Paula Mirk

Implementing and Assessing the Ethics Standards

The subject of ethics is a great opportunity to explore learning without the burden of standardized tests because (so far) the topic is considered a difficult one to measure in discrete bubbles on an answer sheet. So, this dimension of our schools and curriculum is relatively safe from the assessment wag-or-dog controversy other subjects present. Take advantage of this opportunity! In any class, in any subject, teachers can feel free to explore their students' values-based reasoning skills without worrying about "covering the material." The more teachers do so, the more they will find that such exploration deepens understanding and contributes to content, rather than slowing things down or feeling like an indulgent add-on.

Use these basics to examine any topic in your curriculum: honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion. These themes can safely be labeled as universal. The Institute for Global Ethics has been testing the thinking of diverse groups around the world for more than 20 years, with increasing evidence that these are common operating principles we share as human beings. These themes provide all sorts of opportunities for critical thinking—thinking that is not confined to "the humanities," but must make up the lens for viewing any terrain in which decisions are made. Train your students to think that way: you can simply ask them such questions as "Does this topic have anything to do with our core values? If so, how so?" or "How does the study of this topic contribute to the future of our world?" Amazing intellectual opportunities emerge from these broad frames.

Introduce ethics concepts that can be applied to multiple themes. Self-regulation, moral perimeter, and right vs. right decision making are just three of many concepts and conceptual frameworks that abound in the realm of ethics.

Although traditional assessments are unusual in the realm of ethics, intellectual accountability should always be expected. Students should be accountable for the ideas they promote, positions they take, and reasoning they put forward. Teachers must communicate that these standards exist, even if the subject of ethics is not on the standardized test. Some guidelines:

  • Every statement should include the "why" for the "what." In other words, students should be trained to present their moral reasoning in any assertion. It's not enough to say "That experiment in science is irresponsible" or "That character in literature is acting dishonestly." Each assertion must have reasoning linked to it:
    • "That experiment is irresponsible because it could jeopardize many people's health."
    • "That character in literature is acting dishonestly because he chose not to tell the truth when he had the opportunity."
  • Any assertion should welcome and survive scrutiny. In other words, students should be trained to counter one moral angle with another, with an earnest goal of arriving at deeper knowledge and understanding. "Yes, but ..." should be an expectation—and again, counter arguments must be based on "why," not just "what."
  • Each student should participate, but not in the same way. Although some students are not as verbal as others, all students should be expected to engage in reasoning, and communicating that reasoning in some form. For less verbal students, artwork that is later explained, index cards at tables for writing instead of speaking, and even thumbs up or thumbs down is a start toward accountability in reasoning.
  • Concepts should be applied, and should be applied accurately. Expect students to use terms like "relativism," and clearly express how such a concept contributes to their point.

Of course, teachers modeling the same standards in their own decision making will go a long way toward helping students develop these habits. And an assessment of your own teaching practices always helps increase student ownership. As for feedback from your students, especially relating to habits like including "why" for every "what," backing up your reasoning, clearly building on your students' skills, and finding various ways for students with multiple learning styles to participate are all effective methods.

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)

Robben Wainer

February 4, 2012


I was interested in your description of “Why” and “What”
questions in teaching ethics. I teach an Adult Literacy Class, and we often include comments that can begin by responding with “Is this?”, “Can this?”, “Are they?” and “Will I?” formats in response to questioning, to survey how we can establish a comprehension of ethical principals, that is based on the content of reading material.

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