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Ethic in Education – Four Main Ethical Frameworks

Introduction

Education is one of the cornerstones of a society; the relevance given to that process has an enormous impact on how that society ends up functioning. For that reason, in modern times societies have started to have more and more demands and expectations over teachers and all personnel related to the educational system. Ethics and ethical awareness are at the center of that expectations.

Of course Ethics has changed over the course of time, several theories and frameworks have developed and evolved. And educational ethics has benefited from those discussions and theories, since all the theories and frameworks have been applied to teaching and education.

In the present essay, four of the main ethical frameworks will be discussed and used to explore educational situations. Each one with its own advantages and disadvantages, weaknesses and strengths. The four frameworks analyzed are: Deontological, Consequentialist (normative frameworks), Virtue Ethics and Ethics of Care.

It is divided into three sections. In section I a practical situation is discussed using the aforementioned frameworks. In section II, a situation needed for an ethical framework to be “decided” is described and, in section III it is analyzed and commented using those frameworks and elements, including Australian regulations for ethical conduct for teachers.

The first part requires you to respond to a decision making which is below discussing the leader’s decision making process.

In this section we will discuss, using the four ethical frameworks, the decision-making process of the Principal given for analysis. The four frameworks are: Deontological, Consequentialist, Ethics of Care and Ethics of Virtue.

Deontological Framework

Deontological Ethics emphasize the role of principles or norms that are applicable in any given situation. A given action or choice is evaluated according to which of those principles it followed. From that point of view, there are a set of rules and norms established in ethic and conduct codes for the teachers that could be interpreted as principles or ethical considerations which should had been followed by the Principal. (Sharplin, Howitt and Wake, 2017)

With his decision, the Principal did not comply with several of this considerations, for example: Engage professionally with colleagues, maintain supportive and safe learning environments and, have a respectful and collaborative relationship with parents and carers[1]. Although the board smoothly approved his decision, that is not relevant from this ethical framework. He did not act according to those principles. (Sharplin, Howitt and Wake, 2017)

For that reasons, it doesn´t seems that the Principal could justify his decision making process, given the fact that he did not comply with several of the aforementioned norms. In a similar fashion, his decision should not be considered fair, if judged from those principles he seemed not to comply.

Even when the board approved the Principal´s decision, after it was reviewed by them, the rights of parents and students to justice and freedom were acknowledged and protected. In a similar fashion, teachers also could consider their rights protected, since they were not consulted about the issue.

Consequentialist Framework

Consequentialism evaluates the rightness of an action according to its consequences, or the sum of “happiness” -minus the unhappiness- that it produces. This is, how it contributes or not to “improve” a given situation. In order to perform that evaluation, you need to establish boundaries –always arbitrary-. In this case, the immediate consequences for the whole community of the school will be used as the focal point of the analysis. (Singer, 2011; Hallgarth, 2012; Preston 2014)

If the Principal would have used a consequentialist framework to justify his actions, perhaps he probably will answer that no harm at all will come to the students for saying a prayer[2], and that the moral of students and their religious -and some other that the prayer might be encouraging- values and beliefs will be enforced. Another positive consequence of saying the prayer could be –according to the teacher`s faith- that it will have positive consequences as a result of the students contacting God for the specific matters of the prayer.

On the negative side that the Principal could have considered as a consequence of his decision is the possibility that some of the students or their parents could feel offended, discriminated by the content of the prayer, or by saying a prayer at all in the case that non-Christians or atheist students/families were part of the school.

According to some of the authors, one of the ethical norms in the Australian context for teachers is to treat everyone equally as long as there are no morally relevant reasons for doing so. In this case, there were moral reasons to not treat everyone equally (which is make everyone say the prayer). According to this, a certain degree of unhappiness could have come from his decision. (Hallgarth, 2012; Sharplin, Howitt and Wake, 2017

The Principal should have kept this idea in mind as producing some “unhappiness” will count for final evaluation and defense of his actions, from a consequentialist point of view.

As for the consequences of this Principal´s actions in the Departmental policy on the matter, probably they should change the policies to avoid that this type of decisions continue being discretionary of the principal without proper consultation with the Parents Board or through other mechanisms the school may have to control such activities.

Although in this case it was approved by the board, it could be different in another set of circumstances where a bigger group of Non-Christians are part of the school community.

Ethic of Care Framework

From an Ethic of care ethic framework, where sustaining and protecting others is at the center of the stage, the Principal´s decision could be defensible, as long as he considers that saying a prayer is highly important for all the school. He could believe that the students absolutely need to construct and behave accordingly to some values that the prayer will greatly encourage. In other words, and from this Ethic framework, the Principal could think that the prayer is the way to proceed since it is putting “care” of the students in the first place, over a more “rational” approach. (Ehrich et al., 2011)

But, in my opinion, all decisions related to such actions like prayers or other religion-related practices should be done after proper consultation with parents, teachers, etc. Let’s examine some arguments to explain this.

