Teaching Morality

This was an essay I’m proud of for a Grad School course on teaching Middle School.

When I read This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, the topic that intrigued me most about Middle School level teaching was the pros and cons of teaching as a moral enterprise, and how to handle the so-called grey areas. There was one question I immediately had: How should middle school teachers go about teaching values/ morals/ ethics when reasonable people can disagree on what is appropriate?

This is something that has interested me for some time. I’ve followed politics pretty closely, and I’ve done work for political campaigns, the Board of Elections and a non-partisan voter information service. I have my own beliefs on the policies which will help the most people achieve their full potential, which is ultimately what a lot of controversial topics in society come down to. However, I’m well aware that people smarter and more experienced than me will disagree with me, and believe that my preferred policies, if implemented, will result in a loss of resources and possibilities. So, how do I go about teaching their kids, or working with some of them on educating the next generation? How would I go about convincing legislators and other elected officials who make decisions involving educations to support the teaching of morality? A few education classes I’ve taken, especially the one on Human Relations in Inclusive and Multicultural Settings, have addressed these profound disagreements, but I haven’t been satisfied by the answers. And that meant that it was a compelling topic for an I-Search.

I developed several questions that were interesting and potentially difficult. What does it mean for the teacher to be moral? How do we go about teaching morality to students? Most people would prefer that the next generation share their view of what is moral and right, but these aren’t questions that can always be settled.

This is particularly relevant for kids between elementary school and high school, who are at a unique stage in their lives, becoming “capable of assessing moral matters in shades of grey as opposed to viewing them in black and white terms more characteristic of younger children. (p.64)” The Middle School movement was aware that students see and live the effects of social problems, and the conclusion is that “Schools that serve them have a responsibility to assist students in dealing with such major societal issues. Schools and community programs foster responsible, moral decision makers and discriminating, enlightened consumers. (p.15)” This isn’t as simple as it sounds. I assume there are vested interests who would prefer that the next generation not be enlightened consumers, but there are also significant disagreements on the appropriate ways to respond to social issues.

I’d imagine that values that are necessary in schools are stated often and directly. There’s agreement on certain topics. Teachers want accurate assessments of students, and they also want students to make a legitimate effort, so while many adults will cheat in the professional world, and there will be instances of educators motivated to help students break the rules, it’s usually something where schools will not tolerate nuance. While we can understand when a student may feel provoked, I doubt schools will make it a policy to tolerate it when students initiate physical violence. Finally, I think the average teacher doesn’t have the spare time to radicalize students or mobilize them to advocate for pet political and religious causes.

There are likely to still be disputes on the hot button issues, such as whether gender pay disparity is a significant problem and what the solution to it is, and whether the preferred policies of Republicans or Democrats will help more people achieve their full potential. There are further disputes between members of the same political parties, as well as arguments for alternatives such as libertarians in discussions of policy prescriptions. Religion results in similar disagreements, due to the incompatibility of many points of view.

What We Believe does provide a careful compromise. The expectation is that teachers in middle school “actively assist young people in formulating positive moral principles. This guidance, of course, must reflect sensitivity and consider family, cultural, and community expectations. (p.13)” The understanding is that discussions and lessons that are acceptable in one part of the country may not be appropriate in another. It’s still a murky topic, as there can be issues where communities are divided.

The source of several articles I read on moral pedagogy and recent controversies, Annual Editions: Education is an anthology series with pieces about current debates on education, and. The 41st  edition collected 41 articles split into nine sections. Appropriate policies involving Sexual Minority students was one of those sections, due to the strong debate about what schools should teach about homosexuality. In “LGBT Students Want Educators to Speak Up for Them” Abe Louise Young interviewed LGBT students from middle, junior and high school to determine what policies they would prefer. There would be strong agreement that homophobic slurs should not be used, and that the term “gay” should not be used as a pejorative. One of the students Young interviewed suggested that schoolchildren should be corrected if they refer to gay individuals as gross. This may be problematic as gross is a matter of opinion. The ideal lesson might be that it’s okay for others to do things that you find to be gross, rather than that it is wrong of the student to have a visceral opposition to something. On the other hand, I can appreciate that these nuances may be lost on many students, especially in a middle school setting.

