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10.5: How should teachers teach ethics?

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    by J. Kovalcik

    Learning Objectives

    • Students will be able to define ethics and character education.
    • Students will be able to identify the various ways ethics are integrated into schools and classrooms, and various ways of teaching ethics in the classroom.
    • Students will be able to identify how parents can participate in their children’s learning of ethics in school.


    Ethics: “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation” (Merriam-Webster, 2008).


    While parents are their children’s first and most important teachers, as children enter school, teachers join in the process of shaping children’s minds, attitudes, and behaviors (Brannon, 2008). Children, after all, spend a huge chunk of time in school, away from their parents and guardians and in close proximity of their teachers and fellow students. Shouldn’t it seem obvious then that teachers have a role in contributing to the ethical teaching of today’s students? In this article I will explain the different thoughts and ideas of incorporating ethics education in classrooms, and programs that are happening now to teach ethics in schools.

    Character Education…A new term for ethics?

    What does ethics education mean? In a survey, when asked this question, the majority of teachers said, “character education” (Zubay, 2007). So, what is character education? The results of Zubay’s surveys show that character education and ethics education are used interchangeably in the context of solving social conflicts over issues such as bullying, diversity, and sexuality (Zubay, 2007).


    “Throughout history and in cultures around the world, education rightly conceived has had two great goals: helping students become smart and helping them become good. They need character for both” (Davidson, M., Lickona, T., Khmelkov, V., 2007, p. 30).

    When exploring character education it should be noted which personal qualities are involved. The “six pillars of character” are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship (Zubay, 2007). Character education doesn’t just produce an honest and kind child; it can also produce a child who wants to work hard and do his or her best (Davidson, M. et al., 2007).The “six pillars” are qualities that teachers can exhibit themselves and incorporate in their curriculum as well. Teaching itself is considered a moral responsibility and thus can have a direct impact on the attitudes, behaviors, and achievements of students (Falkenberg, 2007).

    Approaches to Teaching Ethics/Character Education

    In the school setting, teachers have the most influence on a student’s ethical learning (Zubay, 2007). It is teachers who are around the student during most of the day and have to deal with issues that come up with the students and among the students, thus lending them to more opportunities to teach ethics. How schools are incorporating ethics in their curriculums can be broken down into two categories: informal and formal programs. Informal programs include no formal statement as to how ethics education should be implemented; it is left up to the individual teachers to fit ethics education into the curriculum, whereas a formal program would include a definitive, age-appropriate curriculum with a mission statement, and would include such programs as honor code seminars, monthly ethics themes, or student/faculty ethics committees (Zubay, 2007). In Zubay’s surveys, most of the schools fell into the “informal” category.

    Incorporating Ethics/Character Education in the Classroom

    The two most popular strategies for teaching students about character are modeling and taking advantage of teachable moments (Brannon, 2008). We’ve all heard the expression, “treat others the way you would want to be treated.” This is exactly what modeling is all about. It is well known that children learn from watching others. They learn from one another and they learn from adults. This is why it is so important for teachers to set good examples for their students and to point out good examples when they are seen (Brannon, 2008).

    When volunteering in a kindergarten class at a nearby elementary school one day, I noticed that a child (with the help of his mother) had brought in an aquarium of tadpoles. The tadpoles had nothing to do with the teacher’s current unit, but she took advantage of this new and unexpected teaching tool and turned it into a lesson about caring for animals. The children watched the tadpoles grow and took care of them until they became frogs.

    Other ways to incorporate ethics in the classroom include getting students to help write class rules, role playing, songs, and projects. According to Thomas Lickona (1997), teachers can also create a classroom that provides a supportive moral community, use discipline as a way to teach about moral reasoning, encourage democracy in the classroom, teach character across the curriculum, utilize cooperative learning when teaching, provide opportunities for moral reflection, teach students abut conflict resolution, and encourage students to take pride in their work (as cited in Brannon, 2008).

    In my six year old son’s first grade class, the students are expected like in all schools, to follow the rules. The first week of school, his teacher asked the class to come up with the classroom rules. In doing this, she made it their responsibility to think of what good behavior encompasses. She then organized the rules and gave each rule a color. Whenever a student breaks one of these rules, he or she has to take the appropriate colored card and place it in his or her rule folder. At the end of the week, every student with less than five cards gets to participate in “good citizenship day”. This involves a special activity which the children normally are not allowed to do, like climbing on the rock climbing wall on the playground. Those children who received five or more cards get a note sent home and do not get to participate in the activity. In addition to the rule cards, his teacher hands out “good behavior” tickets whenever she sees a student performing a good act. Once a child has seven red tickets, he or she may trade them in for a prize from the treasure box. It doesn’t matter how many rule cards the child may have; he or she will still be recognized when doing something good.


