Ethics in the English classroom

I’ve been asked to give a talk tomorrow night to our local English teachers association about ethics in the English classroom, and I thought I’d use this blog post to try to gather together some thoughts. In my belly I know what I want to say, but, as I’ve found to my cost in the past, what I think I know intuitively and what I can articulate clearly are sometimes two very different things!

If ethics is all about the way we live our lives, if ethics is about how to live a full and authentic life, then I think English is one of the key school subjects where …

… and here I pause, as I was going to type ‘ethics can be taught’.

I don’t believe that ethics can be taught. I think that a big part of the problem is that our classroom planning gets driven by outcomes, that outcomes are predicated on the idea that there is a teachable endpoint (an outcome), and that the growth of an ethical sensibility resists exactly this kind of approach. It’s this idea that I want to explore in my workshop.

The curriculum itself acknowledges this. It says

Students learn to behave ethically as they explore ethical issues and interactions with others, discuss ideas, and learn to be accountable as members of a democratic community.

What kind of an assessable outcome statement, though, would set up the conditions where students explore?

Students will demonstrate an awareness of the ethical issues implicit in The Giver?

Students will be able to articulate the ethical dilemma faced by Jonah as he realizes his father is complicit in the murder of a baby?

Exploration on the one hand, and closed and assessable endpoints on the other, are mutually exclusive categories. Students will not explore in the necessary free and personally engaged spirit if they think their thoughts are necessarily being channeled towards a given endpoint.

I suspect that the stark way that I put this might provoke some disagreement, and that in fact my own workshop might provide some evidence that I’ve oversimplified the case.

Here’s what I’m planning to do:

  1. I’m going to read six extracts, three from books which contributed in some way to my ethical sensibility (Robbery Under Arms, The Great World and The Marriage Plot), and three from stories I’ve used in English classes (Grimm Fairy Tales, Hard Times and Romeo and Juliet). I’ll be asking the audience to write and talk about some of these extracts, and I’ll be talking about some of the reasons I’ve chosen them.
  2. I’ll then look at the Australian Curriculum and what it says about ethics, and suggest (as I’ve suggested above) that outcomes and the growth of an ethical sensibility are incompatible.
  3. I’ll talk about a kindergarten classroom describes by Dahlbeck in an article about ethics in the classroom, one in which the growth of an ethical sensibility fostered through ‘the issues and interactions of the democratic [kindergrarted] community’  is contrasted with the attempt at ethical education implied by the existence of a number of posters around the walls exhorting the children to consider certain ethical issues and behaviours.
  4. I’ll briefly discuss Massey’s ideas about space, and in particular the need to recognize that space is by its very nature a dynamic and open system, and that attempts to close it down (via assessable outcomes) constrains its possibilities.
  5. Finally I’ll tell the story of an English classroom of my own where the tension between performing to the assessments on the one hand, and a genuine engagement with, and exploration of, the ethical implications of certain texts on the other, was played out.

There’ll be disagreement, I’m sure. I might even modify my own thoughts by the end of the evening. I’m quite looking forward to it.

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3 thoughts on “Ethics in the English classroom

  1. Steve – I think that ethics forms the entire basis of the teaching of English. Certainly in the high school classroom.

    We present our students with texts that describe the feelings, actions and lives of other people, and then encourage the students to interact with those feelings, actions and lives. We expect them to be able to make judgements on the reasons behind the characters choices and to articulate what they believe about those characters as a result.

    The challenge (for me at least) lies in when my ethics and my students’ ethical world view clashes – the joy and heartbreak of those particularly difficult teaching moments when I am presenting a lesson on heroism to Year 12 through bringing in guest presenters from various volunteer groups including Amnesty International and my students refuse to interact because “they are encouraging people to come to Australia and take away our jobs”.

    I don’t know whether my thinking out loud helps your thinking out loud, but I do enjoy the opportunity to do so with you.

  2. Pingback: English teaching’s mid-life crisis? « degrees of fiction

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