In Australia discrimination based on religious motive is forbidden by law and, although there is no clear right of freedom of religion through all jurisdictions, saying a prayer in a non-congregational school could be seen and felt as discriminatory by some students or parents/carers.

When trying to balance the two previous arguments from an Ethic of care ethical framework, it seems more reasonable to restrain from making the students say the prayer. The equilibrium between care and justice –one of the central points of the Ethics of Care framework- points clearly towards that direction (Preston 2014).

If the principal would had consulted his intention, in the first place with teachers and then with parents, he will not only would had acted in a more ethical manner (since many could consider this as discriminatory or disrespectful) but also would had acted with respect to the opinion of the whole school´s community.

Virtue Ethics Framework

If seen from Virtue ethics framework, the described scenario could be centered on two main focal points: virtues and vices of the Principal´s choice and the virtues that the prayer could help to construct/evolve on the students. Virtue ethics center the analysis on agency, this time of the Principal. (Louden, 2012)

In the first place, the principal may have acted with a biased evaluation by believing that his opinion was so good and just that it did not needed to be consulted. From this perspective, and according to some of the professional and ethic codes in Australia, fairness (respect for) diversity and impartiality were lacking at his choice of doing the prayer without consultation. All of those are considered indicators of justice on the mentioned codes. (Sharplin, Howitt and Wake, 2017)

According to this, we could interpret that in an Australian context, a virtuous teacher should act accordingly with those features and that the Principal of the example did not behave in such a manner.

After seeing examples like this, one should come to think that a school leader´s own personal and moral values should not impinge personal values of others, unless his/her values are way better than theirs. This may not be an easy judgment to make, but ethical choices tend to be complicated and teaching usually is involved in such situations.

In the second part, you are asked to briefly describe an issue that has occurred or could occur in an educational context, for which there is no immediately apparent solution based on the facts of the matter alone.

In a secondary school, located in a low income community, the majority of the students on a given class started having different complains about the same student. They came, one by one to the office. The issues varied but most of them were referred to John’s behavior both in classes and during free time.

He –the students said- refused to interact with them and the few times that he did so, he quickly got disturbed or angry or even yelled as a consequence of “almost nothing”. As the weeks passed, and reports from other teachers started to come, John was again on the table. Teacher´s comments were on the same tone: he did not integrated or participated unless forced to, and even that times did it with bad mood. And, as one should expect, grades weren’t precisely excellent.

The next step was to speak with John’s parents, but the first issue was that he had recently moved with his grandma, who was 80 years old and –apart from a distant cousin- was the only relative that John had in town. She was, in John’s words “very ill and very old” and was unable to come to school.

When paid a visit, the old woman was –in fact- very ill and very old. She barely could receive us in her home. Although she was aware of John’s issues at school and also that he may not be behaving properly or getting the best degrees she said that she was actually unable to do more for our student. He was “like his father” and that seemed to end all arguments.

A couple of visits to John’s house confirmed that his grandma was not going to change her mind and that she won’t do anything else to correct his behavior or to improve his grades. She was not able to do much by herself given her health state (which included a disease on her eyes, she could barely see), not even if she wanted to.

In a few more weeks, John’s behavior started to get worse. He disrupted classes and many times refused to even write or do group activities. He was directly affecting other students` activities and getting in the mood of a couple of teachers.

At this point, the situation reached a point when a decision had to be made. His behavior was clearly affecting other people`s lives and neither he or his grandma seemed motivated to do anything to improve his behavior. But John´s issue could not be solved that easily. He was actually misbehaving, but not to the point of having legal issues or purposefully damaging his partners or teachers. His behavior was in a big part a consequence of his familiar situation and he couldn´t be fully blamed.

In a teacher´s meeting, someone proposed to expel him or suspend him (after all, teachers and students were constantly complaining about his behavior). But some others responded by saying that it wasn´t his fault and that suspending him was –in some form- a way of discriminating him.

This story raises some questions that can`t be answered only by examining the facts, but need to be addressed from an ethical perspective. The main one is, of course, if he should be suspended or perhaps start taking exams individually and go to less classes, but beneath that question lies the issue about collective versus individual rights on school. Also, one should consider in what point it was his responsibility or was grandma´s fault, or just a mere consequence of his economic and familiar situation. To answer this and several other questions, one should use an ethic perspective, since no easy answer comes from “the facts”.

In the third part, you should discuss, with reference to the theoretical literature, how an educational leader, behaving ethically, should approach the issue to reach a defensible resolution.