In “Preventing Bullying and Harrassment of Sexual Minority Students In Schools” Holly N. Bishop and Heather Casida note that “the most common victims of bullying and homophobic victimization have been purported to be students who are questioning their sexuality- even more so than students who report being gay, lesbian or bisexual.” That’s especially relevant in Middle School. They do observe a potential source of contention as conservative religious communities may soon be “the only identifiable group to continue holding negative views of the gay and lesbian community.” They remarked that staff members were confused on how to handle these issues, and one concern is “fear of repercussion from parents or administrators with homophobic attitudes.” Legal redress is an often used tool of gay and lesbian students, with courts determining that the fourteenth amendment right to equal protection extends to creating safe environments for gay students.

For obvious reasons, gay and lesbian students are described as being more likely to seek faculty support, so Bishop and Casida recommend that faculty become better informed on these issues. Alliance clubs are suggested as a way to foster community, although it is difficult to enforce the concept of creating a “positive school climate where differences are accepted and diversity is valued.” The suggestion that teachers should be well informed about controversial topics should likely extend to other potential sources of contention. I’m sure that students who develop profound philosophical disagreements with parents will also be more likely to seek out teachers for guidance.

There are significant misconceptions on sex education, which highlight the need for school involvement. In 2012, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic cited polls indicating that “Only 4 percent of all those surveyed in 2011 and about 8 percent of those surveyed in 2002 correctly guessed that fewer than 5 percent of Americans identify as gay or lesbian.” Megan Thielking of Vox assembled several statistics on sex education, and demonstrates that contrary to occasional claims that the current generation of students faces greater difficulties than before, many things have gotten better. There has been a significant reduction in teen pregnancy, with a 38.7 percent decline between 2007 and 2014, and a 50 percent decrease between 1990 and 2014. There have also been less AIDS diagnoses in the United States, from about 80,000 an year in 1991 to 30,000 an year in 2011. This has coincided with an increase of contraceptive use among teenagers from 50 percent the first time in 1982 to nearly 80 percent. These are touchy subjects, and there are further complexities, but schools do provide less education on these topics than parents would prefer. Only 48 percent of schools teach about sexual identity, “though 73 percent of parents would like the subject taught.”

Another piece in Annual Editions: Education 41E was by Susan Porter, a Dean of Students in California’s Branson School who became concerned with new statistics which seemingly demonstrated an increase of instances in bullying. As she researched the subject more, she determined that behavior hadn’t changed, but that the definition of bullying had expanded. Information was difficult to interpret, as statistics varied, with one poll determining that one in five students was bullied, and another suggesting that the number was 77 percent. Asking adolescents to provide accurate information wasn’t very effective, given tendencies to make particular errors. Adolescents are prone to misinterpreting facial cues, which has consequences when children take offense. Adolescents are also more likely to respond emotionally to social situations. Dealing with complaints from students is another situation where awareness is needed, given the potential for overreaction in a profession with a disproportionately high number of well-meaning individuals worried about social justice and underdogs.

On the topic of social justice, I figured that the journal The Radical Teacher would be a good place to find educators discussing controversial topics in a less guarded way. Herbert Kohl wrote about his efforts getting teachers involved in social justice, and his belief that successfully teaching children in high-needs areas is important. However, there wasn’t anything that can be construed as efforts to brainwash children. If anything, he was concerned about the reverse: schools establishing norms for students contrary to the values they learn at home, with the suppression of “students’ home languages and culture.”

In an interview with the Bookmonger podcast, Adam Laats, author of The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education, discussed how his book was different from the typical analysis of progressive education. He covered efforts by conservative activists to change schools to change society, or to prevent change in “a tradition of maintaining tradition in American schools.” As he told host John Miller “There has been no progressive victory over American education writ large. Rather, progressive education- especially in the 1930s and 1960s has established beach heads in public schools, which by and large have been pushed back by conservative activists time and time again.”

He was asked why he hasn’t touched on the issue of school choice, and he explained his rationale was to avoid using current discussions to impose a definition of what it means to have conservative school reform, especially since market models had only recently became hallmarks of the conservative approach. In the past, conservatives wanted to ban private schools, as “the thought at the time was that traditional American values had to be promulgated through the public schools.” He further noted that “Alternatives to those public schools were considered subversive in the 1920s.”

