What is Ethics?
Ethics can be simply defined as a set of questions that help us distinguish between what is right and wrong. Based on this distinction, we determine the best course of action in a given situation. Within the discipline of philosophy, ethics is a well established sub-field, studied mainly through the lens of a variety of theoretical frameworks, each made up of principles informed by sets of core values. The use of these frameworks to morally guide action within particular practices (for instance, medicine, business, or teaching) is often referred to as applied ethics. As the term suggests, applied ethics involves the application of pre-established frameworks to particular situations.
While these distinctions are useful in helping us think more abstractly about where our ethics come from and how they influence our actions, in reality, we use a combination of pre- established ethical principles. We learn these principles pre-experientially and modify them through our experiences. Pre-experiential ethical principles are mainly learned through socialization. For example, as children, we learn to conduct ourselves in social situations by observing others and receiving directions on the right way to act and putting these norms into practice.
This understanding of ethics is consistent with the theory of experiential learning. The experiential learning model is a holistic understanding of learning as a process that integrates experience, perception, cognition, and behavior (Kolb, 1984). John Dewey, American philosopher and education reformer proposed a model for experiential learning (described here by Kolb, 1984), which involves three phases: 1) observation of the surrounding conditions, 2) knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past , and 3) judgment by assigning meaning to what is observed in light of what is known.
Ethics in Teaching
Dewey also considered teaching a moral endeavor on both personal and institutional fronts (Campbell, 2008). This was in contrast to the dominant view that the central moral concern of teaching was the final outcome, which was the formation of students through an effective delivery of relevant content (Campbell, 2008). In other words, as long as teachers were effectively accomplishing this delivery, whether or not their personal ethics played a role in this was of little importance.
This is something that is still relatively true today: while we devote great time and energy to developing courses while aligning them with our personal and institutional teaching goals, we do not think as much about how we deliver content as ethical role models. Experiential learning models can help us be more intentional regarding the alignment of our personal ethics and our teaching, resulting in something that we might call teaching integrity.
Teaching with Integrity
While much has been written about the ethics of teaching, teaching with integrity goes beyond the understanding and application of ethical principles in teaching (for instance, fairness, objectivity, impartiality, etc). Teaching with integrity involves being mindful of our own values with regard to teaching, and making sure those values align with what we are teaching as well as how we are teaching it. But how to accomplish this? Using Dewey’s model as a guide, a good place to start is with a reflective observation of our teaching practice. This involves noticing our habitual practices in the classroom (and perhaps outside of it too–when planning and grading). It is also important to note why we are doing certain things in a certain way–what Campbell refers to as “intangibles that are ethically and morally infused.” This can include aspects of our teaching practice that are often overlooked: such as the change in the tone of our voice, or the approach with different students, topics and situations.
These observations are followed by two important steps: 1) assessment of our current practices in light of our values and past experiences (Dewey’s “knowledge” phase), and 2) the fine-tuning of our future practice as a result. In other words, making commitments about what we may do differently in the future as a result of our ongoing moral development as teachers (Dewey’s “judgment” phase). It is important to note that this need not be strictly an after-the-fact reflective process, but rather something that we should continuously do as we teach. Learning to observe, assess, and judge our teaching practice as it takes place is not an easy task, and requires a great amount of mindfulness, but it is essential in aligning our personal ethics with our teaching, which is arguably at the core of teaching with integrity.
This practice should not just be an afterthought that arises as we review student feedback and outcomes of our courses. An example of how we might approach this is is outlined below.
Write 5 statements using the prompting phrase:
- “In my course, I regularly…”
- Should be a specific action statement — “I DO…”
- Example: In my course, I regularly give multiple choice exams.
- “Good teachers SHOULD…”
- Likely a more vague statement than those above
- Example: Good teachers should grade fairly and objectively.
Now, generate 3 statements for this prompt and put them on a notecard. Keep the card somewhere to serve as a reminder to be mindful of the integration of your ethics and teaching.
- “To be a good teacher, I WILL…”
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.
Campbell, E. (2008). The ethics of teaching as a moral profession. Curriculum Inquiry, 38(4), 357-385.
Monica List is a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy, pursuing graduate specializations in Ecological Food and Farming Systems, and Animal Studies, and an Inside Teaching Fellow. She currently serves as an academic advisor for the Bioethics, Humanities, and Society Specialization at MSU. Her research focuses on animal ethics and welfare, environmental bioethics, and feminist philosophy of science.
Rachael Eaton is a PhD candidate in Zoology and an Inside Teaching Fellow at Michigan State University. She studies the behavior and ecology of birds in Michigan fruit orchards. She has taught a variety of undergraduate Zoology courses and is part of the Graduate Women in Science Organization.
Kate Glanville is a PhD student in Crop and Soil Sciences and an Inside Teaching Fellow at MSU. Her research at Kellogg Biological Station looks at nutrient cycling in cropping systems. She has helped teach Leadership and First-Year seminars, Connected Learning and Agricultural Ecology.