Cover image for Moral questions in the classroom : how to get kids to think deeply about real life and their schoolwork
Moral questions in the classroom : how to get kids to think deeply about real life and their schoolwork
Simon, Katherine G., 1962-
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Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xv, 288 pages ; 25 cm
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LC311 .S49 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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What constitutes a just war? How does race matter in America? Are the interests of corporations the same as those of the public when it comes to the environment or public health? Middle and high school history, literature, and science classes abound with important moral, social, and political questions. But under pressure to cover required materials and out of fear of raising controversy, teachers often avoid classroom discussions of questions of profound importance to students and to society. This book investigates how schools can responsibly take an active role in moral education while honouring their academic mission. Using extensive observations in public, Catholic, and Jewish high schools, Katherine Simon analyses the ways in which teachers avoid or address moral questions raised by students and implicit in course materials. She examines how morally charged issues may be taught responsibly in a diverse democracy. And in an afterword that teachers and teacher-trainers will find particularly useful, Simon provides practical tools and strategies for structuring discussion and designing units to help teachers explore moral issues more deeply with their middle and high school stude

Author Notes

Katherine G. Simon is director of research and professional development at the Coalition of Essential Schools in Oakland, California.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This is a particularly timely book, given the moral and ethical discussions taking place in classrooms since the terrorist attacks on the U.S., starting with revenge versus justice. Using interviews with teachers and students in public, Catholic, and Jewish schools and her experience as a high-school teacher, Simon examines how teachers explore moral and existential issues in the course of teaching standard school curricula. Simon advocates that teachers encourage exploration of moral issues to develop students' moral as well as intellectual skills--and because research, most notably by Robert Coles, has shown that young people are interested in such issues. She briefly and broadly defines what might be moral or existential issues, cautions against usurping the work of church and family or distracting schools from teaching the basics, and offers practical strategies for structuring discussions. Parents and educators of middle-and high-school students will find this a helpful resource. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Motivated by a suspicion that schools fail to teach what "matters," Simon, director of research at the Coalition of Essential Schools in California, spent months observing literature, history and biology classes at a public, a Catholic and a Jewish high school. What "matters" to Simon is the integration of moral and existential inquiry into the classroom; she argues that not only are moral and existential questions at the heart of the major disciplines, they are also extremely compelling to students. But too much of what goes on in schools, she contends, is "the forming of uninformed opinions" and "decontextualized fact acquisition." Although she shows how even good teachers sometimes deflect or shut down important discussions, Simon places the blame squarely on the education system that works "against teachers being able to incorporate discussions of substantive issues into their classrooms." As in many recent books, the villain is the standardized test, and the stakes, for both students and teachers, attached to it. Simon writes fluently, integrating transcripts of classroom discussions smoothly into her narrative and engagingly conveying her idealist's passion for reform. To reconsider education's entire enterprise is a very tall order, however, and Simon acknowledges the enormous obstacles her project faces. Readers will agree that students shouldn't continue to feel disengaged in school because they're denied the chance to ask and answer essential questions, but they may be skeptical of Simon's starry-eyed recipe for change. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Simon investigates how to address moral issues in the context of the core subjects of standard high school curricula. Research studies of three high schools led to her conclusion that moral issues are "shut down" in classroom discussions (chapter 4) and that meaningful moral discussions can occur in the science (or other subject matter) classroom (chapter 5). Simon illustrates these claims with ample narrative evidence, including transcriptions of classroom discussions. Throughout, she remains sensitive to ethical pluralism in American society as it is mirrored in public schooling. Her overview of contemporary approaches to moral education is comprehensive (with detailed chapter notes) and includes recent conceptions incorporating spirituality. The study's empirical base appears solid. The afterword, although brief, gives helpful guidelines for designing courses around key moral questions. Developed by teachers and staff from the Coalition of Essential Schools, the strategies and student exercises arose from professional collaboration. This supports the author's conclusion that "It's time to transform teaching into work that calls upon our greatest powers of collaboration and creativity, ... that takes advantage of the maturity and wisdom we have managed to gain." Recommended for upper-division undergraduates and above. P. M. Socoski University of Florida



