Paula Mirk

Ethics: A Great Teaching Connector for All Learners

The study of ethics requires asking "What is right?" and "What is good?" In one form or another, most children ask these questions of themselves and their surroundings on a regular basis. As they mature into adolescents, justice issues—especially those that affect them—become a prominent part of this questioning process. For this reason, we consider ethics a great teaching opportunity.The study of ethics can

  • Connect students to content areas.
  • Stimulate emotions, making an otherwise dry subject come alive.
  • Provide frameworks for practicing critical-thinking skills.
  • Level the playing field...because any student, from any walk of life, has had to confront the questions, "What is right?" and "What is good?" on plenty of occasions.

Consider the following example. Jeff's math class is learning to plot data on a bar graph. Jeff has never liked math, and feels he rarely understands much about what's going on in it. But just then, his teacher asks, "How many of you have ever felt you were treated unfairly?" Suddenly, all hands in the room shoot up. Even Jeff can answer this question! And he finds the next question even more interesting: "How many of you have felt unfairly treated here at school?" Jeff can respond to that question also. Next, the teacher asks students to write three examples of being unfairly treated at school, and then he will collect all of their responses. Jeff participates here, too! Jeff's teacher has found a way for Jeff to fully engage in math class—through ethics!

Jeff's teacher is wise enough to say "Please put your name on your paper only so I can check in with you if I don't understand what you've written." Jeff's teacher checks with him, because writing is a big challenge for Jeff. But Jeff's feelings and experiences are no less clear and legitimate just because he can't write about them effectively. Jeff's teacher has validated both the feelings and the struggle as part of this assignment. Now Jeff is fully invested in the class.

The next day, the teacher has cards prepared with all sorts of ways that students have reported having been treated unfairly at school. Jeff is pleased to see that his ideas are among them! The class separates into small groups, sorting the data and helping the teacher to build a bar graph of the results. Jeff is absorbed in the experience from start to finish.

Particularly for students with learning differences, ethics can be an effective way to lead them to participate in classroom activities and keep them interested. The trick is to connect your topic to their strongly held beliefs and blossoming self development. A simple planning list should answer the following questions:

  1. What is my target theme or concept?
  2. What ethics concepts will hook my students?
  3. What prompts or activities will connect the ethics concept to the theme?
  4. How can I teach so that a variety of learners (kinesthetic, visual, verbal, auditory) will participate?
  5. How can I maximize strengths and support needs?

Jeff's teacher developed his planning list this way:

Planning Element Lesson
What is my target theme or concept? Making a bar graph from data
What ethics concept will hook my students? Fairness
What prompt will connect my target
and hook?
Instances of fairness
How can I honor my learners? Kinesthetic: card sorting and bar graph building
Visual: cards used to build bar graph
Auditory: questions, discussions
Verbal: questions, discussions
How can I maximize strengths
and support needs?
Engage emotions and provide a safe way for all children to communicate ideas

There are lots of other ways to integrate ethics in your class work. Visit the Ethical Literacy website for more ideas!

Paula Mirk worked at whole child partner the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) for 17 years. For the majority of her tenure, she oversaw IGE's education department. IGE collaborates with national and international organizations and with school districts large and small to integrate ethical literacy into classroom practice, school culture, and systemic reform. Connect with IGE at

Comments (1)

Susan Stock

December 11, 2012

Paula, I wish I’d taught next to you in a school setting.  It has been hard to find someone who thinks the way we do about “safe” classrooms that allow all kinds of learning to grow and expand.  I used your above technique in my weekly “Morning Meeting”  in the sharing or lesson part.  I found that the “popular” students had more difficulty adjusting to this type of activity.  I think they had always had the answers easily and also had expectations to be “right” rather than to evaluate.  So, it was hard for them.  This is an area where everyone was on equal ground, but I have to say my special education students jumped right in and understood how this activity could give them value, power and esteem.  Thanks

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