Ethical education

INTERNATIONAL SEMINAR ON ETHICAL EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS
Held at Highley Manor, 9-10 May 2017.
Discussion notes.

Introduction:

Globally, we confront an ethical crisis. On the one hand, for vast sectors of the culture we find an erosion in commitments to ethical values. In part this may be traced to the general secularisation of the culture (and the concomitant attrition in religious belief), and the rise of relativism. One might say there appears to be no right or wrong outside what the law requires and no purpose outside the self-serving. On the other hand, in other cultural enclaves, we find a hardening of traditional moral commitments. The secular shift of society places their commitments in increasing jeopardy. Here the resources are lacking for accepting and appreciating differences.

At the same time, in a world increasingly marked by indifference and sound bites, some people can be profoundly ignorant and unaware of how different the viewpoints, perceptions, experiences and emotions of others can be from one’s own, as if living in hermeneutical bubbles. There is much divisiveness and uncertainties in our societies: some people can be totally unconcerned about the suffering and plight of others, resulting in a general attitude of apathy and uncaring while others may flounder without compass in the face of multiple and competing values.

Educational institutions have played a major role in the erosion and uncaring, with their growing emphasis on information transfer (facts over interpretation), instrumentalisation (learning for the sake of career/monetary gains) and individualism (in various forms of self-absorption). In effect, there are few opportunities for ethical development in the public educational systems. There may be ethics, values and moral education components to the curriculum but these tend to be focused on imparting information about social issues and teaching moral reasoning. They do not necessarily help young people overcome the complex hermeneutical, epistemological and relational challenges of today.

In this context, we believe there is a case for a renewed interest in considering the possibilities and potentials of ethical education and ethical relationships in our schools, and called for an international seminar on ‘Ethical Education in Schools’ held in Highley Manor, England on 9-10 May 2017. The participants and contributors of the seminar are distinguished scholars in the field of education, philosophy, social sciences and dialogue. The main question posed during the Seminar was: “What changes in educational institutions would be essential in helping students to become more ethically aware, sensitive and motivated?” To explore this question, the discussions were divided into three parts: the first part was about the principles or ideas that we need to effectively approach the main question; the second part was to seek the general pedagogical guidelines or values that we need to articulate, and the third part was to survey and imagine the practices and processes in primary and secondary schools that might be directly relevant to our main question.

The following pages aim to capture some of the emergent insights from the seminar.

Our thoughts around the Seminar’s general question..

Education, with its focus on individual performance and attainment, can easily indulge self-absorption and instrumentalise learning. Therefore, for learning to be situated within relationships and for students to be less self-obsessed and more open to others, and to experience and express care for each other and for the world, the classrooms and the overall learning environment within schools must be where ethics is located. Schools must provide pedagogical conditions and curricula activities for nurturing caring relationships.

An ethical problem emerges when there is presence of differences and when we negotiate how to engage with differences. This can mean both becoming open to others who are different, and resolving our ignorance about the others. However, traditional epistemology tends to do with correcting false beliefs or errors in our knowledge but not dealing with ignorance. Hence the necessity for dialogue without giving up on oneself, which is incommensurable. The idea of strong and weak subjectivity points to dialogical subjectivity (in-between the two) which implies that people should co-create with others.

The fundamental educational question is about how to engage young people in dialogue with respect and appreciation of differences. Agency is a form of receiving, to receive the other, it is necessary to confirm oneself. The ethical is also about the existential and spiritual, such as longing for a good life. Human vulnerability suggests an opportunity to be open to the other. An articulation of our vulnerability is needed for the reorientation of the spiritual. Educational settings are communities for the sharing of vulnerability, they are spaces for sharing imagination – an inter-human exchange. Turning oneself outwardly towards others, a recognition of our sacredness.

There are three points of contention

First, self-other dichotomy could presuppose individualism which relies on ideas of persons as bounded entities, separated by boundaries. Likewise, although phenomenology starts with the ‘I’, experience itself is actually public (eg. pain in a boxing ring and pain from being beaten in the street). The notion of ‘I’ is quite different in different contexts. Therefore, the self must be conceived relationally rather than individually.

