Brian Woodruff
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


The purpose of this module is to give the teacher a useful tool for any discussion on a bioethical topic. Further, it should help probe and extend student thought and discussion regarding any ethical issue presented in the classroom.

Intended Audience:

Grades 9-12. Introductory or Honors Biology (though this can be adapted to any Biology class)


Article or Case Study on any Bioethical topic Attached student sheets (Parts I and II) Pencil

Background Material:

"Values are the part of the organizing center of human experience that enables us to have a frame of orientation and meaning as we arrange our time, make choices about relative goods, determine the pattern of our relationships, and appropriate the pain and the joy of the appreciable world"1

As teachers, we attempt to instill a range of values into our students. We see, as William R. Rogers so eloquently put it, that values give us our foundation and frame of reference, so we can deal with the world around us. Yet in those formative years, many of our students are just beginning to determine their value systems and moral principles. Much of what they believe has been absorbed from their parents, and they are just beginning to move into what Kohlberg describes as the Concern for Acceptance stage, where individuals become extremely sensitive to the expectations and approval of their peers.2 Moral development is likely to be the furthest from their minds at this stage in their lives. And to give reasons for one's views can be an exercise in torture for some students! Yet, does this mean that we should forgo any efforts to further our student's moral development?

We live in a constantly changing world. Technological advances double every couple of years. With these advances come hard choices that may challenge existing moral standards. Our values are understood in the context of the life we live and the decisions of individuals and of society around us. We cannot separate our values from our experiences. However, these values must be open to change as we face new situations that call for evaluations of new courses of action. It is this "moral struggle" of the opposing views where much of our principles are put to the test, not the pure statements of fact that we all too often are fond of presenting.

In the Biology classroom, we have a unique opportunity to encourage moral growth in our students. Examining various bioethical dilemmas allows the student to see that the world is neither black nor white, but an extremely complex arena that involves many questions of human freedom and choice; that it could be different from what it is, and that the way the choice is made sig-nificantly affects the rights and well-being of all concerned. Many bioethical topics raise questions of choice - understanding the options one has and the consequences of those options. Further, they involve questions of responsi-bility and obligations to others - items that may call into question one's values, moral principles, rights, and self-image.

With all these weighty matters in mind, it is no wonder that many teachers avoid discussing bioethics with their students! Ethics discussions need not be disorganized or even unmanageable. They can, and should, follow a series of steps. And they should not be seen as a "tacking on" of some extra and dispensable information, but rather an integral part of the biology classroom. Students should be given the opportunity to rethink and refashion their beliefs as they confront a dilemma, without fear of any authoritative imposition of beliefs from others. Over time, students who have experienced a diversity of alternative ideas should begin to develop a more global viewpoint and be able to consider different aspects of a problem. Hopefully, they will see that ethical thinking is neither a matter of pure intellect nor of gut feelings and prejudices. What is important here is one's reasoning and critical thinking skills. Thus, by strengthening and expanding these skills, the student will be able to view our ever-changing biological world from a new perspective, and not be limited by the past or previous belief-systems.

The following exercise is structured so that it can be used when dealing with any bioethical topic, and should allow students to "get used to" the type of questions that they will encounter when they are dealing with these issues in class. For maximum effectiveness, it is best to introduce this format at the beginning of the year, and continually utilize it as you discuss bioethical topics. In this way, student growth can be documented over the whole school year.

Teacher Comments and Procedures:

The attached sheets can be utilized many different ways. One possible method is suggested below, though individual time constraints or group dynamics may necessitate a change on the part of the teacher. Total time needed for this exercise is generally one class period (approx. 30 mins.).

To begin, choose a bioethical or current topic that you would like to discuss in class. Articles or issues of one page or less in length are best. Determine if there are any words or concepts that may be foreign to your students. If so, they should be defined or clarified so that students do not become frustrated with the terminology, and thereby miss the ethical dilemmas. If this is the first time your class has dealt with a bioethical topic, students may initially feel uncomfortable with the questions, so it might be advisable to conduct Parts I and II of the worksheet as a class discussion. After that initial run-through, though, most students should have little difficulty with the format.

The Process:

Questions for Part I can be taken home to complete before they enter class, or if this not feasible, then given to students at the beginning of class to complete individually or in small groups. Remind students to write down as much as they can, and refer back to the bioethical dilemma as often as necessary.

Class Discussion:

After students have answered Part I, discussion can then ensue with the whole class or with groups of 2 to 5. One student should be assigned the task of moderator, who will be asked to report to the larger group at a later time. It is recommended that these discussions be first conducted in small groups, followed by discussion with the entire class. Students usually are more willing to speak out in smaller groups than in larger groups, as these smaller groupings offer individuals more chances to contribute as well as allowing for unique or unusual ideas that might get dismissed in a larger group.

Initially, some groups may have difficulty in getting started, so the teacher may want to interject a questions or two to jump start the discussion. Students' initial ideas and feelings may be quite incomplete or full of flaws at first, but encourage students to express ideas that others may not agree with, or that they will likely modify as they go along. In bioethics, the right answers are not in the textbook, nor will the teacher have them either, because there are sometimes no definitive right answers, only answers that are more or less reasonable, justifiable, or defensible.

