Saturday, August 20, 2011


Imagine two approaches to teaching ethical reasoning to elementary schoolers (or to anyone, for that matter):

In the first, teachers would pose questions to the students about ethical quandaries. The teacher would solicit opinions from the students, and in response, would ask further questions. At first, the hypotheticals might be relatively easy: for example, the students might be asked how they would respond to a friend who pressures them to shoplift. But, as the discussion progressed, the questions could become progressively more challenging: What if a teacher asks you to reveal something that a friend told you in confidence? How much money would you give or lend to a friend who needs it more than you do? Throughout the discussion, the teacher would refrain from dictating any “right answers” to the questions (which are, after all, questions of opinion). Instead, the teacher would use further questions to get the kids thinking about right and wrong and developing their own nascent codes of moral reasoning. The teacher would also point out patterns in the kids’ responses, giving the kids a vocabulary for talking about ethical choices.

In the second approach, the teachers would tell the students rules about what kind of behavior is right and what is wrong. The teachers would spend large amounts of time and effort to make the rules as clear as possible, so everyone will know them. Throughout the day, the teachers would give token rewards to students who they “catch” following the rules: a paper ticket, say, or a string bracelet. Kids would use the rewards to enter into weekly drawings to win prizes -- the more rewards you accumulate, the better your chance to win. Classrooms, too, would compete against each other to get the highest number of rewards. The use of material gain as an incentive for the kids to obey the rules would be defended on the (empirically suspect) grounds that eventually the kids will internalize the “right” attitudes. The implicit message would be that the highest value is to always do as you are told, and that people in positions of authority are automatically the arbiters of ethical right and wrong.

Unfortunately, you don’t need to imagine the second approach; it is the reality in Iowa City public schools (and in many other places as well). I doubt that the people administering PBIS, and all the similar authoritarian behavioral programs (examples here and here), think of themselves as teaching ethical reasoning -- and granted, what they’re doing is barely worthy of that label. But there’s no question that those programs are teaching kids lessons about their ethical obligations -- about what it means to be “good” -- and those lessons are: always do what others expect of you, always obey whatever rules you are given, let the people in authority tell you what to think. When, exactly, did our community choose that approach?


FedUpMom said...

When, exactly, did your community choose the math curriculum, or the amount of homework, or how to provide a developmentally appropriate education? Never, that's when. They're called public schools because they're funded with public money, not because the public have any say in how they're run.

I'm not saying that's OK, I'm just saying that's how it is.

KD said...

Fedup mom, at the last curriculum review the district made a small show of involving the community when it changed the math curriculum....I think you had to be paying close attention though to know about it.

Ultimately though the same individuals that picked out the Investigations/TERC curriculum that was used previously though were heavily involved in choosing Everyday Math at the elementary level.

KD said...

I'm not sure that I could trust teachers to teach ethical reasoning in a nonbiased way.

In example number one, would the teachers used scripted scenarios or would the students have an opportunities to talk about ethical dilemmas that are meaningful to them.

Would students be informed that they did not have to participate in the discussion, or share information that might make them uncomfortable?

KD said...

I'd say at this point I'm neutral about PBIS. I'm okay with it up to a certain point in the elementary schools....I don't care for how it is implemented at the junior high level.

The junior high has "SOAR" tickets that are handed out that can be redeemed in various ways. At the level of junior high the ticket system seems silly. Even if one thinks the tickets are a good thing, I'm not sure the program at the junior high level is effective. Any kid who knows how to use a copy machine could make hundreds of SOAR tickets to cheat the system.

Chris said...

KD -- On the one hand, I see where you're coming from as far as not trusting the schools to teach ethical reasoning in an unbiased way. Again, I'd rather have no discussion of values at all than the top-down indoctrination with authoritarian values that we currently have.

But I disagree that it would be so hard to engage the kids in ethics and philosophy in a way that respects their freedom to reach their own conclusions. It's the kind of teaching that occurs routinely in college humanities classes, and (at least I hope) even in high school classes that touch on controversial topics. Our school's teachers have spent countless hours being trained in how to administer PBIS. Would it really be so hard to get them to approach ethical issues in an exploratory, rather than lecturing, way?

I think kids are all naturally interested in questions of right and wrong and what life is for and what makes it meaningful. To completely exclude those topics from school is to miss an important opportunity to engage them in the process of inquiry that should be at the heart of education. And, again, it ends up teaching that those questions aren't really serious or important, compared to the stuff on the multiple choice tests.

When schools neglect that opportunity, and instead just lecture the kids to do as they're told, school basically becomes a kind of vacuum, where the things that are most meaningful to people are the things that never get discussed. It used to be that those topics would at least find their way into, say, literature classes, but now even those classes are all about reading comprehension.

I sometimes wonder whether the petty cruelties and cliquishness that we associate with schoolchildren aren't basically just a product of the fact that we've made school into such a vacuum of ethics and meaning.

Chris said...

KD -- As for PBIS, it is a very infantilizing way to treat kids, so it makes sense that the older the kids are, the more bothersome the program seems. It's mind-boggling to me that they use it in junior high -- what self-respecting adolescent would want to please the adults just to get a paper ticket or a prize? Maybe kids really *are* different than when I was young . . .

Do they use it in high school, too?

KD said...

Chris, I don't know if there is a form of PBIS in high school or not. I would think that there is.

One thing that makes me sad this year is that in both elementary and junior high that there is more attention to behavior than ever before. I went to the back to school night at the junior high. I like to hear them talk about the subjects they teach(which they did)...but I think they must have been encouraged to talk about the SOAR program(some of them did), plus there was a SOAR poster in every classroom I visited. Plus as the night started and we sat in the kids' homerooms we had to listen to a message from the principal over the loudspeaker about the SOAR program.

On one hand I think in group settings there does need to be attention to some expectations about behavior...on the other hand it seems as if talking about behavior is almost like a new school subject.