The New Zealand Curriculum places strong emphasis on the social aspects of science within the nature of science strand, which includes a participating and contributing component. The objectives within this strand highlight the relevance of scientific knowledge to everyday living and the importance of scientific knowledge for making decisions about many socio-scientific issues.

This research brief presents findings from three primary classrooms concerning the teaching and learning of ethics in science (Ryan, 2011). The research explored the ways in which the three teachers used the Ethics in science planner to plan an ethical exploration with their students.

The research

Three year 5/6 teachers were introduced to teaching ethics in science during two teacher development sessions. They then used the Ethics in science planner to develop lessons within a science unit on fire. Classroom observations were carried out. Teachers and some students were interviewed, and teacher planning and student work were analysed for insights into student learning and teacher use of the planner.

The workshops

The first workshop explored the meaning of ethics and some examples of ethical issues in science (conservation, animal rights and genetic modification). The teachers were also introduced to some ways to explore an ethical issue using ethical frameworks. The frameworks included consequentialism, rights and responsibilities, autonomy and virtue ethics. The teachers explored consequentialism through an example unit: Should money and effort be spent saving the takahē?

In the second workshop, teachers were introduced to the Ethics in science planner, designed to help them identify key interactions needed to enhance students’ ethical reasoning skills.

Classroom programmes

The teachers used the same ethics issue: Should chemical fire retardants be used in furniture? It was chosen because they were teaching fire chemistry and because they had access to information about chemical fire retardants. Relevant science concepts included:

  • what fire retardants are
  • how they work
  • what impacts they can have on people, other animals and the environment.

While the teachers used a predominantly consequentialist framework (weighing benefits and harms for stakeholders) to discuss the ethics involved, they all used slightly different activities to achieve this, including:

  • brainstorming
  • researching
  • values continuum
  • identifying and prioritising stakeholders through class discussion
  • considering viewpoints using a round robin
  • plus, minus and interesting (PMI)
  • mantle of the expert strategies
  • justifying a viewpoint through role-play
  • debates
  • worksheets
  • narrative writing (Should chemical fire retardants be used in home furniture?)

Ethics was a wonderful addition to the science unit – adding a richness, a depth and a high level of thinking... The students surprised me all the time with the depth of thinking this teaching produced.

Student learning

Student learning was demonstrated by students’ ability to engage in discussion about the issue. A progression of ethical thinking (from the start of the unit to near the end) was evident in both written work and discussions. Teachers were especially pleased that students were aware of multiple views and considered the consequences for people other than themselves. As one teacher commented: “This unit worked particularly well in terms of developing critical thinking. I don’t know how you could get a richer discussion.” The students also demonstrated an increasing ability to support their view with scientific evidence.

Students demonstrated new science learning and learning about the nature of science. For example, they became aware that there are issues in science and that science ideas and concepts are changing as new knowledge comes to light. One teacher commented:

The ethics approach is a teaching tool that can be used to reveal the nature of science ... Children see how science actually works – how decisions need to be made and that science is often not 100% established. It [ethics teaching] gives an insight into the nature of science explicitly, which is at times difficult when teaching through the [other] strands.


Teacher reflections and the Ethics in science planner

The teachers all valued the opportunity to learn more about ethics and ethical approaches and to develop new strategies to teach ethics in science. The Ethics in science planner proved an integral part of their planning and subsequent teaching. In particular, it helped them to structure the lessons by first identifying ethical questions and then developing appropriate activities. One said that the planner “got me through the lessons. I had to break it down in my head, and as I was breaking it down in my head, that was how the lesson planner unfolded. I was writing and thinking, ‘Oh, I get it.’ I started juggling things around – realised what I needed to teach before I could do the debate. I would have floundered if it hadn’t been broken down.”


The research clearly indicated the ability of young students to engage in ethical discussions. It also highlighted the need for support for teaching ethics in primary science. All of the teachers found the Ethics in science planner helpful.


Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Learning Media, Wellington, New Zealand.

Ryan, B. (2011). Teaching ethics in the primary classroom: Planning support for teachers [Unpublished masters thesis]. University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Ryan, B. & Buntting, C. (2012). Integrating ethics into primary science programmes. Set: Research Information for Teachers. 1, 17–25.

Activity idea

In the activity, Ethics in fire science students develop critical thinking through ethical discussion of the question: Should chemical fire retardants be added to furniture?

The Ethics thinking toolkit provides students with scaffolding when using a range of different ethical frameworks or approaches.

Useful links

A selection of resources around science and ethics can also be viewed on our Pinterest board and in a bucket on Pond.


    Published 2 August 2012