Teaching Critical Thinking Abouth Ethical Issues across the Curriculum

By Vallentyne, Peter; Accordino, John | Liberal Education, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Teaching Critical Thinking Abouth Ethical Issues across the Curriculum


Vallentyne, Peter, Accordino, John, Liberal Education


CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING SITUATION: Laura, a genetics counselor, has been counseling a family because the father has Huntington's disease and each of the two children has a 50 percent chance of developing it. At a minimum, this will seriously affect the children's marriage and childbearing plans. The mother has just told Laura that one of the two children is not, in fact, her husband's biological child, but she has asked that Laura not tell the child or her husband. What should Laura do?

Laura's problem may be unique to her profession, but ethical dilemmas are a daily occurrence for virtually all professions today, from law to accounting, nursing, and engineering. Increasingly, professional associations, and society as a whole, are demanding that practitioners be able to handle ethically sensitive situations skillfully. Furthermore, the development of students' abilities to think critically about ethical issues is at the core of a liberal education. For these reasons, the general education requirements of most universities have both a critical thinking component and an ethics component. Described here is a faculty development program for enhancing the abilities of instructors of any discipline to teach critical thinking about ethical issues in their courses.

Two kinds of approaches can be used to teach critical thinking about ethics. One is a course devoted exclusively to the topic, such as a philosophy course on applied ethics. The other is coverage of the topic in a wide range of courses across the curriculum (for example, with regular courses in nursing devoting several hours of class time to discussion of related ethical issues). We believe that the most effective way of teaching students basic skills-such as critical thinking, reading, or writing-is to require both a course (or courses) devoted to the topic and coverage of the topic across the curriculum. A systematic introduction provides students with the relevant basic skills, concepts, and principles. Coverage across the curriculum ensures that students learn how to apply those skills in a variety of contexts and in ways that are meaningful and important for the disciplines in which they major.

There are many important questions about the effective design of specialized courses on critical thinking about ethical issues (for example, should they be taught by philosophers, by people in the major program, or jointly team-taught?). Here, however, we focus solely on what can be done to enhance the quality of coverage across the curriculum. More specifically, we concentrate on how a faculty development program can overcome many of the problems that arise in teaching critical thinking across the curriculum.

Most faculty members lack expertise both in moral theory and in the curricular design and classroom technique appropriate for critical thinking about ethical issues. Such instructors either do not even attempt to introduce ethical issues, or, if they do, their treatment of ethical issues often is so superficial that it encourages students to dismiss ethical reflection and discussion as pointless. In addition, in programs where more than one faculty member addresses ethical issues, approaches are often so radically different (largely because of lack of expertise) that students see little connection among them. A related problem is that, without adequate training, instructors tend to focus on discipline-specific ethical issues, with inadequate investigation of the underlying core philosophical concepts and principles.

Consequently, a faculty development program is needed to ensure the success of teaching critical thinking about ethical issues across the curriculum. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we are running such a program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

A faculty development program

Our program consists of three components: a three-week summer workshop, a series of talks from visiting speakers during the academic year, and a follow-up mentoring program. …

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