Helping Students Make Tough Decisions Wisely: The Challenge of Ethical Inquiry

Article excerpt

Introduction

Establishing and maintaining professionalism of the highest standard is critical for all early childhood educators, whether they work directly or indirectly with children and families. It is argued in this article that tertiary educators have a responsibility to demonstrate professional practice in their work with students. This includes the responsibility to foster a professional approach to their students' development as teachers and staff for their future work with colleagues, children and families. An important aspect of professionalism is ethical practice. We contend that ethical behaviour relies on the development of a sound ethical identity, a sense of the professional self that includes the confidence and the competence to make sound and sensitive ethical judgements. Making ethical judgements is much more complex than making decisions in situations where there is clearly a right or best choice between alternatives. Ethical judgement is required when there is no clear-cut choice. Making ethical judgements is complex, involving processes of reflection, prioritising values and sometimes choosing between competing values. Issues relating to ethical judgement are multidimensional and are influenced significantly by the rapidly changing socio-economic and political climate in which we live and work.

Problematic situations that present ethical issues arise for all stakeholders in early childhood education. Here, our focus is on practising staff, students and tertiary educators. In reference to professional preparation, we argue that the educators of new generations of early childhood professionals need to address two aspects of professional ethics in their preparation courses. First, tertiary educators should be aware of issues arising from socio-economic and political changes in the current professional contexts where fieldwork for students takes place and they should be cognisant of the ethical implications. Second, tertiary educators need to be proactive about modifying courses to better facilitate students' development of sound ethical identities by helping them develop ethically sound responses to problematic situations. The long term outcome, we believe, is that early childhood student teachers will be better able to extend ethical practice into their professional lives after graduation.

The recent Wood Royal Commission into Corruption in New South Wales highlighted the fact that teachers are frequently involved in situations involving ethical issues. There is, however, little direct research about teachers and ethics, and there is a scarcity of literature and resources to help prepare beginning and experienced teachers to deal with ethical issues. In one of the rare Australian publications about teachers and ethics, it is claimed that student teachers spend little time engaging in the discourses that will help them to become ethical thinkers. Freakley and Burgh argue that lack of encouragement to become ethical thinkers limits students' later ability as teachers to improve their own ethical conduct and limits their ability as teachers to `guide the values and ethics education of their students' (2000, p. xvi). In support of their claim, Freakley and Burgh cite the concerns of Hill, who in his review of the Queensland School Curriculum noted:

   Not only do ethics and value theory not feature in the recognised core
   curriculum, but they are also absent from the core of Australian teacher
   education programs. Until they are included, most teachers will not be
   equipped to guide values education, as it impinges on their specialist
   areas, beyond the level of personal opinion (1993, p. xv).

It is our position that these concerns cannot be ignored. We advocate that early childhood students in their professional preparation courses should be exposed to models of ethical inquiry and become actively engaged in making ethical judgements so that they enter the profession as ethical thinkers well-equipped to make sound ethical judgements rather than being content to make decisions based on personal preference. …