Strategies for Teaching Ethical Case Studies
The "solutions" of many case studies often seem obvious to any one individual. In teaching the development of ethical thinking, however, the teacher must focus primarily on the process, and refrain from establishing his or her own view as the measure of "correct" thinking. One must ask for the reasons, or justification, based on general principles, that support the view -- not just personal opinion, feeling or religion. Careful listening is the first skill for teacher and student alike. The student must then use any opposing view as a touchstones for developing a more effective argument.
Here is a list of questions that often help in leading novices to start thinking productively. They are not ways of simply deciding right and wrong. Rather, they provide a framework for building a consensus along ethical dimensions:
Note that many cases are not simply problems in articulating "right" and "wrong." Ethics also involves creative problem-solving. Ethical analysis also introduces the often difficult problem of deciding how to act. For example, when one becomes aware of lapses in scientific integrity, how does one expose them without endangering one's job, career opportunities, credibility, possibly even friendships? How does one negotiate the desired endpoint: that individuals take responsiblity for the consequences of their own actions? How does one's available options vary with a person's position? What creative alternatives can your students generate?
- Who are the stakeholders? What are their interests? Are they involved in the decision-making?
- What are the forseeable consequences (possibly remote or hidden)? What are the alternatives? Is the worst case scenario acceptable?
- What intentions or motives guide the choice?
- What are the benefits? What are the costs?
- Who benefits? Who risks or pays the costs? (Who is upstream, choosing benefits? Who is downstream, experiencing the consequences?) Would you be willing to accept any consequence of this action falling on yourself?
- What would be the outcome if everyone acted this way?
What is the teacher's role? Focusing on the process for the students themselves does not necessarily mean disguising one's views. A strong example is set for students by someone who offers their views, give reasons, and then actively seeks the opinions of others. The teacher may serve as an important model for listening to alternative positions--and giving authority to their justifications. At the same time, the teacher--who traditionally carries unquestioned authority--must be careful to guide discussion based on good reasons. A "good" reason, here, is one powerful enough to persuade a critic by appeal to general principles on which all agree.
Teaching of cases studies can be managed on several levels:
Of course, the appropriate strategy (or combination thereof) will vary with the case and the social dynamics of the class.
- Individual work can be especially valuable where students need the opportunity to develop and articulate their own values. Questions or worksheets that guide each person through broader contexts and deeper issues can help the student. Personal reflection is an especially good starting point for strange or unfamiliar issues.
- Small group work allows students to assess their views in the context of other views and alternative justifications. It can encourage a cooperative approach to problem-solving. Small groups of 3 to 5 allow every student a chance to contribute to discussion.
- Collective work in discussions by the class as a whole allows a greater sense of building a consensus. A broader spectrum of views is often available to each individual. The teacher ideally monitors discussion to incorporate many individuals and address a wide range of views.
The SHiPS Teachers' Network helps teachers share experiences and resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology of science in the the science classroom.