Chapter One The Place of Meaning In one of my first years of high school teaching, I asked my students to memorize and recite some lines from Macbeth . On the day the assignment was due, one of the students called out the following lines from her seat: Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing. I then did what I understood to be my job as an English teacher: I helped the students understand the definitions of the words "struts," "frets," and "signifying." I asked them to comment on the central metaphor, in which life is compared to an actor. We pounded out the rhythm on our desks, noting that the first, fourth, and fifth lines do not fall neatly into iambic pentameter and discussing why Shakespeare might have departed from his norm for these. We had a passably interesting discussion about the meter and the words.     Neither I nor my students, however, thought to discuss the heart of the passage, the real question being raised here: does life have meaning? I knew that English teachers were supposed to teach about figures of speech and vocabulary, and I knew how to do that. I was neither equipped nor expected to explore questions about what it means to be human. And so our discussion stayed safely out of the realm of morals and meaning. Yet by focusing on the play's external structures rather than on its existential core, I unfortunately ignored the very elements of the play that I myself find most important and exciting and that I believe might have held most interest for my students.     This book arises out of the suspicion that slowly took root in me as a high school teacher, that even as my colleagues and I taught academic disciplines born of the great curiosities and passions of humankind, our classes somehow focused on closed answers, definitions, and formulas rather than on the questions, the sense of wonder, and the yearning for understanding that gave rise to the disciplines in the first place. I suspected that we were not teaching what matters.     This book is an investigation of that suspicion, an investigation into what does matter and what should matter in school, and particularly, into when and how moral and existential issues are addressed in the context of the core subjects of standard high school curricula. In investigating these questions, I hoped to find and to document the work of a number of teachers who, more than I had done in the case of Macbeth , were regularly able to integrate the study of moral and existential questions into their courses. I also hoped to examine the notion that students might find exploring these questions fascinating and important--and so discover a sense of purpose and excitement regarding their studies, now so lacking in the daily grind of high school life.     I began with two core assumptions: · Moral and existential questions are at the core of the disciplines. Human knowledge--including that represented by the academic disciplines--has come into existence largely as a result of the pursuit of answers to moral and existential questions. Because of this, study of subjects like literature, history, and science is quite partial and incomplete if it excludes moral and existential questions, and thoughtful study of these subjects inevitably gives rise to further moral and existential questions. · Most people find moral and existential questions fascinating. Moral and existential questions should be addressed in schools both because they are intrinsic to and inextricable from the disciplines and because students are likely to care about them. Study of these questions is likely to imbue students' work with a sense of purpose and meaning.     I began my investigation, in short, with the premise that human beings are occupied with questions of meaning. We want to know if our life has a purpose; we want to connect the meaning of our individual lives to those of other people and maybe even to the universe as a whole. We want to make sense of the pain we endure and to understand the sources of wonder and joy. We are full of questions about our existence. Robert Coles, taking hundreds of interviews focusing on children's moral and spiritual lives, has documented that young people, particularly, are deeply engaged in these questions. He writes: "The longer I've known children, the more readily I've noticed the abiding interest they have in reflecting about human nature, about the reasons people behave as they do, about the mysteries of the universe as evinced in the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars." Coles sees children, like the rest of us, as "pilgrims," wondering "about it all, the nature of the journey and the final destination."     Agreeing with Coles that children actively wonder about "the nature of the journey," I already knew what I believed when I set out to research what was actually happening in schools: Teachers should encourage exploration of moral and existential issues--if only because kids are extremely interested in them. And while they are engaged in questions that interest them, I believed, students would also have opportunities to develop a host of invaluable intellectual and moral skills, traits, and sensibilities: a hunger for deeper understanding and the stamina to seek it out, a sense of connection with the human beings throughout history who have struggled with similar questions, the ability to see shades of gray in conflicts and to articulate nuanced opinions, the habit of seeking out multiple points of view, the habit of collaborating to explore complex issues, the willingness to change one's mind when that is warranted, and even the capacity for empathy.     