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Moral Questions in the Classroom

Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork

Katherine G. Simon
Theodore R. Sizer
Nancy Faust Sizer
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Moral Questions in the Classroom
    Book Description:

    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 honoring their academic mission. Using extensive observations in public, Catholic, and Jewish high schools, Katherine Simon analyzes 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 educators 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 students.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14843-5
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer

    “The kids are complaining about the new unit,” a teacher told us happily. The smile on her face suggested an unexpected contradiction. The unit was on the legislative process, and the students’ assignment was to find a bill currently in Congress, to decide whether they should support or oppose it, and then to prepare a presentation that they would make in person to a congressional staffer in Washington.

    “Right now, we’re discussing the issues behind the issues,” the teacher continued, “who will benefit, who will not. The kids are really into the idea that the Congress has to sort out...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Place of Meaning
    (pp. 1-14)

    In one of my first years of high school teaching, I asked my students to memorize and recite some lines fromMacbeth. 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...

  6. CHAPTER 2 What Is Moral Education?
    (pp. 15-38)

    In the previous chapter, i suggested working definitions of moral and existential questions. As I use the terms, “moral questions” are those that have to do with how human beings should act in situations that involve the well-being of oneself, of other human beings, of other living things, or of the earth. “Existential questions” are those that involve reflection about human nature and the mysteries of the universe. These two definitions say little, however, about what “moral education” is. What are the purposes of moral education? What is its content?

    There are a number of salient schools of thought on...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Three High Schools and a Researcher
    (pp. 39-52)

    This chapter describes how i chose to study the schools and classrooms that I did. It also describes some of the theoretical assumptions, practical considerations, and personal predilections that influenced the study design, and outlines important changes in my conception of the study as the work unfolded. Further details of research methods and methodological concerns, such as the validity and generalizability of the study, can be found in the Appendix.

    Because my chief interest was to consider how moral education could be conducted well in public schools, I necessarily wanted to include a public school in my study. But I...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “We Could Argue About That All Day”: Missed Opportunities for Exploring Moral Questions
    (pp. 53-98)

    When researchers have claimed that all schooling inevitably involves moral education and that all teaching must be seen as a moral endeavor, they have generally referred not to course content but to the “implicit” or “hidden” curriculum, the inescapably moral implications of day-to-day interactions and of the structural aspects of school.¹ In this chapter, I claim that in addition to what happens implicitly in the structural or interpersonal arenas, thecontentof high school classes regularly—even daily—includes matters of moral and existential concern. This is because the explicit curricula of the core subject areas abound with moral questions....

  9. CHAPTER 5 “It Makes You Think”: Sustained Discussions of Moral and Existential Questions
    (pp. 99-143)

    As i stated in chapter 1, fairly wide consensus exists among policymakers and theoreticians regarding the idea that schools should be—and cannot help but be—involved in moral education. The consensus about the necessity and inevitability of engaging in moral education falls apart, however, when such groups discuss what the nature of explicit moral education in schools should be. The curricular philosophy that I have termed the virtues approach—a particular strand of the much wider “character education” movement—is being implemented in schools around the country.¹ If, as I believe, the virtues approach falls short, it is clear...

  10. CHAPTER 6 From the Sublime to the Mundane: Religion Courses in Religious Schools
    (pp. 144-179)

    Hoping to glean insights for public schools from the religious schools I studied, I chose my religious school sites largely on the basis of their apparent openness in approaching moral issues. I looked for religious schools that, like public schools, serve diverse populations of students, and I looked for teachers within those schools who saw their role as facilitating exploration of moral and existential issues in an intellectually rigorous way rather than to promote a given doctrine. The religion classes I observed at Agnon and Saint Paul fulfilled these criteria well.

    It will perhaps seem odd that in a chapter...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Whose Values Will Get Taught? The Challenge of Pluralism
    (pp. 180-219)

    When i mention in any context that i am writing about how public schools might thoughtfully engage in moral education, the following question almost invariably arises: “If public schools engage in moral education, whose values will they teach?” In a society as diverse as ours, the question is both inevitable and confoundingly difficult. In this chapter, I briefly examine four existing answers to this challenge: (1) the status quo, (2) “universal values,” (3) “values clarification,” and (4) “pedagogical neutrality.” I then provide a fifth answer, “schoolwide inquiiy,” that, though extremely demanding, holds more promise than the other approaches.

    One way...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Case for Systemic Reform
    (pp. 220-231)

    My goal has been both to suggest changes in the educational system and to inspire individual teachers who would like to invigorate the intellectual and moral life of their classrooms. I have argued that our schools neglect the issues of most importance to students and to developing a deep understanding of the disciplines. Because this neglect riddles the whole system—from textbooks to standardized tests, from the substance of preservice and in-service teacher education programs to the criteria for teacher evaluations—changing the status quo will require systemic change. On the other hand, there are immediate steps that teachers, working...

  13. AFTERWORD Strategies and Tools for Incorporating Moral and Existential Questions into the Classroom
    (pp. 232-248)

    Incorporating moral and existential questions into the curriculum is a very challenging endeavor. It requires learning a lot about the issues themselves and about resources that students might use to research them; it requires a flexible set of instructional strategies very different from those one might use to impart information. Embarking on this work, a teacher might face resistance from students who are being asked to think and express themselves in ways that they are not used to, concerns from administrators who worry about covering material and are shy of drumming up controversy, and fear or anger from parents who...

  14. Appendix: Methods
    (pp. 249-253)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 254-272)
  16. References
    (pp. 273-282)
  17. Index
    (pp. 283-288)