Moral Education in Good Faith

1. Introduction

In this article, I begin by highlighting the ways in which teachers can instil moral values in our students (§2) before anticipating a key challenge that we may face as we try to do so (§3): what happens when we encounter a dissonance between our own values and the values we are supposed to impart to our students?

This challenge is especially important for us to contend with at the Junior College (JC) level since our students are increasingly informed about social issues and eager to discuss potentially controversial topics relating to gender, race, or inequality. I conclude in §4 by suggesting some practical strategies we can employ to manage the challenge that I have outlined in §3.

2. Instilling Moral Values: Inclusivity, Consistency, and Legitimacy

2.1 Inclusivity

In and outside of the classroom, any instances where divergent perspectives arise are opportunities for moral values to be taught. To ensure that students learn and demonstrate core moral values, we must create environments where students are willing to be open and genuinely share their feelings and convictions derived from their own lived experiences. Through these honest conversations, students can discover — for themselves — how these moral values are relevant to their lives.

Inclusive facilitation strategies (e.g. think-pair-share, fish bowl, etc.) can serve to encourage students to exchange disparate viewpoints and, in the process, negotiate perspectives that may diverge from their own. In addition, dialogic instruction can help students co-construct meaning and develop shared understandings and common knowledge from these candid conversations. Through this process of values-clarification, they can also develop moral sensitivity as they are guided to clarify their beliefs and values by examining their personal feelings, understanding the values and beliefs held by others, and considering the impact of their actions on others.

Importantly, when employing these strategies, we need to encourage participation from all students without silencing or marginalising certain groups. In addition, in case some students feel uncomfortable sharing their views openly in class, we can be mindful to provide alternative pathways for student contribution so each of them can have their views heard and acknowledged. For instance, we can invite students who are hesitant to share their views to pen their thoughts down anonymously through platforms like Slido or Padlet so that their perspectives can still be recognised and validated.

Further, even if insensitive remarks surface on these platforms due to the option of remaining anonymous, we can (and should) use those as teachable moments to underscore the value of tact, respect, and community. Instead of curtailing authentic participation to avoid confrontation, we can leverage these small-scale conflicts to teach our students how to negotiate disagreements and reconcile disparate viewpoints.

2.2 Consistency and Legitimacy

As adults, the way that we teachers conduct ourselves in and outside of the classroom is the bedrock upon which our legitimacy lies. Thus, we need to be conscious about minimising the inconsistencies between

     (a) the values we teach our students and

     (b) the way we act and behave as individuals.

This is especially so in JCs where students are extra sensitive to the disparities between what we say and what we do as teachers and they are less afraid to call us out. This means that a whole-school approach is required for our messaging to be consistent and coherent so that students can better internalise values, social-emotional competencies and citizenship dispositions. Furthermore, since — as Minister Ong Ye Kung suggests — values are both caught and taught, the validity of the core values that we teach will be severely undermined if we emphasise the importance of some values to our students but we do not uphold them ourselves.

3. Anticipating Challenges: Teaching Moral Values in Good Faith

A crucial challenge that may arise when we are trying to instil core moral values is when we as teachers do not share the same moral or metaethical values that we are asked to teach as a part of the structured programme.

How do we maintain consistency and coherence in our messaging when we have to teach students values that we do not necessarily agree with? In those situations, we can easily anticipate a key tension between fulfilling our professional duties and simultaneously teaching moral values in good faith.

4. Strategies to Mitigate Challenges: Authenticity, Tact, and Respect

A first-pass suggestion could be to suppress our personal convictions and deliver the content mechanically and professionally. Unfortunately, that would make moral education contrived and inauthentic.

To resolve this tension, we first have to recognise the fundamentally subjective nature of teaching; teachers are all influenced by our own subjective beliefs, values, and lived experiences. Instead of repressing them, we can leverage this value-laden dimension of teaching in our instruction: since values and beliefs shift across time and contexts, we can harness the moments when values clash and, instead of sweeping them aside, open them up for critical discussion with our students.

For instance, if we find ourselves disagreeing with certain values that are being taught, we may ask our students why they think these values are important and should be upheld. The benefit of such an approach is twofold:

     (1) we uphold our professionalism by not going against the prescribed curriculum and

     (2) we remain consistent with our personal beliefs since we do not have to explicitly endorse values that appear dissonant to us.

Instead, we fulfil the role of facilitators in a critical discussion. Key to my suggestion is the conviction that there is always a way to encourage reflexivity without collapsing the discourse into subversiveness. Teachers can facilitate rigorous discussion while enacting a strong culture of tact and respect.

For more controversial discussions where heated disagreements may arise, I suggest that we abstract away from deep ethical convictions and agree to discuss the issue on a more pragmatic level. In particular, since we know that our actions can have tangible and significant social consequences, we can frame the discussions of these deeply controversial issues in terms of the effects that our actions may have on the people around us. This way, regardless of any disagreements about the universality of certain moral principles or values, we are still able to sincerely facilitate discussions that invite students to consider why we extol certain values in society while frowning upon others.

My suggestion dovetails with Alexander’s (2008) notion of dialogic teaching, where critical discussions in classrooms are collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative, and purposeful. The focus of these discussions is not to assign blame but to suggest ways for all of us to be constructive, moral citizens. Furthermore, the core values that are being exalted in common moral education curriculums (e.g. respect, responsibility, resilience, integrity, care, appreciation of diversity, empathy, a commitment to the common good, etc.) are rarely controversial. They are essential values characteristic of civic-minded individuals. Thus, it should be rather unlikely that we should experience these types of dissonance when enacting moral education.

Nevertheless, as students at the pre-university level are becoming more informed and ready to critically engage with potentially sensitive issues, it is important to anticipate the challenges that come along with that reality.

5. Conclusion

It is difficult to deny, as Minister Ong had suggested, that values are both taught and caught. In addition, both home and school environments contribute significantly to a child’s development of these values. As teachers, we need to enact inclusive spaces for discussions which can be highly emotional and critical, yet still remain productive, constructive, and tactful.

These sets of qualities are not mutually exclusive; in fact, it is the tensions that such rigorous discussions bring up that chiefly contribute to authentic moral education learning experiences. Through these lessons, each student is involved in negotiating their own socio-cultural realities and co-constructing their own knowledge about what these moral values mean to them.

Relatedly, under circumstances where teachers disagree with the values and beliefs that they have to inculcate in their students, we can take comfort in reminding ourselves that our primary task is to enact a safe and critical space to guide our students’ self-exploration. We are here to teach students how to think, not what to think – and that may be one of the most liberating realisations a teacher can make.

Featured image by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

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