Along with my enthusiasm for the idea that teachers should encourage the exploration of moral and existential issues, I also began with serious concerns about the idea. First, the very terms I was using seemed vague. What constitutes a "moral" or "existential" topic or question? The words are almost infinitely broad, for all human interactions have moral components and all curiosity about the nature of human life can be seen as "existential." If everything is moral or existential in one way or another, what would it mean to focus on the moral and existential in schools? Is there any specific content implied by these words? What would instruction in moral and existential questions look like? Is it a teaching of beliefs, of attitudes? Is it engaging in certain activities? How would I know "it" when I saw it?     Another concern involved the core assumption that moral and existential issues have an important place in school . Granted that human beings are moral creatures who wonder about the meaning of their existence, this does not imply that schools must make moral and existential issues their areas of central focus. I, like many others, could easily argue that the primary mission of schools is intellectual; schools are supposed to promote literacy, mathematical skills, and high-order thinking. Anything else, especially given the widespread and daunting lack of success in meeting even those goals, may well be a distraction. This view was supported by Robert Maynard Hutchins, who--in the language of his time--argued that schools should keep out of the business of moral education: "Education deals with the development of the intellectual powers of men. Their moral and spiritual powers are the sphere of the family and the church. All three agencies must work in harmony; for, though a man has three aspects, he is still one man. But the schools cannot take over the role of the family and the church without promoting the atrophy of those institutions and failing in the task that is proper to the schools." I certainly did not want to usurp religious institutions and the family, and I did want schools to focus on helping children learn to use their minds well. Perhaps, I thought, schools should indeed stick closely to the task of developing the intellect.     A third concern focused on the connection, which Hutchins takes for granted, between moral and existential questions and religion. I worried that one could not distinguish moral and existential teachings from religion in a way that would be appropriate in the public schools. Given that many people derive their moral convictions from religious teachings, is it actually possible to address moral and existential questions without effectively teaching religion? Put another way, if teachers became engaged in helping students develop opinions about moral and existential questions, how would they avoid either promoting or negating the teachings of particular religions?     A final concern involved the recognition that many programs of moral education--especially those which seek to please a wide constituency--are quite superficial, transmitting simplistic notions of "right" versus "wrong," and focusing as much on the memorization of terms and regurgitation of facts as some academic courses. There is no guarantee that a course, just because it focuses on moral matters, will be engaging to students, intellectually powerful, or morally sensitive. And I had the sense that simplistic, dull, or heavy-handed teaching regarding moral or existential matters would probably be far more disturbing than simplistic, dull, or heavy-handed teaching about most other things.     Taking my sense that teachers should be integrating moral matters into their curriculum together with these concerns, I sought to answer these questions: · What does the discussion of moral and existential issues look like in high school classrooms? · How does the exploration of moral and existential issues intersect with more conventional academic work? Do they interfere with each other? Is it possible to do both? · What about the separation of church and state? How can one explore moral issues without promoting one religious view or another? How can one explore moral issues while honoring cultural and religions pluralism? · Practically speaking, what might a teacher do to make moral and existential issues more central to his or her curriculum? To pursue these questions, I spent three months going to school all day, observing classes across the curriculum and interviewing teachers and students. One month was spent at a suburban public high school with a reputation for both innovation and excellence. Conjecturing that teachers in religious schools might have more freedom to pursue moral and existential issues than their public school counterparts, I spent the other two months at a Catholic and a Jewish high school, observing courses in religion as well as English, history, and biology. Through a wide variety of vivid excerpts from classroom discussions, this book reports what I saw and heard in these three schools and explores the implications of these observations for the theory and practice of moral and existential education in the public schools. The Words "Moral" and "Existential" As I mentioned above, one of the challenges of this discussion is that the words "moral" and "existential" tend to be used so broadly and vaguely that it is hard to know their boundaries. It will be useful, therefore, to establish some working definitions.     I use "existential" very much as Coles uses the word "spiritual" in his description of children's spirituality, to involve reflection about human nature and the mysteries of the universe, including the meanings of life and death. In addition to these spiritual matters, I use "existential" to include, as the word implies, issues involving the quality of existence--like those regarding health and emotional well-being. Here are some examples of questions I consider existential, as they grapple with the mysteries and meaning of life: · What does it mean to lead a good life? · Why is there so much suffering? · Is there a God? · What happens when we die? · Do we have free will, or are our fates determined? The following, of a somewhat more immediate nature, would also be included in my category of "existential concerns": · What makes me feel happy and fulfilled? · Where can I find friendship and love? · In what ways do I most need to grow and develop? · How can I nurture my ongoing growth and development?     