Ethics in education: The challenge of teaching ethics in the classroom

From Enron to WorldCom to the 2008 financial meltdown, the world economy has been shaken because of the actions of a group of people who seem to lack ethical behavior. But what is ethical behavior? Can teaching ethics in the classroom help to create a society that functions more ethically?

M.B.A. Pathway

For those who seek to earn their fortune working in corporate America, the master’s of business administration (M.B.A.) is the equivalent of a golden ticket. Nearly half of the M.B.A. graduates at the top business schools enter the world of finance. When Wall Street all but collapsed, one could not help but wonder how so many bright people could have let it happen. It was not long before the questions turned to the topic of ethics in education and how education is taught — or not taught at business schools.

Ben Schiller summarized the reaction in his September 23, 2011 article for Fast Company titled, “Business Schools Add Courses On Ethics, But Are Graduates More Ethical?” Describing the attention on business schools, Schiller said, “Many industry watchers saw business schools as contributing factors in the financial crisis, arguing that, by failing to challenge orthodoxies, and overlooking ‘socially useless’ activities, they helped create conditions for collapse. That nearly every relevant banker, regulator, and politician was an MBA graduate helped make the case.”


The challenge of teaching ethics has become more complicated by the presence of the Internet. Audrey Watters reported on the results of a recent survey about online safety conducted by the National Cyber Security Alliance in her May 19, 2011 article for MindShift titled, “How Well Are Schools Teaching Cyber Safety and Ethics?” The survey solicited the input of 400 administrators, over 1,000 teachers, and 200 technology coordinators in K-12 institutions.

About half of the teachers and administrators said that they felt comfortable talking to students about online safety, privacy online, and cyberbullying. Regarding ethics Watters said, “But when it comes to what was actually taught in the classroom about online ethics and safety, the common response by most teachers was ‘nothing.’ One notable exception: about half of teachers said they’d talked with students about the Internet and plagiarism.”

What is cyberethics? According to the Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section of the U.S. Department of Justice website, “The term ‘cyberethics’ refers to a code of safe and responsible behavior for the Internet community.”

Being Ethical

For Donna S. Kienzler the challenge of teaching ethics involves much more than creating curriculum. It includes teacher ethics as well. In her article, “Teaching Ethics Isn’t Enough: The Challenge of Being Ethical Teachers,” Kienzler examines how teachers can incorporate ethics into every aspect of their work. In addition to seeing the ethics problems in students’ choices, Kienzler encourages her readers to examine their own ethics. In her view teachers who are both ethical and skillful will:

  • Care about students
  • Try to be inclusive
  • Hear all voices
  • Try to help all students learn as much as possible
  • Help students use what they learn
  • Share their passion for the subject being taught

Ultimately, Kienzler concludes that there is not one “right answer” for the many ethical dilemmas that face teachers such as choosing course content and grading assignments. According to Kienzler, “For me, this multiplicity is good; the very diversity of concepts in various ethics theories helps make me more ethical by being aware of more possibilities, more aspects of goodness and rightness. The more I know about ethics, the more I think about ethical approaches to pedagogic problems, and the more ethical my behavior becomes.”

2 replies
  1. Steve Martin says:

    Regardless of whether ethics are consciously ‘taught’ in the classroom, instructors, through their behavior, are demonstrating their ethical assumptions — and are all too often unwittingly providing a role model for their students. The degree to which the teacher is aware of their own ethical dimension is likely to be highly correlated with whether the role model they are providing is positive or negative. Here in Japan, at the college level, very few students aspire to be college teachers. Perhaps this is because too many instructors tend to give priority to their bureaucratic position within an institutional hierarchy — the sense of privilege and entitlement bestowed by their status thus undermines their own potential for ethical awareness or credibility regarding such instructors’ proclamations regarding the subject. Even the modest goal of trying one’s best to teach one’s own specialty requires a strong ethical commitment to the material as well as the students. Again, I can’t help but to wonder why so few college students aspire to be college teachers in Japan. This I write to my embarrassment through guilt-by-association, as I have been teaching college in Japan for more than 25 years.


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