Second, although ethics is about creating the good, something worth living for, this in turn presupposes the idea of bad or evil and in that sense the ethical project could be dangerous. Educational practices (eg. through grading) already contain an implicit ethics of good and bad that are secularised and corrosive. Thus we need dialogue but without putting the individual at the forefront, co-creating and co-constructing the idea of goodness in the community.

Third, in western countries where moral ethics are no longer provided by religions and faith traditions, the ignorance of religion and faith can also increase the clashes between people about ethics. However, diversity requires value pluralism and a pedagogy of difference so that students can appreciate diversity more deeply. We need dialogue without clashes. For education to move towards a human-centred focus, it needs to reconstruct our values system and reconsider relationships in schools.

Theoretical principles of ethical education

The world is broken partly due to the fact that our socio-political structure instrumentalise people and we tend to treat each other as objects (eg, the way we place people into roles and functions and only treat them as so). Therefore we must consider the relational nature of our being, and that to be is to be with others and participate in each other’s being.

Ignorance isn’t only the lack of knowledge; it can also be the lack of caring for an area of knowledge. Ignorance of others can be a form of uncaring. This is important for our understanding of the epistemology of human relationships – to know others is to open ourselves to others in a caring way, and vice verse. (Aristotle’s approach to ethics through character education may seem to be seeking universality. Ethical education is more expansive, it is about learning to care.

There has to be tension in the principles, for example, between the uniqueness and interdependency, because uniqueness implies pluralism. Values can be divisive (eg. British values in British schools), so we should emphasise human values as opposed to Christian, Islamic or British values. This doesn’t mean humanism which can exclude other traditions.

It is necessary to decide on the scale of the ethical education project, eg. to address the spread of individualism and the ethical at a political level.

The ethical lies in the process, one of generating a future together, a common future for all.

Pedagogical Principles of Ethical Education

Ethical education in schools should not be isolated programmes. In the light of schools currently being designed as performance-based systems, ethical learning requires a holistic transformation of what school is, including a shared understanding of what it means for a school to be good. In the same vein, we must stress that the desirable relationship is the generative kind that helps create community in which people can dialogue about different views of the good.

A starting point would be mapping the sites for ethical education in existing schools. We need to look at the totality of school experience as young people learn from their whole school experience, including educational vision, ethos, pedagogy, curriculum, overall environment and encompassing relationships, as well as some of the programmes and projects. For instance, how do we teach, eg. literature, arts, science, in ethically and relationally enriching ways? How do we construct participatory spaces? (How did young people learn to uncare? How do they become less participatory?) The ethical concerns not just the relationship between teachers and students, it is also located in the relationship between children and young people themselves, as well as amongst other stakeholders in the community.

Mapping out ethical spaces can help schools identify their own ethical focus and determine their own processes, inviting a more participatory and collaborative project. We will need alternative language and discourse to speak about the ethical. Such language and discourse can only emerge from within the community and cannot be imposed from outside or predetermined by experts. Listening is a key, which applies to both teachers and students. It is really important to have a space for children and young people’s voices within a school. The space cannot be window-dressing, but needs to be well-framed, with content.
It is necessary to reconceptualise what learning is. Current focus on knowledge acquisition in education urges us to consider what knowledge is. One point to consider is that knowledge isn’t propositional, it can be something that we create together.

We need to move away from the idea that ethical education is only about religion or religious studies. However, ethical education could include components of intercultural and inter-religious dialogue and encounter.

Dialogue requires an equality between the interlocutors, the students and the teachers, so that all are respected as human beings. In dialogue learning, teachers are sometimes facilitators which would require different skills and sensitivities as well as a different way of being with the students (eg. the teacher is no longer the all-knowing.). This suggests that teacher training would allow an element of facilitators’ training. In the light of teachers’ vulnerability, the training will also nurture their courage to be a facilitator. One idea is to have contemplative workshops for teachers, not to teach contemplation but for teachers to experience how ethics can affect their teaching. Arts-based practice and learning through restorative justice can also support the ethical, both for the teachers and the students.