Writing for Middle School Journal, Paul S. George mentions the tension of the political and philosophical split. “In no area do Americans seem more divided, now and in earlier generations, than in the set of fundamental principles of how we view the world and our lives together in society. (p.44)” He examines the contrast between what he considers the conservative world view where history is a struggle between competing groups for finite resources (p.45) and failure is viewed as the result of character flaws, against the progressive view where the solution is greater cooperation and equality, while crime and terrorism are the result “as long as the good life is shown to the whole world but only a tiny, privileged minority actually attains it. (p.47)”

He sees the middle school movement as fundamentally progressive, but like Kohl, he focuses more on the implications on policy (viewing conservatives as being in favor of testing and less spending) than on what values children should be taught. He describes local control as a progressive issue (p.50) which demonstrates Laats’ understanding that the political associations of education issues often change. Currently, arguments for local control are part of conservative opposition to the Common Core, as they see federal standards as an example of big government top-down edicts, infringing on the rights of states and local communities.

In Real Education, Charles Murray had an observation about the universality of values, suggesting that the differences the systems of Aristotle and Confucius “are trivial in comparison with their similarities. (p.125)” Something that is true of Eastern philosophy and Western philosophy can be extended to Democrats and Republicans, or Catholics and Jews. The teaching of morals does not have to be controversial, as long as emphasis is on the wisdom rather the particular claim to authority.

One of Larry E. Frase and William Streshly’s Top 10 Myths in Education was the idea that values could not be taught in a classroom. They emphasized “the universal values of honesty, responsibility, cooperation, reverence, diligence, kindness, perseverance and humility. (p.80)” They felt that public school teachers were overcompensating out of a fear of legal challenges, the result of the current constitutional understanding of the separation of church and state, a legal theory initially applied to education in order to restrict the Catholic minority. They also worried that parents might use schools to relieve themselves of the responsibility of discussing uncomfortable topics, like sex education. Their policy recommendations are fairly noncontroversial, with an emphasis on excellence, a strong well maintained home link and a pervasive system of moral education. This avoids the legal and political fights over issues of religion and values such as a moment of prayer, or posting of the Ten Commandments.

Chris Crutcher, editor of Voices in the Middle, mulled over complaints about the subject matter of some of his books, and claims that his material wasn’t appropriate for middle schools in conservative parts of the country. He contemplated whether it really helps to learn values from didactic one-sided material. He sympathized with a girl in middle school who had been humiliated after she has been caught in a sex act “If she is given stories- good contemporary stories- where characters struggle with those early learnings and biases, and she can see that there are no easy answers, but there are answers, and that she is not alone in her struggle, a dialogue can start.” His view was that the classmates of 13 year olds who abandon newborns in dumpsters, or armed 15 year olds who try to commit suicide by cop, are not going to find the material too tough. The issue here isn’t necessarily the ultimate lesson being taught, but the degree to which students should be exposed to cautionary tales.

A small news story a month ago gave an extreme example of the politics of teaching values. Alan Hays, a Florida State Senator introduced a bill to declare that the state’s middle and high schools must show students Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary America: Imagine a World Without Her. There had been some objections to the politics of the film. Sean O’Neal of the AV Club believed it suggested “that the genocide of Native Americans was going to happen anyway.” David Ehlrich summed up the film’s message “America is an infallible empire that exists to shine its light upon the world. Those who would question it are involved in a vast anti-colonialist conspiracy to hijack the nation away from its fundamental Christian ethos.”

There is little concern the bill will pass. D’Souza pled guilty to violations of campaign financing laws, and is better known for a documentary that was heavily critical of President Obama, and suspicious of the implications of his heritage. Even if the film had been universally acclaimed, there are problems with making the teaching of it mandatory. A proposed law that schools must add this material to their curriculum takes a major choice away from educators in terms of how to allocate time and resources. But it’s something a legislator thought was a good idea, whatever his motives. D’Souza responded to The Hollywood Reporter that he supported the effort as a method of countering liberals in education, “With Michael Moore and Al Gore’s films being shown in schools all the time, it’s great to see Alan Hays is attempting to even the scale.”

After reading these disparate pieces, I spoke with Alice Gunther, a former Junior High teacher and current High School teacher on the topic of teaching morality, to get a grasp of the practical implications of these questions. She has taught Spanish for twenty years, currently in a special education setting. She was also a dean for several years. My questions were on two themes: What were her experiences teaching middle school age children? What did she wish her 9th grade students had learned about ethics?

She believes morals require a foundation of empathy, and that students who reflect on behavior typically understand it. She sees differences between the students she had when she began her career, and the students she has now, concluding that technological changes have meant that children spend more time alone, and are more distracted. As a result, much moral education occurs under the umbrella of socialization. She feels that kids don’t initially understand the difference between mean and strict. They have told her that they feel she respects them, because she is willing to reason, and doesn’t call parents as a first resort. Instead, she uses questions to probe the conscious. When students are asked if their behavior was appropriate, they typically understand. When kids are punished, it’s less personal when a clear explanation is provided.