As the small group discussions are getting started, assign one or two students as "rovers" who will go around and share (and then communicate) ideas with the small groups. In this way, one can impress upon students one of the fundamental natures of science � the sharing of ideas amongst the scientific community.

After the small groups have had time to wrestle with the initial ques-tions, convene the whole group. The entire class now has time to hear the comments that the small groups have made (if you feel uncomfortable with this aspect of the exercise consult Appendix 1 for some helpful hints on some aspects of successful dilemma discussions). These conclusions might be best displayed on an overhead, flipchart, or chalkboard, so students can refer back to their classmates' conclusions. The class as a whole can then choose the best resolution for the dilemma. Be prepared for more than one conclusion, as it may be impossible to come to a group consensus on any ethical dilemma! Nonetheless, when you feel that students have reached a stopping point, the discussion can be closed with a simple summary statement of the major points presented. This summary will help students bring into sharper focus the ideas proposed during the discussion and should assist them as they move to the questions in Part II.

Follow-up Questions:

At the end of class (or for homework if time is short), ask students to complete the follow-up questions. Once again, the more thorough and introspective a student is with this section, the more information is given when it comes time to evaluating the exercise and/or the student. When students have completed this section, collect both parts. At this point, the teacher may formally evaluate each student's work, or make a file for each student, and collect each student's responses throughout the year. In this way, the teacher is able to chart the student's struggles and growth over a longer period of time. In addition, one has a portfolio of the student's work that can highlight their strengths and achievements as they wrestle with these weighty issues. This portfolio can then be given to the student at the end of the class, or kept longer and given to them as they apply to college, graduate, enter another science class, etc.

Finally, if students become extremely interested in a particular topic, the teacher might want to encourage further research. Individual research papers, letters to the editor of the local paper, or even some sort of public service may be avenues to continue work on a particular issue. As is the case with these any bioethical issue, the path taken here depends on the teacher's time constraints and class dynamics.

Name _____________________
Date ________ Period  ____


Directions: Complete Part I of this packet after you have read the bioethical dilemma. Write down as much as you can: the more you can include, the better prepared you will be when you discuss this issue with your classmates!

Part I Answer each question as completely as possible:

1) What are the facts?

2) Identify and define the ethical problem:

3) Who are the stakemakers in the decision?

4) What values are at stake in the decision?

5a) What options do you see are available to resolve this dilemma?

5b) Which options are the most compelling? Why?

6a) How would you resolve the dilemma?

6b) What values did you rely on to make your decision?

7) What consequences (if any) do you see your decision has on the others involved?

8) Could you personally live with this decision? If not, re-examine your answers to questions 5, 6, and 7 and examine other options to your dilemma!

Part II Follow-up Questions

Directions: Now that you have had a chance to discuss your responses to Part I with your classmates, consider the following questions:

1) Have your answers to #6 changed? Why or why not? Is there anything you would like to change or add? If so, list those changes below.

2) List one value that you feel was reinforced by this bioethical dilemma:

3) List one value that you feel you gained from this bioethical discussion:

Remember to hand in your sheets to your teacher when you have completed this exercise!!

Appendix .1 Characteristics of a Dilemma Discussion

  1. Open-ended approach: There is no single "right answer." The goal is not to reach agreement but to critically discuss the reasons used to justify a recommended action. The emphasis is on why some reasons may be more appropriate than others.

  2. Free exchange of ideas: Students should feel comfortable in expressing their thoughts. Each student should have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion within a nonjudgmental atmosphere.

  3. Student to student interaction: The conversation is primarily between student and student, not teacher and student. The teacher uses questions to guide the discussion and to encourage students at adjacent stages of moral reasoning to challenge one another. Lecture or recitation should be avoided.

  4. Development of listening and verbal skills: Each student should be intimately engaged in the discussion activity, building and expanding on one another's ideas as well as examining each response critically.

  5. Focus on reasoning: Reasons are to emphasize the prescriptive "should" rather than the "would" arguments.

  6. Dilemmas produce conflict: Conflict heightens student involvement and interest and should have a personalized meaning for the student. Resolution of internal conflict is a precondition for advancement to higher stage reasoning.

From: "Conducting Dilemma Discussions in the Classroom" WWNFF Institute, July 1992


  1. William R. Rogers. "Values in Higher Education" In Values in Teaching and Professional Ethics. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 1989 p. 5

  2. For more information, see Lawrence Kohlberg's "Moral Stages and M oralization: the cognitive-developmental approach." In Thomas Lickona (Ed) Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research, and Social Issues. New York: Holt, Rinehardt and Winston. 1976.

For Further Reading:

C. Roland Christensen. Teaching and the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Division, 1987.

Bruce Jennings, Kathleen Nolan, Courtney S. Campbell and Strachan Donnelley. New Choices, New Responsibilities: Ethical Issues in The Life Sciences. The Hastings Center. 1990.

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