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A Critical Evaluation of Educational Ethics

With her EdEthics project, Professor Meira Levinson is striving to bring conversations around ethics in education to the fore
Meira Levinson
Photo: Elio Pajares

Education is a field full of choices, and not just for students. Teachers, administrators, and parents are also faced with an endless array of decisions to weigh among an ever-changing educational landscape.

Navigating that landscape requires an understanding of the impact of those choices. Professor Meira Levinson knows that moral quandary well, both as an educator and researcher. Through the development of case studies, Levinson and her peers in the field of educational ethics have developed methods to evaluate situations where educators grapple with issues of inequality, morality, and uncertainty.

In recent years, Levinson has spearheaded EdEthics at HGSE, developing projects with the help of a number of collaborators. The latest is an online class launching this spring, Promoting Powerful Ethical Engagement with Normative Case Studies, co-taught by Levinson and doctoral student Ellis Reid, and co-designed by Sara O’Brien, Ed.M.'19; Ariana Zetlin, Ed.M.'20; and HGSE's Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL). EdEthics is also hosting a field-launching conference at HGSE in May, designed to help build the field in a model similar to bioethics.

Below, Levinson discusses the growing field of educational ethics and how the new class and other projects will help expand the impact ethical thinking has in the classroom and beyond.

What is the goal of your new course, Promoting Powerful Ethical Engagement with Normative Case Studies?

I was most interested in creating opportunities for people to have complex conversations about the ethical dilemmas we faced in policy and practice. And yes, it is explicitly focused in areas of ongoing uncertainty where I don’t think there is a single, right answer. I think there may be wrong answers. And there are worse answers and better answers, so it’s not as if this is a stance that’s all about being relative, or everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. That’s not what’s going on here. And I think it can be useful to collectively discover or identify or explain wrong answers, right? But even once we say “oh well these are worse answers,” we still have a constellation of better answers.

We create solely around hard ethical choices where we ourselves do not know what the right answer is. And if we think that there is an answer, or the right way to see the problem, then we’ll write an article about it. And so that's actually been very useful as well. We don’t only write cases, we also write philosophical articles.

With EdEthics, part of what you are doing is framing long-standing educational issues within an ethical lens. How did you start approaching things in this way?

When I was an eighth-grade teacher, I faced lots of ethical questions in my work. Really, on a pretty daily basis trying to figure out what was the just thing to do. What was the right thing to do? What was the ethical thing to do? I was thinking about really basic questions like, I have kids with lots of different needs in front of me and I can’t fulfill all of them simultaneously, so how do I figure out whom to prioritize? And how? And why?

"I wanted to make it possible for HGSE students but also others out in the field, to have complex conversations about the ethical dimensions of our work in education and to recognize that ethics is central to what we do."

If I have a disruptive student in my room and it’s really annoying, in some ways, yes, they’re choosing to be disruptive. But they’re 13, they’re 14, right? We don’t want any of these choices that they’re making right now to have any impact on the shape of their lives. … But you also want to teach them a sense of responsibility, you want to teach them actions have consequences. You want to teach the other kids that actions have consequences. What they’re doing is disrupting the learning for the other kids. And so, you owe the other kids the opportunity to learn.

Answering those questions requires an understanding of a variety of issues and balancing the impact of multiple outcomes. How do educators gain the tools to help tackle these big questions in a productive way?

These really, really concrete questions were ones that I thought, well if anyone should have an answer to these from an ethical perspective, I should. I have a DPhil in political theory from Oxford. I wrote a dissertation about what the aims of education should be in a liberal democratic society and how we should achieve those. And I was just stuck.

I looked around and I could not find stuff that would answer my question. A lot of things had been written about what do you do when you have someone trying to pull out of a particular lesson. There’s lots of stuff about some very specific questions. But the day-to-day quotidian stuff of teaching? There just wasn’t much there except stuff that was really, really rule-bound. Stuff like, don’t steal the copy paper. Don’t sexually harass kids. And that’s true: don’t steal the copy paper, don’t harass kids. But that doesn’t help you figure out other stuff. The very concrete but also really big ethical questions. That was part of why I started the site Justice in Schools.

A lot of the case studies you’ve written seem to be about big problems that don’t really have clear solutions with lots of opinions on both sides. Why is it important to evaluate these issues critically?

When I finally came to the Ed School as a faculty member in 2007, I had a whole series of students come through my office and say, “Professor Levinson, we are so glad that you’re here. I believe in educating for social justice.” And I would say “Great!” And then they would think it was clear that by telling me they cared about social justice that they had also told me what their stance was on charter schools, on high-stakes standardized testing, on teacher accountability measures or value-added measures for teachers, on project-based learning — on lots of stuff that was being debated in 2007.

