Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Educational Ethics

If I needed further proof that I was in exactly the right major, it showed up this week in the form of the Utah State Magazine. The cover story is about how great it is that nine USU professors are working on grants from the National Science Foundations. Seven of them are in the hard sciences, but two of them are in Instructional Technology an Learning Science. They just happen to be the professors I have this term. One is studying the positive effects in math (statistics) learning when students take their own biometric data, the other is studying how science education is improved when students have to make logical arguments.

I've been thinking a lot about the reading I've done recently and wanted to discuss some questions with you all. I posted these same questions in a section of one of my classes today because I wanted to see what system "insiders" had to say. But I'm also very interested in the opinions of those outside the education establishment. Here is what I wrote:

In the Martinez book most of us have studied for Dr. Lee's class this semester, part of the working definition of learning in that book is that people's minds will be open to new ideas, to reconfigure schema as necessary. According to educational psychologists and learning scientists, therefore, to be educated means that you are willing to be open to new ideas. 

And yet, in every one of our classes, we work with children whose parents are terrified of this very thing. Years ago I knew a man who was asking me about his daughter's English class--why couldn't her  AP English teacher  just teach her writing and proper grammar? "Why," I'll never forget him saying, "do they have to read all these awful books and cram her head full of ideas?" He was a very religious man; his concern was that his daughter would reject his world view if she was too encouraged to seek her own. And yet, he was a successful accountant with a degree. No doubt he would consider himself to be very educated. 

I've taught both sex education and evolution in very conservative states.  (Utah and Texas.) Ethics questions are very real and complicated. . . and sometimes honesty as the best policy means the phone will ring off the hook after school. What might be common sense to one person might not be so common or make any sense at all to another. So now for my question(s): What do we do as teachers when what we are trying to teach our students puts us at odds with members of our school community? How do we encourage students to explore new ideas and possibilities without undermining parental authority or rights? What have been your experiences with teaching controversial subjects? How do we address this very fundamental disconnect between our most conservative communities and one of the stated goals of real learning (the opening of the mind)?

"And it is very real--people are leaving public schools in astonishing numbers to home school with no more credentials than seminary graduation and righteous indignation. Our current political climate is toxic to our schools and half of our families tune in every night for another tirade about the place down the street where you send your kids on the bus every day to become little comrades, or just as bad, liberals. What can be done?

Before anybody says anything, of course I know that this isn't the reason that all home school parents use. The argument was to make a point.


Karin said...

I'm interested to hear what others have to say. I'm not sure that I have articulated my feelings into words. It is something that is visceral to me, but this is important. :-)

mstanger said...

I obviously have no experience as the teacher of controversial subjects (my entire public school teaching career amounts to one week as a 1st grade substitute), but have been on the student end of this. I remember quite well the massive disclaimer Glenn Prisk gave in AP Biology when dealing with evolution. He made clear that this was a topic that was “controversial” in our community, that he was not out to destroy faith. He made clear that what he was about to teach was what we were expected to know for purposes of the AP test, but that did not require us to accept it as truth.

The same is true of any idea.

The accountant father anecdote is horrifying. Exposure to an idea does not require acceptance of that idea. Many ideas are, in fact, wrong. One of the most important skills to develop is the ability to think critically about an idea, to examine it, mull it over, and ultimately accept or reject it. Yes, parents have the initial opportunity to teach their children right and wrong, but at some point, those parents will no longer be there, and their children will have to make those decisions for themselves. Parents who fail to equip their children with critical thinking skills destine them for failure.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

And what an awesome place to start a meaningful conversation with your child!

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

It's a tough line to walk, and there's probably no way a teacher can tackle some subjects without offending someone.

As a religious parent I have a big emotional stake in the principles my kids choose to embrace, and I can see why many conservative parents are concerned when their kids are presented with ideas and values that conflict with their own.

Still, I agree that kids can benefit from exposure to a variety of worldviews so they can learn to analyze them and determine what's really true and right. In high school, one of the people who strengthened my testimony the most was a friend who refused to accept anything blindly, and made me question whether the principles I adhered to were actually the truth.

That said, I am troubled by some teachers who teach their worldview not as an alternative to consider, but as the enlightened antidote to my benighted foolishness. Openness implies giving multiple ideas due consideration, not trying to replace one view with another one. "I'm completely right and you/they are completely wrong" is close-minded whether the speaker is a teacher or a parent, conservative or liberal.

