The best way to teach ethics may not be about the content of ethics at all but the process by which students learn.

When I started teaching, I naively thought that the best way to teach ethics was to instill in my students a strong set of moral values. I posted artwork and political posters on my classroom walls. I forbade the use of derogatory terms related to race, gender, or sexual orientation in my classroom. I happily schooled my Women’s Literature class, especially the wary males, in feminist theory. In short, straight out of college and teaching high school seniors who weren’t much younger than me, I thought it was my duty to inculcate these students with my moral beliefs.

That didn’t work out so well. I wound up isolating more students than I ever impressed with my frequent admonitions.

Further on in my career, I thought I was doing better by leading students through complex discussions of ethics through the literature we read. I no longer preached to them about the plight of female authors, but instead I asked them to think about the challenges women writers faced throughout history in comparison to their male counterparts.

Eventually, I realized that the best way to teach ethics may not be about the content of ethics at all but the process by which students learn. My self-perception shifted. I was no longer a teacher who led students through the study of ethics; I was a coach who drew upon the innate ethical talent in her athletes. Ethical conduct derives from more than just analysis; the goal is to affect behavior and ultimately produce thoughtful, ethical people. Teachers should encourage students not only to examine ethical issues in English class, but also to experience ethical and unethical conduct directly. For me, the most effective way to do this has been through Socratic seminar.

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