the fifth grade with an introduction to the most fundamental concepts, such as right versus wrong: In this exercise, students are presented with two seemingly good options that are in direct conflict with one another. As children progress through middle school and then high school, the lessons become more nuanced and complex in their presentation.

Kent Place School has created a diagram of its ethical decision-making process.
Students in upper grades use an ethical decision-making framework known as the Ethical Decision-Making Method as a guide to investigating difficult issues on their own. Middle school students apply the framework through the use of case studies. Using Emma as an example, students discuss how she was not invited to a party, but how she later learns that her friend Jane was at the event thanks to social media posts. Students find themselves in a difficult situation, torn between a strong sense of loyalty and the need to be diplomatic in order not to unnecessarily hurt a friend’s feelings.

Students consider questions such as, “How do you think Emma will feel when she sees the Instagram photo?” What exactly is Jane’s obligation in this situation? When you think about this scenario, what values do you hold that influence your thinking?” Even though the scenarios are fictional but realistic, according to Institute Director Karen Rezach, students can freely consider the different perspectives held by each character.

As the students’ investigation progresses, they take into account not only how to make difficult decisions, but also how those decisions reflect the underlying values that are important to each student. Middle school students at Kent Place present their findings in a variety of formats, including songs, poems, and videos, all based on the principles they believe are the most important to them.

“After the presentations are completed, Rezach pairs students with opposing ideals—for example, compassion versus justice—and asks them to collaborate on the creation of a case study,” according to Flanagan. As an example, eighth-grader Alexandra Grushkin chose integrity and was paired with a student who chose loyalty; together, they created an example of a case study that demonstrated the conflict between these two values: If a student witnesses a close friend cheating in a school competition, what should she do?

According to Flanagan, the practice not only promotes better ethical decision-making but also has the potential to have a positive impact on academic performance. Exercises that require students to evaluate ethical dilemmas can help them develop their reasoning and critical thinking abilities, which are valuable assets in many academic settings. When studying historical events, scientific breakthroughs, technological or medical advancements, students can apply ethical considerations to their learning.

Beyond academics, ethical training fosters the development of important “soft skills,” such as respect, empathy, and compassion, among other things. When students examine conflicts from different points of view—and strive to understand the value behind an opinion—they become more empathetic toward others, according to Flanagan. Students can develop social and emotional competencies such as self-awareness and social awareness by identifying the principles that form the foundation of their own beliefs as well as the principles that guide others.