Integrating ethics into course design is vital – here’s how to do it

Integrating philosophical enquiry into course design can enrich teaching practice and help our students act justly, writes Cara E. Furman

Cara E. Furman's avatar
Hunter College
24 Jun 2024
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Student and teacher interacting in a classroom
image credit: iStock/jacoblund.

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A divorce lawyer is asked to demand full custody of a child. He thinks this is neither in the child’s best interest nor likely to be rewarded by a judge. How does he proceed with his client? A doctor is pressured to see more patients with less time for each. She worries this will affect her capacity to build trusting relationships and accurately diagnose. Is there a way to push back? An elementary teacher notices that the curriculum she must teach does not cover key elements of maths instruction. Her administration usually silences feedback – how can she speak up effectively?     

Ethics classes tend to be taught apart from core classes. Yet, ethical issues emerge everywhere. Professionals who are clear on their core values are better equipped to navigate conflicts as they appear. For pragmatic and logistical reasons, I therefore call for ethics to be integrated into course design wherever possible. 

Here are tried-and-true activities for grounding students in their values. They can be adapted to any course. 

Values interview

Interviewing each other helps students build bonds and think more deeply about their study goals. This exercise serves well at the beginning and/or end of a course. Have students choose a partner and ask each other the following prompts:

  • What values inform your (life or professional work/aspirations)? 
  • What are some specific examples of how these values live in your daily actions? 
  • Where did you pick up these values? What informs them? 
  • How are your values reinforced and/or challenged in your current life? 
  • What supports/reinforces or helps you stay true to your values?

After the interview, ask students to discuss the effect of conducting it. Prompts include: 

  • What did you learn about yourself and others?
  • How might this influence you going forward?

I Am Poems

An “I am poem” is a personal poem an author uses to describe themselves using a series of prompts that I learned about from the National Council of Teachers of English. It’s a good way to get students writing in a low-pressure way, to reflect on who they are and to share information about themselves with their classmates. It can also be used to help students consider other points of view. For example, I often have students study a natural object and write an I am poem from its perspective.  

Ask students to make a list of their core values, then use them to fill in the gaps in the template below:

I am (two special characteristics you have)  
I wonder (something of curiosity) 
I hear (an imaginary sound) 
I see (an imaginary sight) 
I want (an actual desire) 
I am (the first line of the poem repeated)

I pretend (something you actually pretend to do) 
I feel (a feeling about something imaginary) 
I touch (an imaginary touch) 
I worry (something that bothers you) 
I cry (something that makes you sad)
I am (the first line of the poem repeated)

I understand (something that is true) 
I say (something you believe in) 
I dream (something you dream about) 
I try (something you really make an effort about) 
I hope (something you actually hope for) 
I am (the first line of the poem repeated)

Do a “museum walk” where everyone lays out their poems on a table or in a shared document. Using sticky notes, offer warm feedback on each poem and, as a community, discuss themes and outliers that emerge in thinking about the collective community.

Values wall 

Adapted from professor of education Fred Korthagen’s Linking Practice and Theory: The Pedagogy of Realistic Teacher Education, this exercise involves creating a “wall” of values using index cards, sticky notes, a digital whiteboard or strips of paper that students can share with each other. Ask students to:

  • List the values that inform their life or professional work/aspirations: one on each card 
  • Arrange the cards in a manner that expresses how they interact with each other
  • Share their walls with a small group of classmates and discuss places of difference and overlap
  • Allow students to make any changes to their values wall as relevant (they may have been inspired by someone else’s work).

Reading from an ethical perspective 

This task is adapted from Patricia Carini’s Descriptive Review of Written Work which provides a method for reaching a deeper understanding of texts.

Choose a text: this could be a work of fiction, non-fiction, philosophy or even a technical manual. I highly recommend starting with something familiar or easily accessible like folktales or children’s books to help students focus on uncovering deeper meanings instead of decoding a challenging text. Begin by choosing a short section of text to read aloud to students. Ask students to:

  • Paraphrase what they’ve heard
  • Look at word choice, messaging and structure to consider what the author is trying to say
  • Place the piece in relation to what they understand as the larger message or argument
  • Discuss the piece in relation to their values.

How might these practices help our students in compromising moments later on? Let’s zoom in on our elementary schoolteacher facing a curriculum that was not helping her students. Having previously taken part in the interview, I am poem and values wall, this teacher could say with fluency that her core value was being responsive to individual children’s needs and teaching in a manner that included all learners. She knew that being responsive to each child demanded modifying the curriculum and sometimes seeking alternative methods from those in the guidebook. From sharing values with her classmates, she is certain that she is not alone in this commitment, and these discussions helped her develop the language to articulate it. 

Finally, her capacity to deeply comprehend text assisted by taking part in the close reading means that she has a thorough awareness of the curriculum. She also brings this capacity to a close reading of the teaching standards by which she is measured. From this reading, she can see how she can adapt the curriculum. She can also articulate in the language of standards why adapting it relates closely to her core value and a value of the accrediting bodies she works under. Bringing it all together, she goes to her administration able to clearly articulate her understanding of her students’ needs, the shortcomings of the curriculum, how she could address those and why doing so is key. Her administration is impressed and encourages her to pilot changes and share back. 

I duly sound the call for philosophical enquiry into all higher education courses to enrich teaching practice and help our students act justly. You can read more about this in my book, Teaching from an Ethical Center

Cara E. Furman is an associate professor of early childhood education at Hunter College.

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