This class case study provides an example of introducing ethical thinking into the classroom to explore a controversial issue in science. It shows how the ethical frameworks in the Ethics thinking toolkit and a range of classroom activities can be used to scaffold students' ethical thinking. In this example, year 12 students consider the issue of euthanasia.

This classroom example formed part of the research that informed the development of the ethics thinking toolkit and, as such, uses ideas that can be found in the toolkit. The ethics thinking toolkit provides additional support to help structure students’ thinking and decision-making using ethical frameworks.

Introduction

In order to develop their ethical thinking and reasoning skills, year 12 students chose to consider the issue of euthanasia and whether or not it should be legal. This was a stand-alone lesson sequence.

Science focus

  • Participating and contributing (level 7): Students will use relevant information to develop a coherent understanding of socio-scientific issues (euthanasia) that concern them, to identify possible responses at both personal and societal levels.

Learning objectives

  • To engage in and identify controversial issues.
  • To develop a scientific understanding of a controversial issue.
  • To understand that a range of approaches can be used to make and justify an ethical decision.
  • To work in groups to develop a position in response to the chosen issue (euthanasia) using one of the ethical approaches.
  • To write a personal position paper in response to the chosen issue – the paper should reflect a student’s understanding of using a particular ethical approach to present an argument.

Using ethical approaches to guide decision-making

Students were introduced to 5 approaches that can be used to guide decision-making: consequentialism, rights and responsibilities, autonomy, virtue ethics and multiple perspectives. Each group was assigned a particular approach to use when exploring the chosen issue of euthanasia. Autonomy and consideration of multiple perspectives tended to be favoured in the personal position paper.

See the article Frameworks for ethical analysis.

Teaching and learning activities

Values continuum

Students make judgements about a range of modified foods using the modified foods values continuum in the Ethics and genetically modified foods – case study where a year 9 class explores the acceptability of using modern genetic modification techniques to produce new or modified foods.

Class discussion

  • What are controversial issues? What is the difference between morals and ethics?
  • Students decide on a controversial issue to explore as a class (euthanasia).

Individual research

Students respond to the following questions, which were formulated by the class:

  • Describe the issue.
  • Why is the issue controversial?
  • Who is affected?
  • What are the potential benefits of euthanasia?
  • What are the potential harms?
  • Collect three different viewpoints.

Class discussion

  • Summarise research findings.
  • Formulate an ethical question: Should euthanasia be legal?

Teacher talk

  • Introducing the five ethical approaches. Watch the video clip Common ethical frameworks, where British bioethicist Michael Reiss describes four frameworks used to make ethical judgements.

Group work and presentations

  • Students use one of the five ethical approaches in the Ethics thinking toolkit.
  • Group presentations to report their views.

Report writing

  • Individual position papers using a specific (stated) ethical approach.

Key messages

  • Students enjoyed learning about the different approaches that can be used to make an ethical decision.
  • The multiple perspectives approach helped students to consider how other cultures and religions view euthanasia. Many considered this to be one of the highlights of the unit.
  • The programme enhanced students’ decision-making skills
  • The teacher’s knowledge also increased:

I now critically listen to people’s reasons for things and am better equipped to argue their reasoning.

Teacher
  • Students who were not normally engaged in science enjoyed the programme.

Acknowledgements

This classroom programme formed part of a project funded by Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council. We thank the teacher and students for participating in this programme.

    Published 17 December 2010