Paula Mirk

The Ethical Core of Common Core

Both the whole child approach and the Common Core State Standards "compel school instructional staff to develop and deliver effective, engaging instruction reflective of individual student needs and strengths." That's what we all want for our students, and we should expect nothing less. But the standards are undergirded by an "ethical core," and all educators should keep in mind that our ultimate purpose in teaching—indeed in creating schools in the first place—remains preparing the next generation to contribute to and improve our society. The Common Core State Standards are one dimension of reaching the goal of healthy students ready to be competent, thoughtful, and informed citizens.

The standards are set up with plenty of room for creativity and connection, and encourage real-life opportunities for learning. The Ethical Literacy Learning Community approach and process helps teachers of any topic provide effective, engaging instruction that can meet students at their experience level and take them on amazing, inspiring journeys that will further understanding of the topic.

Our recent Making School Meaningful conference is a great case in point. Hosted at the Catharine Cook School in Chicago, Ill., one purpose of this gathering was to explore online webinars about the Common Core. These teaching strategies include:

  1. Have a good "hook."
  2. Make the strategy explicit.
  3. Make the skill-building explicit.
  4. Use discussion and questions to extend learning.
  5. Ask students to synthesize and transfer learning.
  6. Reflect.

For the conference, I demonstrated ways that topics in ethics can provide a great opportunity for critical thinking, connection, and communication skills, even in a "nonhumanities" subject such as math.

Have a Good "Hook"

I took the instructor role, and our audience was composed of the students. To model ethics as an essential element of any topic we study, we pretended to be a math class and explored this brief passage about a now-infamous master of numbers, Bernie Madoff, and his innocent colleague, Harry Markopolos. Here's our opener:

Do you think math is boring and numbers lack drama? Think again! Listen to this story about an innocent mathematician who just wanted an ordinary life...but knew too much about math! Whether you go into high finance or another line of work, you may be faced with a similar challenge one day.

To reel in my students after the "hook," I provided a real newspaper article to our group and some high drama, especially when we got to this:

"A quantitative financial specialist with an instinct for the numbers behind complex derivatives, Markopolos smelt a rat about Madoff Investment Securities..." (Andrew Clark in "The man who blew the whistle on Bernard Madoff," The Guardian)

Make the Strategy Explicit

Once I'd gotten the students' attention, we explored the explicit strategy of right vs. right critical thinking that would next be applied in the context of this story about math and Madoff. I explained: "We're now going to explore a strategy for thinking through the dilemma that Markopolos faced. The strategy involves four analysis paradigms and the three resolution approaches." Each paradigm and approach was explicitly labeled, with an example provided for each.

Make the Skill-Building Explicit

Now I could engage my "students" in explicit skill-building around right vs. right critical thinking. They thoroughly analyzed the Markopolos dilemma, using communication and reasoning skills to explain the truth vs. loyalty dimensions to his decision, the individual vs. community angle to his ethical jam, and most of all, the short-term vs. long-term ramifications. I had plenty of opportunities to emphasize how a command of mathematics had led Harry Markopolos to his understanding and moral duty. As so often happens when audiences engage in this "ethical fitness" experience, those attending our conference forgot their role as students and became absorbed in thinking through the ins and outs of this real-life event.

Use Discussion and Questions to Extend Learning

By asking a series of questions, our discussion extended into problem solving:

  • What should Markopolos do?
  • What action would result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people?
  • What guiding principle should he uphold?
  • What risks would he be facing if he chose to take the morally courageous step, and what resources could he draw upon for support?

Our group had a lively discussion about the possibilities. Again, I had plenty of opportunities to remind the group about the connection back to math.

Ask Students to Synthesize and Transfer Learning

Once we had thoroughly processed the Markopolos dilemma, including possible ways to meet both sides of this difficult decision through a "trilemma option"—a creative way to synthesize and check for students' deep understanding—the ultimate test was whether we could transfer such learning to other contexts. Could we imagine students providing examples of truth vs. loyalty in their personal lives, for example? Most readily! Could we imagine scientists torn between short-term learning from an experiment and longer-term risk to our environment or well-being? Of course. Could students provide examples of ethical dilemmas or wrenching choices in historical events or in the literature they read? Indeed they could.


We ended our little role-play at the conference by finding out the ending of the story, just as our students would want to do. For those of you who don't know already, Markopolos was an early whistle-blower in the Madoff case, despite threats to his life, the very real possibility that he would lose his job, and that he put his family at risk. Our reflection on the bold choices of this mathematician took this form:

The reason I shared this story with you is to make sure you understand that all the subjects you study, including math, have an ethics dimension to them. Along with learning information and skills, we want you to learn to think ethically. Why do you think Markopolos was willing to risk like this? Was he just born that way, or what do you think made him choose that path?

Discussions of this kind can bring alive a topic like math for those students who have not yet discovered their own personal connection to the subject. It can also help aspiring mathematicians to understand that they will have a duty and some challenges in real life, even in a topic as neutral as numbers. These discussions can take place in any subject at hand. In fact, if a topic does not seem to lend itself to the drama and conundrums of ethics, then a legitimate question might be "how does this topic contribute to our broadest purpose: preparing the next generation to lead and participate in a healthy society?"

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

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