A Framework for Professional Ethics Courses in Teacher Education

By Warnick, Bryan R.; Silverman, Sarah K. | Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

A Framework for Professional Ethics Courses in Teacher Education


Warnick, Bryan R., Silverman, Sarah K., Journal of Teacher Education


Serious discussion of professional ethics education in medical, law, and business schools began to occur in the 1960s. Work on professional ethics education for teachers, however, lagged behind this development for at least two decades, with scholarly articles on the topic not appearing in substantial numbers until the mid-1980s (see, e.g., Lasley, 1986; Reagan, 1983; Rich, 1984). What emerged in the 1980s was an effort to connect teacher education programs with the trend toward ethics education in other professional circles, such as medicine and law. This led to the development of ethics courses for teachers modeled on the other professions.

There is some evidence, however, that this movement failed to gain traction in teacher education. In a recent review of the curricula of 156 religiously affiliated colleges and universities, it was found that only 9% of teacher education programs offer ethics courses as program requirements or electives, compared with 71% of business programs, 60% of nursing programs, and 51% of social work programs (Glanzer & Ream, 2007, p. 281). Although the authors of that study were rightly cautious about generalizing this finding beyond their specific sample, the study gives some indication that ethics is less emphasized in education programs than in other professional schools. Of course, a lack of a specific ethics courses may not be a problem in teacher education if ethics is being integrated across the curriculum, but the authors found no evidence of this in course descriptions. Indeed, course descriptions in which the language of ethics could have appeared (in classroom management or multicultural education) usually avoid "framing any of these issues in specifically moral ways," thus leaving the authors suspicious about "whether such integration is occurring" (pp. 284-285). The apparent lack of attention to ethics education in teacher education, compared with other professions, might be a problem; after all, education surely presents ethical dilemmas as difficult as many other professions. We need to ask whether ethics education is valuable for teachers and what such an education should look like.

There are few empirical studies of the effects of professional ethics education courses (Winston, 2007) and, from what we can see, fewer still in the field of teacher education. The small number of empirical studies from other professional fields gives us tentative reasons to believe, however, that ethics education can make some difference, particularly with respect to measures of moral reasoning (see, e.g., Canary, 2007; Klugman & Stump, 2006, Krawczyk, 1997; Schlaefli, Rest, & Thoma, 1985; Smith, Fryer-Edwards, Diekema, & Braddock, 2004; Windsor & Cappel, 1999). (1) Many of these studies also suggest that ethics education programs seem to work best when they include stand-alone ethics courses that focus on group discussion of real-world cases. With respect to other possible goals of ethics education, such as attitude change, the evidence is mixed, with some studies showing that ethics courses had no effect on

attitudes (Brody & Bowman, 1998; Klugman & Stump, 2006) and other studies showing significant attitude change after ethics courses (see Plaisance, 2007). Research also suggests that different professions might require different forms of ethics education (e.g., McCabe, Dukerich, & Dutton, 1994). Thus, what works in medical education might not work in teacher education.

This empirical research on professional ethics education gives us a starting point for rethinking professional ethics education for teachers. It suggests that ethics courses for professionals can make a positive difference, particularly when it comes to improving moral reasoning. At the same time, the difference among professional groups suggests that teacher education needs to develop unique ways of thinking about professional ethics. In what follows, we examine what sort of ethics education classes might be appropriate in teacher education. …

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