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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

I am so grateful that my friends at The Good Project, a research organization based at Harvard, wrote an article this week for our newsletter about their dilemma-based case study curriculum for middle and high school students. Not surprisingly, when students complete the curriculum, they show significant growth across several character strengths. You can read their article here.

While reading the article, I suddenly asked myself…why? Why don’t all middle schools and high schools have classes or courses that build their students’ ethical muscles? Isn’t ethical decision-making a skill all students should develop, whether they go into the military, become an engineer, or start a business?

I understand why middle and high school students have gym classes. But is gym more important than equipping students with the skills to reflect on what is fair or just? 

Ethical dilemmas are designed to improve moral reasoning skills. Developmentally, the first step in thinking ethically is for students to recognize the range of universal principles that make up the ethical landscape: Fairness. Care and compassion. Equality. Rights. Justice. Truth. Respect. The Golden Rule.

The best ethical dilemmas impel us to “see” both sides. They force us to consider what is right or wrong and the reasons why. Teachers trained to use dilemmas also know when the time is right for students to reflect on which principles are beginning to shape and form their moral identity

Yet the real challenge for teachers is not just assessing whether students know why these principles are important. Rather, their real challenge is finding ways for students to self-examine whether they apply these principles to their everyday behaviors and decisions. 

Teachers also use ethical dilemmas to encourage students to examine how emotions play a dynamic, often overlooked role in their ethical decision-making. In short, researchers have long known that tweens and teens will cognitively know what’s the right thing to do, but they succumb instead to peer pressure or the desire to conform. 

In sum, ethical dilemmas offer opportunities for students to: 

  • Identify the different and often conflicting principles in an ethical dilemma
  • Critically consider how their emotions, biases, and experiences may be influencing their perspective
  • Make a decision that’s based on their deepest beliefs and the principles they want to live by

To my knowledge, no states or school districts require students to demonstrate that they have developed ethical reasoning skills. Why not?

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