Young people will need protected space to explore their feelings, emotions, attitudes and relations. The teachers’ task here is to hold this space without too much directing or guiding. In this sense, sharing could be better than dialogue because it is more natural.

Providing opportunities for the students to decide how to present learning tasks and evaluate learning is part of the ethical (eg. students writing about their lives in formats of their choice). Such pedagogical practices are more empowering, and are conducive to developing ethical relations among the students and between the students and the teacher.

Practices of ethical education in schools

Ethical education focuses on building schools as spiritual communities. Good ethical education initiatives must: (a) touch the teachers’ attitudes and judgement (and is hence more empowering); (b) transform the student’s experiences (eg. increased respect for others); and (c) enable a buy-in from school leaders.

The school environment is a key, including the physical, social, emotional and overall relational environments. Mapping out these ethical spaces in schools can enable these spaces to be underpinned by sensitivity and aesthetics. They must be integral to school life.

The ethical educational project is about constructing ethical spaces that are relevant for students’ current experiences in schools and for our world today. In particular, we need more creative language to talk about this kind of education. We need to give names to these ethical spaces and work with teachers, students and others to co-create them.

It is equally important to offer teachers the kind of ethical space considered for young people (eg. dealing with bullying). Such spaces must be defined by the school and not detached from the normal practices of the school. For example, INSET days could offer rich spaces to explore the ethical, including the teachers’ own experiences of relationships.
The ethical must also apply to how learning is evaluated and reviewed so that evaluative practices continue to support the relational. This would be in total contrast to the individualist approach to testing which is not only oppressive, but also destroys relationships.

The power of examples through stories of good practices is highlighted. For instance:

(1) Two circles in a history class, the inner and outer. When a student has something to say, he/she moves to the inner circle, and can then offer the space for others to contribute by moving to the outer circle. This class demonstrates listening, engaging, giving voice.
(2) Counselling as a relational practice. Ethical spaces are defined by boundaries which are necessary for people to feel safe. A buddy system means that the students or the teachers can support each other in working through personal struggles through relational support.
(3) “Educating Together” in Ireland. This is an independent NGO that runs schools that guarantee equality of access and esteem to children “irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background”, are learner-centred in their approach to education and are run as participatory democracies, with respectful partnership between parents, pupils and staff. They are part of the state system. (https://www.educatetogether.ie/)
(4) Child Friendly Schools in China, supported by UNICEF. The project supports quality relationships, child well-being and whole-person learning. This is an illustration of shifting from a competitive approach to learning to learning to care. Other examples include democratic schools in Israel, in particular the bilingual Arab-Israeli schools.
(5) Play as an excellent way for children to learn ethically, eg. swimming together. The ethical is extended to beyond the boundary of the school, into the families, and other informal learning spaces. Play equally strengthens the relationships amongst children and adults.

Viewing it in this way, it would seem that in ethical education, the relational really matters. In other words, our project is to explore relational ecology.

Proposed ways forward

There was overwhelming enthusiasm to continue this dialogue and discussion about ethical education in schools. The group proposed four follow-up activities:

1. Re-Grouping: The proposal is to regroup at a later date to continue the conversation. The GHFP is willing to convene and host a second meeting.

2. Writing: The decision is to put together a collection of our articles and write the introductions and conclusions to the book collectively. Scherto and Garrett have been tasked to write a book proposal for the consideration of the Cambridge University Press’ series on innovation in international education.

3. Partnership: The idea is to find strategic leverages of change for developing ethical education in schools, such as working with UNESCO, and with schools including the Child Friendly Schools in China, the Educate Together schools in Ireland, and the teacher training programme in Israel.

4. Research: The suggestion is that at a later stage, we might apply for research grants to explore the ethical education case studies in these partners.

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