    Baron (2007) stated, “Developing and maintaining concern for the welfare of those who are less fortunate is achieved through the development of the habit of using one’s heart well” (p. 51). How do teachers show students they care and why is this important in teaching ethics in the classroom? When middle school students were asked how they know when a teacher cares about them, the response was when the teacher teaches well and the teacher treats them well (Davidson, M. et al., 2007). A survey of teachers, teacher candidates, and college faculty showed that the top seven qualities of caring teachers are: offering help, showing compassion, showing interest, caring about the individual, giving time, listening, and getting to know students (McBee, 2007). When children feel that their thoughts and ideas are heard and matter, they are more inclined to participate and behave better. In her article, Robin McBee (2007) states, “To care deeply and to demonstrate that care, teachers must know their students’ needs and interests” (p. 34). A teacher that is sensitive to the individual needs of his or her students will be considered more caring than one who is not. By showing care the teacher not only boosts the child’s self-confidence and drive, he or she models a behavior worthy of the child repeating.

    Parental Involvement

    Studies show that many teachers think ethics education is a joint responsibility between parents and teachers (Brannon, 2008). While parents have their own ways of teaching ethics to their children outside of school, there are ways to be involved in their ethics teachings at school as well. Some ideas on how to include parents in character education programs are:

    • family participation with homework assignments specifically about character education
    • sharing class information in newsletters to parents
    • informing parents of class rules and consequences
    • inviting parents to volunteer in the classroom
    • planning events related to character education (Brannon, 2008).

    Roots of Empathy

    Roots of Empathy is a nonprofit group who brings ethics education to the classroom in a unique way. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, it is “a decade-old program designed to reduce bullying by exposing classrooms to “empathy babies” for a whole school year” (Wingfield, 2008). In the program, founded by Mary Gordon, the babies are brought into the classrooms to help children, grades K – eighth grade, learn by observing the emotional connection between the babies and their parents and it is designed to boost the “emotional literacy” of children by getting them to recognize and talk about their feelings instead of acting out aggressively (Wingfield, 2008). According to the article, studies have shown that there has been a drop in aggressive behavior among students who were in classrooms with empathy babies, while there were increases in aggressiveness in groups that did not experience the empathy babies (Wingfield, 2008).

    Making Ethics/Character Education a School-Wide Effort

    While teachers can incorporate teaching ethics in their classrooms, it doesn’t have to be just a classroom occurrence. Schools as a whole can support their teachers by implementing plans and ideas for teaching ethics. In a recent study, Brannon (2008) interviewed teachers who came up with five elements schools can use to positively influence students:

    • Reach out to the community. (i.e. Hold parent education nights.)
    • Provide materials to help teachers teach character education.
    • Allow time each day or at least several days a week, for character education to be addressed.
    • Set consistent school-wide expectations regarding character and values.
    • Value character education as important as other academics and test scores (p. 64).

    Problems with Teaching Ethics

    Teachers in schools that do not have ethics-based curriculums stand to face problems with some parents and even administrators. While most people would agree that ethics/character education should be taught in schools, some parents are uncomfortable with teachers doing this. They don’t like the idea of teachers using their roles as authority figures to influence their children’s character development (Brannon, 2008). Likewise, some administrators have a problem with teachers incorporating ethics in their curriculum as they feel it may take away from core subject areas (Brannon, 2008). While teachers may encounter this type of opposition, it should not discourage them. Author Dinana Brannon conducted a survey (Brannon, 2008) in which most teachers said they faced problems with time, materials, parents, and the curriculum, but they all felt that character education is important and helpful to their students and society.


    In my opinion, no matter how a teacher decides to do it, ethics education should be incorporated in the classroom for those children who do not get it at home and to reinforce it to those who do get it at home. I feel that regardless of whether they get support from their school or whether or not their school has an ethics education program implemented, teachers should always, at least, incorporate it in the classroom by setting good examples and be caring and nurturing.


    Baron, D. (2007). Habits that build excellence [Electronic Version]. Principle Leadership (High School Ed.), 8 no4 50-2.

    Bongsoon, Z. (2007). Ethics by the numbers: Survey on ethics education in schools [Electronic Version]. Independent School, 67 no1 60-5.

    Brannon, D. (2008). Character education: It’s a joint responsibility [Electronic Version]. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 44 no2 62-5.

    Davidson, M., Lickona, T., Khmelkov, V. (2007). Smart and good schools: A paradigm shift for character education [Electronic Version]. Education Week, 27 no12 30-31

    ethic. (2008). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 21, 2008, from

    Falkenberg, T. (2007). On the grounding of teacher education in the human condition [Electronic Version]. Journal of Educational Thought, 41 no3 245-62.

    Wingfield, N. (2008). Learning by cooing: Empathy lessons from little tykes. The Wall Street Journal, February 5. Retrieved September 19, 2008, from