Not Teaching Ethics: Let Students Learn Ethics by Experiencing Ethical Behavior through Socratic Seminar

By Wiggins, Alexis | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Not Teaching Ethics: Let Students Learn Ethics by Experiencing Ethical Behavior through Socratic Seminar


Wiggins, Alexis, Phi Delta Kappan


WHEN I STARTED TEACHING, I naively thought that the best way to teach ethics was to instill in my students a strong set of moral values. I posted artwork and political posters on my classroom walls. I forbade the use of derogatory terms related to race, gender, or sexual orientation in my classroom. I happily schooled my Women's Literature class, especially the wary males, in feminist theory. In short, straight out of college and teaching high school seniors who weren't much younger than me, I thought it was my duty to inculcate these students with my moral beliefs.

That didn't work out so well. I wound up isolating more students than I ever impressed with my frequent admonitions.

Further on in my career, I thought I was doing better by leading students through complex discussions of ethics via the literature we read. I no longer moralized to them on the plight of female authors, but instead asked them to think about the challenges to women writers throughout history in comparison to their male counterparts.

Eventually, I realized that the best way to teach ethics may not be about the content of ethics at all but the process by which students learn. My self - perception shifted. I was no longer a teacher who led students through the study of ethics; I was a coach who drew upon the innate ethical talent in her athletes. Ethical conduct derives from more than just analysis; the goal is to affect behavior and ultimately produce thoughtful, ethical people. Teachers should encourage students not only to examine ethical issues in English class, but also to experience ethical and unethical conduct directly. For me, the most effective way to do this has been through Socratic seminar.

A Socratic seminar in my classroom looks like this: Students sit in a U - shape or circle so that every student can see every other one. Students have a hand - out that details expectations for the discussion:

* Every discussion should have balanced participation (shy people are encouraged to speak and loquacious ones don't dominate);

* Students should cite the text often to support ideas or clarify questions;

* Students don't talk over one another, interrupt, or put down other ideas; and

* The discussion should build, "get somewhere," and raise everyone's understanding.

The catch is that nearly all of this gets done without the teacher speaking. Usually, I sit off to the side, or even in the back, listening carefully and taking notes.

More than ground rules

How do I make this happen? The months - long process begins with an explanation of the seminar, practice seminars, and feedback to students after each seminar. When students really begin to get it and discussions take flight without my leading them, I begin grading the seminars, which is the keystone to the entire process, because students earn a collective grade. If a given seminar is excellent, every student gets an A on it; if it stinks, they all get a D. This means students can't get a good grade on seminar if one person is spouting brilliance, but no one else can get a word in edgewise. Or if everyone speaks eloquently and equally, but only two people refer to the text. Or if they collectively explore the most meaningful aspects of the text in great depth, but keep interrupting each other. Essentially, they all sink or swim.

A class debate on whether this assessment method is fair or not might make for a lively ethical debate in and of itself. And I've taught in schools where the assessment structure didn't allow me to actually include these grades in final student grades, so I just left them as symbolic grades. I still "graded" student seminars and announced the grade at the end of each seminar, but the grade wasn't calculated into their course grade.

The real point here, however, is not the assessment--that's just a means for achieving quality seminars--but rather the ethical culture that naturally develops out of a Socratic seminar with these criteria. …

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