And I have no idea what they thought about those things, right? They could be a total advocate for charter schools because they believed in autonomy and in some kind of greater measures of local control. You could believe that these districts are failing kids and that these charters might be great. Or you could be totally against charters because you thought that schooling should be directed in a public and democratic way and you were worried about issues of equity. Students would come in with all kinds of these different views but it never occurs to them that the opposite view might also be an ethically held one that was actually driven by values. Or even by some of the same values.

Seeking answers to those questions, then, was one part of your goal at HGSE in developing EdEthics?

I wanted to make it possible for HGSE students but also others out in the field, to have complex conversations about the ethical dimensions of our work in education and to recognize that ethics is central to what we do.

Our work always has ethical balance, and also at the same time helps us understand that people whose policy prescriptions we might disagree with often are driven by values. It’s not that they are totally unethical, it’s not that they hate kids or are captured by the teachers’ unions or textbook lobby. They’re not rapacious, racist, or are necessarily defenders of the status quo. Sometimes that’s what’s going on, but oftentimes what’s going on is that people really care, deeply, about the values that they’re trying to live out in their daily life and they’re trying to put into practice.

HGSE has a very strong leadership focus and policy focus. Over time I became interested not only in the kind of quotidian, ethical dilemmas we face in the classroom as teachers but also the ethical dilemmas as you go up the scale — questions about what principals face, what do school boards face? What do curriculum developers and designers face? What do we think about the state legislature, things like that. So my interest in ethical question about education expanded that way too.

I’m curious how you select topics for case studies. Is the goal to find something universal to talk about with a wide variety of students? Is it more about recency and what’s newsworthy, or maybe just what you think could bring about the best discussion?

The Promoting Powerful Ethical Engagement course is focused on helping people learn how to write normative case studies for their own context. So in that respect, we don’t have any preconditions about what they write about. We want them to write about whatever dilemma feels most salient and important to them to address in their context. We do have a lot of guidance in the course about how to identify and evaluate dilemmas, so, what’s in the news can actually be really important. This online course actually comes out of a workshop that we held in the summer of 2021 with about 15 people from around the world who had used our normative case studies in their own work but they wanted to develop normative case studies that were more targeted to their own context thanks to support from Radcliffe through one of their accelerator workshops.

Being COVID times, we did this online. But it meant we had participants from Kenya, mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada. Mexico. All over. Many of these cases were very real-time dilemmas. For example, one team in Germany wrote about a social studies teacher trying to figure out how to deal with a student who’s been captivated by the German equivalent of QAnon. And who’s very smart and very passionate, and very well-spoken, and he can get on a roll in class and start spewing this stuff and the other kids are like “Oh, yeah, that makes sense. You’re right.” And she’s like, “No!.” So that’s a very of-the-moment case.

"I wanted to make it possible for HGSE students but also others out in the field, to have complex conversations about the ethical dimensions of our work in education and to recognize that ethics is central to what we do."

There’s another case in Kenya about a fairly recent requirement that students who graduate from primary school automatically get to go to secondary school, which is clearly really important for improving access and equity. But many kids board at these secondary schools because they’re too far away from their homes to be able to go on a daily basis. And these schools just don’t have the space, they don’t have the dorms. They don’t have the teachers, they don’t have the physical plan. And so she wrote a beautiful case about questions of access and opportunity and quality in trying to implement Kenya’s secondary school access curriculum. Other people who participated wrote about things that were somewhat more evergreen.

You’re written a lot about schooling amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a huge impact on education. As an ethicist, is there anything to be learned when public consensus moves clearly away from ethical thinking?

COVID revealed to many people what experts in the field already knew, which is that our social safety net for children is very thin and full of gaping holes. And we just apparently aren’t willing to support kids in terms of their health, their nutrition, their mental health, their dental care, their learning, their housing. There are all sorts of ways where we don’t help as much as we should. And so in lots of ways, we just don’t value children, and that came out during COVID and has come out many times before and unfortunately will continue to come out.

But what about educational ethics? Well, given the lousy choices that we did make and have made and, unfortunately, look as though we’re going to continue to make, I think that is a reason to have ed ethics as a field that can speak up and have a broad array of people who have done the kind of thinking we need ahead of time so that when questions of public policy and practice come up and we have concerns we can have the tools to hand immediately to speak out about these things. So that’s one reason that it’s important to me to start a field of educational ethics so we have that kind of broad base of expertise and range of experts — this is not just about philosophers, it’s not just about historians, it’s not just legal experts, not just academics. It’s not just in the United States, it’s all over. We want people in all sorts of fields, in all sorts of positionalities who are able to talk about the ethical dimensions of the work and offer guidance about it in real time.

As we are able to develop educational ethics as a field, we will engage in more ethical behavior. It’s not only about hard problems. It’s also, in fact, about being able to say “This is an ongoing question. Let’s figure out what the best answer is to that question,” and have that at hand.


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