As science and technology advance, ethical issues are brought to the fore not only for scientists and technologists but also for the general public. The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) reflects this by including a strong focus on the social aspects of science and technology.
But how are ethical decisions made and justified, and what skills do students need to meaningfully and effectively engage in ethical discussions?
The NZC (page 10) requires that students develop their ability to:
- express their own values
- explore, with empathy, the values of others
- critically analyse values and actions based on them
- discuss disagreements that arise from differences in values and negotiate solutions
- make ethical decisions and act on them.
Ethical decision making
Ethicists use a range of approaches, or frameworks, to help them make ethical decisions. These can include:
- Consequences – what are the benefits and risks?
- Rights and responsibilities – what rights need to be protected and who is responsible for this?
- Autonomy – should individuals have the right to choose for themselves, or does one decision count for everyone?
- Virtue ethics – what is the ‘good’ thing to do?
- Pluralism – what perspectives do groups with other cultural, spiritual or religious views have?
See the article Frameworks for ethical analysis for more.
The Ethics thinking toolkit provides a template that can be used to introduce students to ethical approaches and help scaffold the process of deliberation and justification. Teachers can also customise this tool to suit particular classroom topic(s).
Teachers can use the Ethics in science planner to clearly articulate and plan for specific learning outcomes while still retaining the ability to be flexible and responsive to teachable moments as they arise.
Respect in the classroom
Ethical issues are complex and multilayered, encompassing a wide range of perspectives, values, beliefs and attitudes. It is important that the classroom environment is one in which students can share their views and listen to one another with respect. It can be helpful for the teacher to provide appropriate scaffolds that help students evaluate ideas, weigh up evidence, detect bias and justify their decisions.
Classroom strategies for teaching ethics
A range of classroom activities can be used to facilitate the development of students’ ethical thinking skills. These are some approaches:
- Case studies: Teacher tells a true story or presents a scenario and students discuss the ethics involved.
- ‘What if…’ scenarios: Similar to case studies – imaginary examples of what the consequences might be in a particular situation.
- Class discussion.
- Concept cartoons: Cartoons depict different concepts (including some deliberate misconceptions). Students discuss these concepts for scientific accuracy.
- Guest speakers.
- Mantle of the expert: Inquiry-based role-play where a project is assigned to a student or students. Individuals are required to specialise in knowledge from a particular viewpoint, becoming an ‘expert’ in that area. They then use their knowledge to argue their case.
- Media analysis: Read and discuss a media article related to the issue.
- Noisy round robin: A strategy for getting a number of class ideas in a short time.
- Plus minus interesting sheets and discussions: PMI sheets can also be used in conjunction with noisy round robin.
- Presentations to an audience.
- Reciprocal reading: Reading an article together with new/difficult science concepts. Involves lots of discussion and clarification of ideas. Could be done in small groups or as a whole class.
- Role-play, which may include consensus meetings.
- Silent/noisy card shuffle: In small groups, sort cards (with or without discussion), for example, according to the options on the cards being acceptable/not acceptable or the ethical framework being used to justify a particular view.
- Small group discussion.
- Teacher talk.
- Think, pair, share.
- Transactional writing: Argument/report/position paper/writing frames.
- Values continuum: Students’ values related to an issue are prioritised. Students line up in a continuum from ‘absolutely disagree’ to ‘absolutely agree’. Alternatively, they may mark their thinking on a line or place their card on a line or arrange a list of options from acceptable to unacceptable. Can be used as a pre-test and then again as a post-test, helping students to recognise shifts in their thinking and understand why they have made them.
- View a painting: Students view an appropriate painting (e.g. An experiment on a bird in an air pump by Joseph Wright) and brainstorm what it shows. They can then discuss the issues behind the painting..
- Worksheets such as What do you think? – writing scaffolds students use to express their views.
Phases of ethical decision-making
Some of these activities may be better suited to different phases of ethical decision making:
- Ethical sensitivity – raising awareness of the ethical issue(s) (for example, media analysis).
- Ethical deliberation – identifying possible responses and evaluating them (for example, role-play, round robin, think, pair, share).
- Ethical justification – justifying a particular response and evaluating it against other perspectives (for example, class presentations, position papers).
Examples of ethical issues
- Ethics and xenotransplantation
- Ethics and zebrafish in research
- Ethics and pig cell transplants
- Ethics and organ donation
- Ethics and whaling
- Hamilton’s fluoride debate
Examples of teacher resources
- Ethics thinking toolkit provides a structured approach to exploring controversial issues with students and scaffolding student thinking about an ethics issue.
- Ethics in science planner – a planning template designed to help teachers plan for and teach ethics in their science programmes.
- Managing classroom discussions
- Ethics and euthanasia – case study
- Ethics and bird conservation – case study
- Ethics and primary students – case study
- Ethics and genetically modified foods – case study
- Ethics and research animals – case study
- Genetically modified foods – a socio-scientific issue
- Water fluoridation – a socio-scientific issue
Examples of student activities
- Ethics in conservation science – students consider the conservation of native frogs from a number of different perspectives.
- Ethics in bird conservation – students consider the conservation of native birds from a number of different perspectives (see also the Ethics and bird conservation – case study with level 3/4 students).
- Ethics in fire science – students develop critical thinking through ethical discussion of the question: Should chemical fire retardants be added to furniture?
- Ethical dilemmas in fighting infection – students use vaccination as the context for developing ethical thinking skills.
- Ethics, mice and toxins – students consider the use of mice for bioassays and in establishing the lethal dose when researching/testing toxins (see also the Ethics and research animals – case study).
- Farming and environmental issues – ethical issues associated with the environmental impacts of agriculture are considered.
- Social issues and nanotechnology – students consider the acceptability (or not) of various nanotechnologies.
Assessment of ethical decision-making
When designing an effective classroom programme, consider:
- both formative and summative interactions and activities
- the use of open-ended tasks designed for students to demonstrate a critical awareness of the ambiguous and contextual nature of the ethical issue(s) and multiple opportunities for them to demonstrate their thinking
- ways in which the tasks reflect the learning objectives of the classroom programme
- clearly identifying to the students what it is that they are expected to demonstrate – perhaps it is appropriate to co-construct the marking schedule with students
- the potential for writing frames to help scaffold the writing process
- opportunities for self-assessment and peer-assessment
- the relative weighting of the task, particularly when the ethical component forms part of a larger task – this will influence students’ perceptions of what is important.