An awkward problem she often faces is the behavior of parents, who fail to take responsibility for their actions, and sometimes act dishonestly on their children’s behalf, providing fake medical excuses or making demands of the classroom which limit the ability of their children to learn. She’s concerned that many parents underestimate their children, which has the effect of enfeebling them. I asked her how she goes about handling situations where parents behave inappropriately. She said that she tries to talk with the parents, without blaming or shaming them. She doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to openly criticize parents in front of their children, except in extreme circumstances. When discussing events with the children, she may discuss why she felt particular actions were inappropriate, but not in a way that clearly identifies the parents as the ones responsible.

She provides accommodations when possible, as long as she can make sure that students have an understanding of the material. For example, she recalled a group activity that involves students being placed in groups of three and playing a Spanish language version of Simon Says. One student had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, and was uncomfortable with lessons that required participation with classmates. Alice’s compromise was to allow her to play with friends in the class, rather than random classmates. The student’s anxiety was mitigated, and Alice was still able to gauge her proficiency. There were no changes to the rigor of the lesson, a concern with many accommodations.

Her school recently started pushing teachers to teach the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, making metacognition part of the curriculum. A major lesson for the children was that it was okay to fail sometimes, a key moral message. The teachers had workshops, and were expected to read books on the material. She is concerned about the psychological repercussions if a sensitive child is taught to take risk, and those risks don’t work. I asked if there had been similar efforts in the past that haven’t been successful. She recalled a previous fad, in which children were asked to come up with goals, and consider the appropriate actions to get to those goals. The problem was that many children didn’t have goals beyond doing the least amount of work to get decent grades.

In the end, what have I found? The partisan implications of certain policies are subject to change, so there’s no reason to pick a side because it’s the one your political or religious tribe is currently on. If something is effective, your group may end up taking that position soon enough. Those who write about education through a political lens tend to deal with the process rather than the material, although I’m not entirely sure if that’s to prevent the opposition media from using particular writings when decrying efforts to brainwash children. Much on the focus on ethics and morals isn’t about the controversial topics, but about things all sides agree on, and that the students generally know to be right, even if they don’t act like it.

There was an interesting question in class about what types of classes moral education, the so-called hidden curriculum, could be applied to. Humanities topics seemed fairly obvious, since these involve discussions about actions undertaken by individuals, fictional and otherwise, and whether these decisions were justified. There might also be objections to certain stories, novels, poems, and films, in addition to arguments about biases of historians. The schools will have to make decisions about whether subject matter is age appropriate, and sometimes the controversies can provide fodder for interesting classroom discussions. There is also the potential for divergences between scientific understanding and the religion of the students or the community. Evolution is a prominent example, but not the only one. Even then, students can always be encouraged to master the material, if only so that they’ll be more effective at articulating the implications of their beliefs.

My first instinct was that this couldn’t be applied to math, since math isn’t subject to change. Two plus two is always going to be four. However, it was noted that math could be used to make students more aware of certain facts and figures. The partisan implications would be mitigated somewhat by “community expectations” although that can be problematic when different facts are highlighted. Democrats might emphasize income inequality, while Republicans might ask students to determine how many people will be unemployed as the result of a hypothetical environmental regulation.

Math provides an opportunity to make students see something in a new way, and they’ll also remember the problems more if it’s relevant to them. There is a middle ground between keeping ethics entirely out of the classroom, or exposing students to ham-fisted regurgitations of partisan talking points written by individuals unlikely to be experts in the referenced topic. Math can be an effective way to teach about consequences, and these don’t have to be controversial. Here’s a sample question: If Joe earns ten dollars an hour, and someone steals two hundred dollars worth of valuables from him, how many hours is he going to have to work in order to get back where he started? Students are reminded of why it’s not acceptable to steal from others, a lesson all communities can agree with. And it applies mathematical formulas to a situation that many can identify with. Joe’s situation is more interesting than that of the typical word problem protagonist.

There are many questions remaining, and I likely could have written separate papers on controversies involving sex education, how to address politics in the classroom, implications of health statistics, divided communities, or the politics of teaching as a calling. For the most part, teachers don’t need to panic about whether they’ll be accused of proselytizing. Listening to students and parents helps cut through a lot of the policy knots. Facts can always be spun, but honesty is the best tool in an argument. It’s important to be aware of the needs of the students, and to have open communication, with explanations for any contentious decisions.


About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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