Creative and critical approaches to teaching students to think ethically: phronesis and arete in the classroom - Paul Reynolds


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Presentation given at the HEA Social Sciences learning and teaching summit 'Teaching ethics: The ethics of teaching'

A blog post outlining the issues discussed at the summit is available via

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Creative and critical approaches to teaching students to think ethically: phronesis and arete in the classroom - Paul Reynolds

  1. 1. Presentation for the HEA Social Sciences learning and teaching summit : Teaching Ethics: The Ethics of Teaching Paul Reynolds Reader in Sociology and Social Philosophy Edge Hill University, UK
  2. 2. Abstract Whilst teaching ethics as a scholastic subject is essential for those who wish to pursue philosophical disciplines, and important more broadly as a field of study in the humanities and social sciences, it is not the same as asking students to think ethically. This distinction – in the broadest sense parallel to knowing philosophy and philosophizing – recognizes a limited intellectual space and time for students to take up the value in the historical development of ethical thought, but a real value in giving them the tools to think ethically, for example in relation to professional practice or studies or vocations involving applied ethics. For example, research ethics, sexual ethics and bio-medical ethics might be studied usefully as fields where you might want students to exercise ethical thinking without a full philosophical knowledge. This session seeks to suggest some ways in which ethical thinking might be encouraged, recognizing that you cannot and should not simply ‘teach’ ethics, but you can encourage and exercise critical pedagogy in developing their capacity to think ethically. Teaching Ethics 2
  3. 3. Teaching Ethics 3 The Contexts  Specific modules:  research ethics considerations in social research methods courses  Exploring ethical questions in looking at the relationship between sexual regulation in law and policy and the arguments used to justify prohibitions and regulations  Exploring ‘applied ethics’ questions from abortion/termination to assisted suicide  Practising using ethical theories to argue cases and interpretations – such as with classical theories such as virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism/ consequentialism  Elaborating ethical judgements in professional practice education  Objectives:  To enable students to exercise critical faculties and begin to both use theories or arguments and recognise their strengths and weaknesses  To enable students to recognise that there is a process of deliberation involving evidence, arguments and values from which explanations and judgements are developed  To enable students to argue cases and positions to the best of their ability in the most robust fashion but recognising limits of as well as scope to arguments (arête)  To enable students to use experience, reading, group discussion and individual reflection to build their own argument about and evaluation of a problem – both within and beyond the curriculum (phronesis)
  4. 4. Teaching Ethics 4 Methods #1: Scenarios  Closed Scenarios: students are given a scenario or case and asked to evaluate it in terms of the judgements of those within the scenario  Theory-led Scenarios: students are given a scenario with a number of particular analyses and/or solutions given and have to evaluate those analyses/solutions  Open Scenarios: students are given a scenario or case in which they are asked what they would do within a particular place in the scenario  Advantages – can be given as assessments – can be text based – suit individual and group work  Disadvantages – often completed with a relatively limited sense of engagement and thinking through  Important to have a programmic use, sequential in a way that builds students capacity to engage with them effectively  Students have to clearly understand what is being assessed or practiced, often the distinctions between the three types, for example, are not made clear.  Often these are the basis of other forms of learning exercise
  5. 5. Teaching Ethics 5 Methods 2 & 3: Hypotheticals/Portfolio Building  Hypotheticals - Students as individuals or small groups in a larger group forum ‘horseshoe’ are taken through scenarios and asked to make judgements, evaluations or actions at different points in the scenario  Tutor-led as facilitator – scenarios can be varied to explore different sub- questions – reflect or tailored to group composition, responses and particular concerns  Time and effort intensive, needs excellent facilitation skills, needs clear planning as to what is being exercised (theoretical dexterity, deliberative judgement, self reflection and the capacity to summarise the ‘journey’(often best with more than one facilitator)  Portfolio-Building – sequence of exercises that build ethical deliberation and judgement – for example a theoretical structured exercise that tests knowledge, comparative skills and evaluative skills, application of this knowledge to a particular case in a seminar presentation, debate within small groups on quality and ethics of judgements (using scenarios), essay on a particular ethical question or judgement, short oral exam on a particular ethical judgement or scenario and summative reflection or cumulative logbook/workbook on what has been learned in the module  Needs careful coordination for each task to build into a coherent sequence that enables ethical thinking
  6. 6. Teaching Ethics 6 Reflections  The emphasis on these forms of presenting ethics teaching is that their learning is a process by which they recognise the contours of ways of deliberating and making judgements.  It is not primarily about knowledge – they may well get issues of complexity wrong but still have learned to think, and so be able to consider how best to think about ethical problems – recognise and be able to apply evaluative criteria  Important that in the course of deliberating and making judgements there is a recognition that the notion of correct and incorrect answers changes  Within the context of student learning imperatives in 21st century it is often difficult to have the time and space for this to be done well – questions of how it is developed and done in the curriculum  Nevertheless, extremely valuable in terms of augmenting, developing or even exploring with relatively little sense of embedding within ethics as bodies of knowledge, theoretical articulations or philosophical forms  This links the teaching or ethics with the ethics of teaching in that it questions what we are doing teaching for, what we wish to inculcate in ethics pedagogy and how we develop a critical pedagogy where the student’s growth is complemented by the tutor’s willingness to cede centrality and develop communal learning and collective engagement