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Post-pandemic education: young ethicists

Salzburg, Austria: “Sphaera,” Stephan Balkenhol (2007)

When COVID fever first hit Europe and we were anticipating what would happen next, my students in Vienna naturally wanted to talk about it.  Many of us had recently hit the ski slopes and feared we could be carrying the disease even as we pondered its impact.

I expected questions, anxieties about the disease, about what would happen with school, exams, sports.  What I didn’t expect was that the moment the topic was breached in my sixth form students naturally navigated toward an unbidden discussion of ethics.  They wanted to talk about the impact of the virus and the closures on different types of people, wanted to discuss their disappointment with world leaders.  Rather than investigating their feelings about simple cause and effect or ways the pandemic could impact themselves, they spoke like chess players:

If we close things down and the economy collapses, then so will health care, and how many more will die? 

There were warning signs; governments could have used these to lead with foresight and shut down earlier.  Wouldn’t this have been better for the economy, too? Maybe they can learn from this to deal with climate change.

What can we do now to prepare for our learning at home?  How can we best use our time?  Can we maybe swap that next unit we were going to do for one that’s more independent?   

There are a lot of articles out there that current school closures are changing schools forever because of the use of technology.  Schools have been changing because of technology for a couple of decades, and students are learning skills to help them enhance collaboration or creative and critical thought, but this pandemic is merely making technology visible to the public.  It’s also making disparity between schools or households more visible.  I posit that the real change in education will be the teaching of ethics, something that is not reliant on income or resources. This approach to learning is more important for our workers and leaders in the future than how much time is spent working from home or in the office. 

The greater good.  The impact on humanity.  The reasons we make difficult choices.  These elements of ethical considerations are all the news today as we navigate uncertainty and choices for governments moving forward.  Rather than shield our students from the difficult conversations, we should throw them into it.  They are thinking about these things anyway, and many have strong opinions.  By allowing forums for conversations where multiple perspectives can be considered, logical fallacies identified, and research vetted and presented, students can learn about ethics as well as the importance of the Truth.

Schools with the International Baccalaureate have a class dedicated to such questions called Theory of Knowledge, which is also meant to be interdisciplinary.  Some other schools have courses on ethics, or include this in religious studies or critical thinking classes.  The French study philosophy, both in theory and applied.  When I taught Theory of Knowledge, I would use contemporary case studies for debates from different perspectives that included different subject areas as well as ways of thinking about the world.  As a teacher in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement, we held debate as businessmen, market stall workers, bus drivers, triad members, immigrants, police officers, artists, local politicians, and world leaders.  Students were able to see the issue was not so black and white, and try to find a solution to best serve the community.  

We would then apply ethical lenses, such as universalism or consequentialism, to determine what we thought the best solution should be.  This practiced was mirrored in a recent article from The New York Times: “Restarting America Means People Will Die Soon.  So when do We do it? : Five thinkers weigh moral choices in a crisis.”, where economics, science, statistical data, and more were used to consider how we should move forward in this pandemic.  This was not unlike the conversation my classroom of seventeen year olds first wanted to have. 

Learning about and applying ethics can happen in any classroom.  With a structured understanding of such ways of thinking, students can consider perspectives and work toward a greater humanity.  And isn’t this what we really want our students to learn when they graduate high school? 

We need to help students learn these structures and then give them unstructured time and space to apply them.  This pandemic has also taught us that sometimes less is more when it comes to content, that we should prioritize and condense.  John Hattie’s research of students who missed school after the Christchurch earthquake demonstrates that this extra time could help students actually learn better. Without commutes and scheduled activities or tutors, students have had opportunities to play: to philosophize and form opinions, to create in response to tragedy, to pursue lines of inquiry.  We hear a lot more about the benefits of head space in the world of work these days, such as from Arianna Huffington on the Your Brain at Work podcast.

Let us start thinking about how we aim to move forward.  The English teacher is often trying to help students learn by studying tragedy.  This pandemic is no different, only that the story is real.  Despite, and perhaps because of, its terrible toll on lives through sickness, death, unemployment, anxiety, domestic abuse, and more, we must take the gifts that it leaves in its wake before they are swallowed up by a mindless return to status quo.

Posted 181 weeks ago

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