While existential questions have to do with life and its meaning, moral questions, as I use the phrase, have to do with how human beings should act (or should have acted) in situations that involve the well-being of oneself, of other human beings, of other living things, or of the earth. Examples of moral questions that might come up in high school classes include the following: · Do I have responsibilities toward homeless people in my city? · Should a shopping center be built where it would destroy a marsh? · Was the United States right to have dropped atomic bombs on Japan? · Should someone who is caught using illegal drugs be sent to jail or be given treatment? · Should I help someone who is bleeding, even though he or she might have AIDS? · Is it okay to cheat if I think the teacher's grading system is not fair? · Is violence ever justified?     The boundaries between the moral and the existential quickly become blurred, for, in considering moral questions, people often refer to existential beliefs. One might answer the moral question about homeless people, for example, by stating that "We are responsible for helping all people find adequate shelter, for all human beings are created in the image of God." Moral questions often evoke existential answers, and the reverse is also true. A person pondering the meaning of a good life, for example, might put her existential conclusions into action, thus entering the realm of the moral.     I employ the terms "moral" and "existential," then, while acknowledging that they imply and interact with each other so thoroughly that in practice they are probably inseparable. Furthermore, in common usage, the distinctions are not clear. Some speakers and writers use the word "moral" in a broad sense, to refer to both what I call moral and what I call existential. Many others would use the term "spiritual" for what I call existential. The distinctions are ultimately not as important as the power the terms give us to focus our attention on what Nel Noddings calls "the things that matter most deeply to human beings" and how schools address or fail to address them. The Educational Context In the time since I recorded the classroom interactions that form the basis of this book, there has been widespread adoption across the country of high-stakes standardized tests. These tests are typically used both to measure the performance of individual students and to evaluate the work of individual teachers and whole schools. They are known as "high stakes," because, typically, teachers can be censured or fired on the basis of poor test scores on the part of their students, and whole schools can be "reconstituted"--teachers and principals replaced--if they fail to raise test scores a given number of points in a given number of years. For students, failure on the tests can mean being held back to repeat a grade or being denied a diploma.     The best of the standardized tests may in fact assess one or two of the qualities that one might hope to nurture through investigations of moral or existential questions--the ability to analyze a reasoned argument, for example, or to comprehend a variety of points of view. To the degree that standardized tests can help teachers assess progress in these areas, that is for the good. But it is crucial to note that most of the qualities one would hope to develop in students through an exploration of moral issues--or more generally through a rich and rigorous education--cannot possibly be assessed by standardized tests. More important, the development of these qualities is in many cases actually hampered by the existence of the tests and the stakes attached to them.     One of the aims of this book is to question key assumptions behind the testing movement: the assumption that the important outcomes of education are those that can be tested with pencil and paper in a few hours and scored en masse; the assumption that important intellectual achievements of students and teachers can be charted on a bell curve; the assumption that one test will work across a state or a country; the assumption that there needs to be no connection between the intellectual life of a particular classroom and the tools that are used to evaluate it.     The truth is that the most important intellectual and moral achievements require the development of habits of mind--such as asking the right questions, seeking out multiple possible answers, knowing when and how to collaborate, knowing where to find more information, thinking "out of the box"--which such tests cannot measure. It is also true that the important intellectual achievements of human beings do not fall out neatly into percentile rankings. If classrooms are intellectually vibrant, if groups of children are allowed to follow their curiosities, they will follow paths of their own, covering different specific content from whatever the test makers might have anticipated. The children in such classrooms may score poorly on standardized tests, while being very smart in every way that matters in life.     