Paula Mirk

Give Students the Opportunity to Take the Lead

At the Institute for Global Ethics, we call it Ethical Fitness: an approach and process to help young people and adults internalize ethical values and frameworks for critical thinking about ethics. Like physical fitness, we believe Ethical Fitness comes about through discovery and constructing knowledge. We discourage a didactic approach to ethics because it risks reducing a deeply meaningful topic to one that is dry, passive, and boring. It's also ineffective.

A visit to the Ethical Literacy website confirms the creative, energetic ways that students naturally engage in the "study of what's right and what's good." In an effort to educate their entire school community about this dimension to preparing for the future, students have

  • Engaged peers in a discovery process to determine their core ethical values.
  • Made movies about ethical decision making and why this matters to our future.
  • Led faculty meetings in exploring and understanding the gray areas of ethics.
  • Interviewed school board members about their experiences with upholding ethical values in the work place and ordinary life.
  • Taught other schools about the importance of ethics as a service project.

The list goes on and on, and we find that in each school, new ideas and approaches emerge. In all cases, if you set up the opportunity for students to take the lead effectively, the learning they do will be active, engaging and, social. Since our approach is more focused on the gray areas of ethics, our methodology and processes dwell in the higher-order thinking skills. Put the question to students, "How can we learn more about doing the right thing?" or "How can we help others learn more about doing the right thing?" and they will design relevant, fascinating projects.

So, we are strong supporters of the project-driven approach. Our Ethical Literacy team training is designed like a project—learning is applied to a long-term action plan, like a project, over three years. Within that planning, student action has proven to be one of the most effective drivers for our efforts to build and sustain a focus on ethics in the school culture.

Some cautions and thoughts about this approach to learning include the following:

  • Establish expectations. We believe it's important for your students to model the outcomes they seek from others. Help those students engage in projects by discovering with them the basic ethical values you all share. These words deserve some further exploration regarding behavior and "what our values look like in practice." Once that's established, your "project students" will know your expectations, and they in turn will be more clear about what to model and expect from other students and adults in their learning community as their project unfolds.
  • Make the project doable. Although your students may have the creative insight about relevant approaches that will speak to their peers, you have the wisdom about what's realistic or unrealistic given the whole picture at your school. It's better to have a small success than a big, inconclusive, or unfinished disappointment. Many teachers take an irresponsible, hands-off attitude toward student projects and then blame students when it doesn't work out. Criminal! Make sure the students know you're as invested as they are, and that your role is to back them and guide them toward success.
  • Provide starting points. Choices are sometimes easier to start with than asking students to create from scratch. So provide enough substance at the front for your students to make intelligent choices that will result in good learning. Provide scaffolding or structure to break down that substance into effective steps. Provide enough input to help your students devise and shape a good project.

Try out this example:

Don't ask your students to "develop a project about the Schools of Integrity research report and how it applies to your school."

Do ask your students to

  1. Explore the Schools of Integrity research findings with you through a rubric exercise.
  2. Pair up and talk about areas of strength and areas of need at your school.
  3. Discuss together which areas of need might realistically be tackled.
  4. Brainstorm ways to realistically tackle one or two areas of need.
  5. Use the brainstorms to begin action planning toward a project.
  6. Step up as the teacher: Review each action plan and help students adjust it to reality, then stick with them every step of the way and face challenges as a team.

How have you given your students the opportunity to take the lead?

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 (2)

John Parker

March 15, 2012

I am encouraged to find that projects like this are available.  In the last two decades I have become increasingly discouraged at the preponderance of bottom-line, narrowly focused emphases on test score improvement that have shaped American public education.

As a district curriculum leader and now as a consultant on several curriculum projects, I have tried to bridge the gap between the political pressures placed on school and district leaders and the need to delve more deeply into “big ideas” and “essential questions” that can more easily open the door to discussions of ethical concerns than the superficial, behaviorist, short-term gain approaches that have become default territory for so many schools.

I have found that attention to the content is as important as pedagogical structures like project and problem based learning to ensure students are still connected to academics that are needed to meet basic school requirements; and, more substantively, to give students a basis for critical thinking.  When progressive instructional practices are blended with deeper dives into the content, students are doing amazing work.

I especially recommend two schools with which I have worked:  Wayne School of Engineering in Goldsboro, NC and Caldwell Early College in Hudson, NC.  Both of these schools serve a clientele that are in economically struggling areas of NC.  In addition to becoming laboratories for educational innovation that host state, regional, and national study visits, these schools are helping their communities’ economic revival through use of community based learning projects.

In addition to the popular Understanding by Design Resources (Wiggins & McTighe) that have been around for a while, I recommend a 90s book, Teaching for Understanding (Wiske, et. al.).  Teaching for Understanding is supported by a nice on-line catalog of courses designed for school based learning teams through WIDE World at Harvard Graduate School of Education.  These resources and many others propose planning design models that blend the philosophy of teaching for “depth of understanding” with progressive pedagogy.

Thanks for this work.  It helps me keep “hope alive.”

child education

October 9, 2012

Children are the future of our society. This is a fantastic post! Child Education

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