ETHICS IN EDUCATION: Putting the "Who" Before the " How"

Joe Kerata
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute

One cannot divorce personal value systems from scientific discoveries and accomplishments. As science changes our lives, our ethics are challenged. New, previously unconsidered, choices must be made as more "gray areas " in a formerly black and white world are uncovered.

Ethical systems attempt to answer the question, "What ought I to do in the light of who I say I am?" The implication here is that valued decisions cannot be made until some form of self-discovery has taken place. I suggest that discovering "Who I am" is the very first step in setting up an ethical decision-making model.

Some authors caution that many students with strong religious backgrounds often balk at the idea of developing an ethical system because they feel they already have one in place and have no intention of subjecting it to any scrutiny. In cases like this, it is suggested that religious value systems be respected and that the study of other ethical models be studied (for those students) as a way of understanding other people whose values may clash with their own. (In light of this, I find it interesting that in twenty years of conducting the "Who am I" portion of this exercise, very few students described themselves in terms of their religious upbringing.)

In my 10th grade Honors Biology classes, I use a general study of perception as an introduction to the "me" part of ethical decision- making. I have included mine, adapted from The Greater Cleveland Science Project. Whatever method is used, the key is to turn it into a self-study. I use it as an informal, non-graded activity which works very well at the beginning of a school year.

Day One:

On the overhead, simply show the young woman/old woman sketch.

young woman/old woman optical illusion

  • Ask for descriptions. Most students see only the young woman.

  • Tell them that some people see only an old woman. Wait until they see her.

  • Why do different people see different things? Develop an operational definition of perception.

Show and discuss the optical illusions enclosed. What forces can alter a person's perception?

optical illusions

At the close of each session, have students write "S.I.L.T." at the top of a quarter piece of scrap paper, and briefly describe " Something I Learned Today." (I continue " S.I.L.T." cards all year long.)

Day Two:

(The trial activity is optional. The closure activity, day three, is essential.)

Conflicting perceptions often come into play in court cases. Pass out witness statements and accident report.

Students (groups of three) are to:

  1. Criticize each witness after reading all three reports. Show how each one's perception may have been influenced by the events.

  2. Determine which traffic laws were violated from the accident report.

  3. Decide which party or parties were at fault for the accident.

  4. Hear from all groups. A spokesperson for each group may be questioned as an attorney or judge would.

Day Three:

When students come in on the third day, I have a life-sized outline of a person in front of the room.

"So far in our study of perception, we learned that different people can experience the same thing and yet perceive it differently. Today, we are going to look at self-perception. This drawing is a person. It represents me to you. It represents you to each other. It may represent you to yourself. What is unique about this person right now? There is nothing inside...more accurately, we don't know what's inside. Close your eyes for a few minutes and concentrate. Pretend you're looking into a mirror. What do you see? Look at your features. What kind of hair do you have? Is it light? dark? curly? straight? long? short? What about your eyes? Are they bright and cheerful? dark and mysterious? Are they laughing eyes? far away eyes? kind eyes? cold eyes? What about your mouth?...." (Continue to list physical characteristics with possible implied emotional traits.) "What about your personality? Do you see yourself as cheerful? cynical? funny? quiet? shy? loud? pleasant? friendly? moody? cool and unemotional? Take out a sheet of paper and try describing yourself to someone who has never seen you before. Remember, this doesn't have anything to do with other people's perception of you. Write how you see yourself. Include physical, emotional, and personality traits."

Select a partner for each student at random. Instruct one person to read his self-description to the other. The listener should listen carefully to how her/his partner describes her/himself. Then switch roles.

Have each pair join with a new pair to form a group of four. Partners then introduce each other to the new pair in terms of the self-description.

The last part of this exercise is highly personal. Sharing should be optional.

Students are much more comfortable if they know that it will be confidential.

Have the students retrieve their own papers and privately answer the following questions:

  1. How do you see yourself? Write ten adjectives describing yourself.

  2. How do you allow other people to see yourself?

  3. How do you think other people see you?

  4. What happens to you when other people pick up the wrong signals about you (when they mis-perceive you)?

  5. Can you tell about a person just by looking at her/him? How do you feel when somebody does that to you?

  6. Do you like being placed in a category because of the way you look or your age or the way you dress, etc.? Is it fair?

  7. Look at question one again. Add to this list ten things that you value or ten behaviors that you respect. If this is diffi-cult, think of someone you respect or admire (real or fictional) and list their values or behaviors. The reason we include these characteristics is because they are as much a part of you as the way you look. They determine how you choose to make important decisions in your life.

Day Four:

(This may be used as an in-class assignment or as day three homework.)

"Different people have different ways of viewing the world. It is important to understand all of these views. Occasionally, they are the basis for conflict between people, especially when one group is intolerant of another's viewpoint. I have outlined three models below."

  1. Materialistic Model: A materialist does not believe in a spiritual aspect of life. She/he believes that the only world that exists is the physical world and that natural laws govern all of nature's secrets. All behaviors that have evolved have done so because of natural selection.

  2. Spiritual Model: Under the spiritual model, life has a purpose. Every person has a spiritual center (soul) which is real but not material. This center is a person's link with God. The ultimate purpose in life is unification with one's spiritual center. Behavior and morality originate from divine law in this framework.

  3. Humanistic Model: Humanists believe that life has a purpose and that every person has dignity and worth. They feel that an ideal world of compassion and tolerance can be attained with man-made moral principles. Divine laws are not necessary. Humanists do not believe in a spiritual afterlife.

This next exercise may be done in groups of three, in a role-played triad in front of the class, or as an individual writing assignment. Assign one of the four situations to each group (or one to the class). Students are to briefly justify each person's actions from the perspective of the materialistic, spiritual, and humanistic world view.

  1. Arnold falls in love and wishes to marry Louise.

  2. Janet contributes money to help the homeless.

  3. Fred sees Fredricka drop a ten dollar bill while standing in the lunch line and he returns it to her.

  4. Part of a biology course is to cut open a fertilized chicken egg and look at the embryos under the microscope. Rocky, Sly, and John do not think that this is the right thing to do.

"On each continuum below, mark where your answer lies and write a short paragraph explaining why you chose that spot." (The position of the choices along the continuum does not imply quality; it just shows extremes of world view.)

Is it possible for all three models to work toward the basic good of mankind?

  no                        maybe                         yes

Can one live a moral life and make intelligent choices with all three models?

  no                        maybe                         yes

Where do you fit along this continuum?

 material model         humanistic model        spiritual model

This may seem like an inordinate amount of time to devote to an � to ethical decision-making. That choice clearly is up to individual teachers. I prefer to work my way into the heart of the matter slowly because I think it is important that students feel comfortable and not threatened by the activities.


Frazer, M.J. and A. Kornhauser. Ethics and Social Responsibility in Science Education. Pergamon Press. Oxford, UK. 1986.

Jennings, Bruce, Kathleen Nolan, Courtney S. Campbell, and Strachan Donnelly. New Choices, New Responsibilities. The Hastings Center. 1990.

Lickona, Thomas. "Four Strategies for Fostering Character Development in Children." Phi Delta Kappa. 69;419. February, 1988.

McLean, George. Act and Agent: Philosophy for Moral Education and Character Development. University Press of America. Lanham, MD. 1986.

Power, F. Clark. Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education . Columbia University Press. New York, NY. 1989.

Ryan, Kevin and George McLean. Character Development in Schools and Beyond. Praeger Publishers. New York, NY. 1987.

Sichel, Betty. Moral Education. Temple University Press. Philadelphia, PA. 1988.

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