Education is a complex social process, teachers frequently face situations where no easy solution is at hand and conflicted interests are a common feature. Since teaching is an inherently moral activity, ethics and ethic leadership have aroused as a prominent tool to help teachers on all levels of responsibility to carry the burden of their always complex day to day choices (Ehrich et al., 2011; Langlois and Laponte, 2010; Jenlink and Jenlink, 2019)

In the Australian context, there are professional codes and norms that could be used to guide a proper decision process, but mostly they are predominantly state -and sector-based. For instance, Sharplin, Howitt and Wake (2017, p. 382) provide an example of a Governmental “ethical decision-making checklist” that could be followed to face situations as the one described previously. Also, professional code of ethics and specific regional regulations should be consulted by any educational authority facing this or a similar dilemma.

In order to solve the dilemma described in part 2 and reach a “defensible solution”, we will use an adaptation of a model of ethical decision-making proposed by Enrich et al. (2011), where several key elements are highlighted to make easy to make ethically sound choices in different contexts.

The elements adopted from the aforementioned article are: society, organizational culture, legal issues, politics, public interest and, personal experiences and values. The model includes other elements, but for the sake of clarity and extension, this analysis won’t include them.

In the example, the organizational culture is not fully described, but certainly, the values and practices of the school and community should be taken into consideration. Are there any similar cases on that school or community that could enlighten the decision? What are the opinions of the colleagues and other decision-makers on the school? The need to discuss ethical decisions with others takes relevance here, in order to minimize individual biases to such decisions.

Legal issues are always an important element in educational scenarios. Does the school has legal advisors? If that is the case, consulting them is a must. For the present analysis, we will assume that there is no clear inclination or precedents coming from the legal perspective and that both alternatives are considered as equal from that point of view.

Society plays a big role in education; not only because education is supposed to be a central part of its construction, but also because society as a whole establishes guidelines and practices that are or aren´t allowed (Langlois and Lapointe 2010; Sharplin, Howitt and Wake, 2017). In this case, affecting individual rights or affecting the less wealthy are examples of what is at stake at situation analyzed

 

Professional ethics are of course paramount for the present situation, where a teacher has to pick between affecting a whole group of students and other teachers versus protecting a single student whose economic and familiar situation is clearly affecting his behaviour. In Australia, the standards expected for teachers and other education-related professionals are very high when compared to other areas. The expectations include ethics and other dispositional attributes. (Sharplin, Howitt and Wake, 2017)

The final element for this decision-making process is personal ethics. We will analyze the situation from a consequentialist point of view.

Consequentialist could be defined as the ethic point of view which argues that the judgment of a given behaviour must be done according to the sum of happiness (minus the unhappiness) that it creates as a whole. The focus of an ethical analysis should be the future of the analyzed actions. (Singer, 2011; Hallgarth, 2012)

Of course, any analysis needs to stop at a given point, since no one can take forever to calculate all the consequences of a given action/decision, in our case, John´s situation could get worse and pressure over him and teachers will increase at a very short term.

As we have already stated, calculation of consequences is one of the limitations of consequentialist point of view and an arbitrary boundary is always necessary. (Hallgarth, 2012)

In our example, the consequentialist teacher chooses to stop calculations at the point where John and his grandma will be negatively affected is he is transferred or suspended, but the accumulated effect he is having over his partners and teachers is way bigger to the school. For instance, such behaviour, if not properly handled could start to be imitated by other students; or his behaviour could escalate to the level of refusing to enter classes at all.

Of course, John could have an even worse situation if suspended and could become a criminal. But the same goes for him feeling compelled to improve when he sees himself in that situation. So our teacher chooses not to put that into his choosing process.

The final element of the model, personal experience and socialization also comes into play: Our teacher ponders if it will be easier to take John´s side or the “other” side. He believes that life at school will be affected in a bigger way if John stays, so he chooses to start the transfer process for John.

 

Conclusion

Becoming a teacher comes with great responsibility. Not only society has high expectations and demands but also parents/carers and students expect teachers to behave according to high professional standards. Those standards are not only technical but also ethical.

In the Australian context, both of those standards are regulated and have codes and norms (although they vary from one region to another). It is a responsibility for every professional of the education to not only know but to be able to put in practice every day those ethical codes and norms.

 

In the present essay, several education-related situations were addressed, using different ethical frameworks and practical elements coming from Australian regulations for teaching professionals.

For that reason, after finishing this essay, a better understanding of the role of ethic has aroused –some may call it “ethical awareness”-, but also has come to my attention that teaching faces yet another crossroad: Law and ethics have a lot to say about professional behavior and development of teachers.

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