One last thought: Not every controversial lesson is constructive. I know a young man whose porn addiction began when sex ed photos sparked his curiosity. Sometimes the goal of a lesson is worthwhile, but the materials or the way they're presented do more harm than good.

Doreen said...

I had a conversation with a gentleman whose daughter is now being homeschooled (started with 7th grade). He told me how happy he was about the online school they had chosen, and his only issue was that evolution was part of the science curriculum. I told him that I wouldn't have a problem with that, and that, in fact, I was planning on teaching evolution to my own children. He looked at me, then started to laugh and said "Oh, so they can laugh at how stupid it is, right?" I changed the topic... Now that all of my kids are home, I've become more involved in the local homeschool community, and I have to say it's a bit frightening to me to see how one sided of an education many of these kids are receiving. It's all about creationism and history from a biblical perspective. One of the reasons I took my own kids out of school was to get them away from some of the ultra-conservative worldview that abounds in southern TX... But I digress. :p

Desmama said...

Such a great discussion here, one I've been thinking about for a few days now. I know I don't always comment, but I do always read, think, mull over, contemplate, ponder, and for that, I must thank you (and your commenters)!

Karin said...

After seeing some of these posts, I think I might be ready to weigh in... :-) I agree with Kimberly in that exposure to new ideas is good, essential even, as long as the teacher presents in a way that is respectful, and allowing of multiple viewpoints.

After I talked about this to Jared, and the multitudes of reasons for our own educational journey, he stated that it wasn't the "weird stuff" the teachers were going to teach that he was worried about (my kids read "banned books" and learn about evolution as well as religious study), but what they would learn from other kids. I agree with this. Most of what my kids would bring home from the curriculum was a great springboard for discussion (we don't agree with the USDA nutrition guidelines, for example), it would lead to many conversations and "research sessions" in front of the computer. We have just had a unit on "evaluating news and info sources" so my son can learn to do this on his own. That is not problematic. I can't think of any piece of Utah curriculum that I can't deal with.

But...when my empathetic little person learns that putting others down can make you popular...that *is* problematic. When my little people learn that you only do the bare minimum to "learn", that *is* a problem. I am still trying to learn and retrain my way out of the "gifted, so I only needed to learn how to brown nose to succeed" mentality. When they learn that they can never get ahead by being honest and kind, we have a real problem. These are things they were learning the way the young children typically learn: watching, mimicking and completely without words.

The teachers were great. It was the other "learning" that we chose to leave. I think that there is some element of responsibility for teachers (of all kinds) to present a large array of ideas and then to help students become critical thinkers. It is a developmental milestone. Maybe that's where some of the controversy comes in. A 14 yo taking biology and learning about evolution (or whatever his parents don't want him to know) is not always capable of weeding out info from opinion and facts from interpretations whereas an 18yo would be better equipped from a developmental standpoint.

I've noticed that this can get especially bad in the sciences as each scientist follows his own "truth". Not all the time, but in some conversations I have had with scientists, they are absolutely convinced of the truth of one study or another and pass it on as truth, whether the study was inconclusive, poorly designed, etc.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Thanks Karin. Clearly my comments were geared toward people that home school for entirely different reasons. Truthfully, most of my close friends who homeschool have chosen to do so for the reasons you mention above and not for the reasons in my questions.

The social issues are very real. My memories of such are both good and bad. I find that with years and maturity, however, the good is the cream that has risen to the surface of my mind. My dearest friends are still those with whom I went to school. My own boys have had their own social issues, but they've also interacted positively in some great classroom settings, made friends outside the classroom and interacted with excellent teachers who have designed projects I would never have done on my own.

I know that I won't convince anybody about homeschool-public school, but I'm still not sure I buy entirely into parent choice (I've spoken here about the 15 year experiment my community has had with school choice and the drawbacks to it) because I think there are plenty of parents who really are not self-aware and have no clue what is best for their kids. That being said I think that any good parent wants what is best for their kid, and good parents recognize that what is good for one might not be good for another.

I also know that for all of its drawbacks, I owe a lot of who and what I am to the public school system and the amazing teachers I had along the way. I'm fully committed to it as a democratic ideal. I've dedicated a good portion of my life to it, after all, as both a student and a teacher. Even when my kids have hard days, I think it would take a lot more for me to switch horses mid-stream.