Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Ethics and the Mathematics Teacher: Part 2

Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Ethics and the Mathematics Teacher: Part 2

Article excerpt

Pedagogy and ethics

Teaching is fundamentally about the interaction of teachers and students. Underlying this is the one-to-one relationship between a teacher and a student. Normal professional ethics of care apply, plus there are additional considerations because the teacher is responsible, in loco parentis for the student if they are under 18 years of age. In addition to individual relations, there is also the relationship between the teacher and the whole class. This is a complex relationship because the teacher must apportion their time between addressing or managing the whole class, attending to subsets of the class and giving attention to individual students. The teacher is carrying out all of these tasks serially, or even simultaneously. These complex relationships entail complex ethical compromises. The modes of contact with individuals will be limited by the needs and demands of other individuals or subsets of the class. Some students may explicitly or implicitly, through their behaviour, demand attention that can only be given at cost to other individuals. Sometimes teachers will need to withhold attention to individual students in order to manage the whole class. In the short term, this might seem like neglect or unethical behaviour but in the long term may result in better learning conditions for all, which is an ethically defensible and indeed desirable outcome.

All of these interpersonal ethical issues make up the background against which the teacher chooses and applies a pedagogy, that is a mix of teaching methods, styles and techniques to enable students to learn mathematics. Every teacher uses a mix of teaching styles such as teacher exposition; teacherstudent discussion including question and answer and discussion with the whole class and with individual students; the setting of exercises, for the practice and reinforcement of skills, as well for the solution of routine and non-routine problems. The teaching styles employed can also include open-ended problem solving, also known as investigational work, as well as practical work, using either material teaching resources, or applied practical work or modelling. Less common is group work such as group problem solving including group discussion between students. This list is only illustrative, for there are many other teaching modes including, for example, the use of homework to develop concepts and to extend the practice and reinforcement of skills and problems. Another pedagogy involves computer-mediated teaching and learning of mathematics.

It is difficult to make an ethical assessment of pedagogy because this necessitates taking into account teacher intentions and plans; the demands of the social milieu, including using prescribed and not using proscribed teaching methods; the views of and pressures exerted by students, parents, other teachers, school administration, inspectors and so on. It also involves assessing the efficacy of the pedagogies, as employed in practice, in terms of a range of different outcomes including achievement gains, understanding and affective outcomes. Rarely discussed is another outcome, the student's eagerness to pursue further studies in mathematics at the end of a course or school year. Any evaluation of the effectiveness of teaching, let alone its ethics, presupposes a set of values and an ideology incorporating the overall background curriculum, assessment and pedagogical assumptions of the teachers, department, school, district and national education frameworks.

What can be said is that no easy good/bad ethical judgements can be applied to pedagogical styles. Open progressive pedagogies, which claim to develop autonomy and creativity, cannot claim the moral high ground over traditional pedagogies aiming to inculcate skills and mastery in mathematics. Practical applications of such pedagogies can only claim virtue to the extent that they are successful in achieving their aims, as well as resulting in gains in achievement and the mathematical certification that students need to better their life chances. …

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