Take some time to think through daily dilemmas

October 24, 2003

Formal educational development schemes have to pay much more attention to the ethics of teaching, argues Bruce Macfarlane

A student asks for an extension for an assignment citing personal reasons. A group of students falls out over a team project. A course director receives complaints about the teaching of a senior colleague. These are just a few of the ethical dilemmas lecturers face daily in exercising their professional responsibilities. They are rarely, however, the focus of formal educational development.

When I became an educational developer four years ago, I was determined to incorporate ethics into my programmes. I started to write extended problem-based scenarios, derived largely from my experience as a business and management lecturer. Academics were expected to act as advisers to imaginary colleagues.

What began as a teaching device turned into an interesting research exercise. I developed a series of case studies and tested these with staff from a range of institutions. I discovered that lecturers recognise the importance of moral character, or "virtue".

This is often displayed by steering a middle course between extremes of behaviour. A classic example is courage in relation to teaching innovation.

There is a temptation, when faced with large classes of educationally and culturally diverse students to innovate recklessly, or perhaps cynically by, say, reducing contact hours or marking. To do nothing, on the other hand, is the cowardly option and an equal failure of responsibility.

Fairness is another virtue at the heart of teaching with integrity.

University lecturers must balance coaching and tutoring responsibilities with those of judging student performance. They have to be objective, but also sensitive. The erosion of the tutorial relationship between staff and students threatens this balance. Fewer lecturers genuinely know their students.

To address the situation, many departments and universities have introduced detailed rules and procedures governing plagiarism, for example, or late assignments. But this makes it hard to steer a middle course between arbitrariness and inflexibility.

The mission of getting students to think critically provides lecturers with one of their biggest moral conundrums. Some lecturers wear their ideological colours on their sleeve. Others are cagey, fearful of the effect on the student voice. Most seek balance. But I remember from my days as a politics student the effect my charismatic lecturers had on my and others' work - we self-censored on occasions through a lack of confidence.

Lecturers have to respect their students as individuals. It is all too easy to say something that causes offence or damages a student's self-confidence. We can probably all recall feeling embarrassed or even humiliated as a student by questions such as" "Have you left your brain at home today?" Modelling a respectful attitude towards others goes far beyond classroom technique. It is about character and attitude, something that applies equally to other dilemmas.

In one of my case studies, a lecturer is given a bottle of whisky as a Christmas present by a Hong Kong Chinese student. He is also about to mark the student's essay. This scenario draws on my experience as a schoolteacher in Hong Kong in the 1980s, when I used to receive a present from every class each term. I was embarrassed at first, until I realised that the practice was routine. I was more uncomfortable though with individual gifts. This raises a host of issues about timing, intention, the implications of acceptance in terms of impartiality and sensitivity to cultural differences.

One response to dealing with the ethics of teaching is to produce a formal code of practice or statement of professional values. Organisations such as the American Association of University Professors and the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education have relevant statements. But they are often little more than "hurrah" statements. They frequently include words such as "integrity" without explaining what they mean.

People, unfortunately, think that such statements or codes will answer all their problems. Codification cannot because it fails to bring about moral engagement.

Academics have been concerned with a self-regarding ethical agenda for too long. If you doubt this, consider how few books and articles on academic freedom mention the protection of student free expression. Yet, ironically, many university lecturers teach applied or professional ethics, while everybody who teaches is concerned with implicitly embedding values such as tolerance, respect for others and intellectual integrity.

Students do not want teachers who just educate and entertain. Crucially, they need to be able to trust them to mark their work fairly, deal sensitively with their problems, respect their views and protect their academic freedom. Educational development programmes need to pay more attention to the ethics of teaching. This is essential if we are going to educate professionals rather than just train technicians to teach.

Bruce Macfarlane is reader in higher education and assistant director of the Educational Development Centre, City University. His book Teaching with Integrity: The Ethics of Higher Education Practice was published by Routledge this month, £12.50.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments