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Teaching ethics

Teaching students how to make ethical decisions is mandated by The New Zealand Curriculum. Here we recommend how to manage classroom environment and classroom strategies for teaching and assessment.

Ethical decision-making

Modern scientific and technological advances give rise to a plethora of ethical issues. Ethicists use a range of approaches, or frameworks, to help them reach a decision. These include consequentialism, rights and responsibilities, autonomy and virtue ethics.

Get information sheet: Frameworks for ethical analysis

Curriculum links and ethical decision-making

Ethical thinking is incorporated in The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC). Since the majority of contemporary ethical issues are associated with scientific and technological advancements, it is appropriate that students’ ethical thinking is developed in these subject areas.

Get information sheet: Ethics and the curriculum

Classroom environment

Ethical issues are laden with multiple perspectives, values, beliefs and attitudes. It is important that the classroom environment is one in which students can share their perspectives and listen to one another with respect. It is also important for the teacher to provide a model for students to evaluate ideas, weigh up evidence, detect bias and justify their decisions.

Classroom strategies for teaching ethics

A range of classroom activities can be used to facilitate ethical thinking and learning, including:

  • case studies (often based on true events)
  • concept cartoons, which depict a range of views
  • class presentations
  • debates
  • drama
  • graphical organisers – mind maps, fishbone diagrams, cause and effect tables
  • guest speakers
  • independent research
  • KWLH analysis (what we know, what we want to learn, what we have learned, how we know)
  • mantle of the expert – students are assigned to ‘expert’ status in different conceptual or procedural areas
  • media analysis – newspapers, video/DVD
  • plus-minus-interesting (PMI) analysis
  • position papers
  • reciprocal reading – reading an article with small groups or the whole class
  • role play or consensus meetings
  • round robin – small groups circulate to different ‘stations’ in the class, adding new ideas in response to the question/activity at each station
  • scenarios (which tend to be fictitious)
  • think/pair/share
  • writing frames
  • values continuum – identifying personal views, for example, by standing in a line across the class, marking a position on a line (acceptable/not acceptable) or placing cards with different choices in a line from most acceptable to least acceptable and so on.

Phases of ethical decision-making

Some of these activities may be better suited to different phases of ethical decision-making:

  1. Ethical sensitivity – raising awareness of the ethical issue(s) (for example, media analysis).
  2. Ethical deliberation – identifying possible responses and evaluating them (for example, role play, round robin, think/pair/share).
  3. Ethical justification – justifying a particular response and evaluating it against other perspectives (for example, class presentations, position papers).

The Ethics thinking tool can be used to introduce students to ethical approaches and help scaffold the process of deliberation and justification. Teachers can also customise this tool to suit particular classroom topic(s).

Assessment of ethical decision-making

A well-designed assessment task should allow for nuance and the weighing of alternatives rather than fixed answers.

When designing an effective classroom programme, consider:

  • both formative and summative interactions and activities
  • the use of open-ended tasks designed for students to demonstrate a critical awareness of the ambiguous and contextual nature of the ethical issue(s) and demonstrate and articulate their thinking
  • ways in which the tasks reflect the learning objectives of the classroom programme
  • clearly identifying to the students what it is that they are expected to demonstrate - perhaps it is appropriate to co-construct the marking schedule with students
  • the potential for writing frames to help scaffold the writing process
  • opportunities for self- and peer- assessment
  • the relative weighting of the task, particularly when the ethical component forms part of a larger task – this will influence students’ perceptions of what is important
  • opportunities for verbal as well as written responses, since written responses reflect not only the students’ thinking, but also their writing ability.


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