The testing movement and the rhetoric of politicians have somehow made it seem that having a high-stakes testing program is equivalent to raising standards. Although this book focuses little on testing per se, I do aim to put a very different spin on what it means to raise standards and also to demonstrate some of the ways education is impoverished when it centers on testable content. As such, this book is an argument for raising expectations for both teachers and students, for believing that it is possible for teachers and students to do much more exciting and substantive work than is now the norm. I seek to paint a picture of what school could be like--including what students' intellectual accomplishments could be--if we explicitly, energetically stopped teaching to tests and made room for a different definition of what matters. The Social Context The mid- and late 1990s saw American popular culture brimming with evidence of people groping for moral clarity and spiritual truths. Such works as The Celestine Prophecy , a novel promising "insights into the meaning of life," and Care of the Soul , a nonfiction piece providing "a new vision of spiritual fulfillment," remained on bestseller lists for years, while Chicken Soup for the Soul , a collection of short stories purporting to provide spiritual insight and comfort, spawned more than a dozen sequels. As one journalist described the phenomenon, "If you want to write a bestseller, you've gotta have soul. In the book's title, that is." A compact-disc recording of monks singing Gregorian chants stunned the music industry by becoming a bestseller on the pop music charts; it, too, has given rise to sequels, and now chanters of the Koran and holy Hindu texts are packaged for popular audiences as well. Politicians peppered their speeches with professions of their own religious commitments, chasing what USA Today dubbed "the values vote." As the new century begins, talking about, reading about, searching for, and promoting morality and spirituality remain in vogue.     It is likely, though, that the intensity of the search for moral clarity and spiritual insight arises out of an underlying sense of confusion about these matters. Vaclav Havel, like other contemporary thinkers, claims that modern people lack a sense of connection to one another and to the universe, a lack he attributes to the role science has played in shaping modern epistemology. The dizzying development of science, with its unconditional faith in objective reality and complete dependency on general and rationally knowable laws, led to the birth of modern technological civilization. It is the first civilization that spans the entire globe and binds together all societies, submitting them to a common global destiny. At the same time, the relationship to the world that modern science fostered and shaped appears to have exhausted its potential. The relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It produces a state of schizophrenia: man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being. Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality. And the more dogmatically science treated it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became. We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.     Havel's theme has been reflected throughout the past decade in the more mundane prose of the popular media. Time magazine, introducing its choice as "Man of the Year" for 1994, explained, "In these days of moral chaos, John Paul II is fiercely resolute about his ideals." Providing a careful rationale for the selection of the pope, Time wrote nothing to defend its premise that we live in an age of moral chaos. That idea needed no defense. It had become commonplace by the end of 1994, and remains so.     My study of the possibility of integrating moral and existential questions into public school curricula is situated, thus, in the context of a social paradox: words like "moral," "spiritual," "soul," "virtue," and "values" fill our magazines, bestsellers, and politicians' speeches, while at the same time "something escapes us." As a society, despite our fascination with and increasing dependence on technology, we doubt that science can answer all of our questions. Most of us, however, lack access to or understanding of other sources of knowledge. We seem to have to choose between science as the basis of all knowledge, on one hand, and faddish or highly politicized versions of spirituality and morality on the other.     If society is generally in a moral and existential muddle, it is not surprising that schools' moral missions would be confused as well. It is precisely in times of crisis, however, that people look to schools for solutions. The sense of moral confusion and the pervasive feeling that society is in disarray--along with alarming, regular news reports of teenagers involved in extreme acts of violence--have given rise to widespread calls for moral education in the schools.     These calls rest, quite often, on the claim that a lack of proper moral instruction in the schools accounts for many of the current social ills. Thomas Lickona and a number of other advocates of moral education attribute at least some of the increases in teenage pregnancy, violence, vandalism, and general greed and materialism directly to changing philosophies and practices of moral education. (Continues...) Excerpted from Moral Questions in the Classroom by Katherine G. Simon. Copyright © 2001 by Katherine G. Simon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer
Forewordp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Chapter 1 The Place of Meaningp. 1
Chapter 2 What Is Moral Education?p. 15
Chapter 3 Three High Schools and a Researcherp. 39
Chapter 4 "We Could Argue About That All Day": Missed Opportunities for Exploring Moral Questionsp. 53
Chapter 5 "It Makes You Think": Sustained Discussions of Moral and Existential Questionsp. 99
Chapter 6 From the Sublime to the Mundane: Religion Courses in Religious Schoolsp. 144
Chapter 7 Whose Values Will Get Taught? The Challenge of Pluralismp. 180
Chapter 8 The Case for Systemic Reformp. 220
Afterword: Strategies and Tools for Incorporating Moral and Existential Questions into the Classroomp. 232
Appendix Methodsp. 249
Notesp. 254
Referencesp. 273
Indexp. 283