classroom practice from an ethical perspective

(Madison, WI) I am here for one of a series of meetings organized by University of Wisconsin Professor Diana Hess and funded by the Spencer Foundation. Diana and her colleagues have assembled remarkable empirical data about high school students and their social studies classes. From their longitudinal surveys–which follow the students into their twenties–they can draw inferences about the effects of various school experiences. Their elaborate interviews of students and teachers and their classroom observation notes help to explain the quantitative data and also provide numerous interesting anecdotes. The interviews, in particular, draw attention to dilemmas. Should you deliberate issues in a classroom that may be offensive to some students? Should you allow students to deliberate issues that should be settled? Should a teacher disclose his or her personal views?

The empirical data are relevant to these questions. For instance, it might turn out that teachers’ disclosing their opinions affects students’ opinions. But the data cannot settle these questions, which also involve value judgments about both means and ends. The appropriate ends, in particular, are by no means clear.

Therefore, Diana and her colleagues have assembled professional philosophers to discuss the empirical data with the researchers. There are actually three kinds of background in the room. Almost all the participants have personal experience as teachers. The quantitative data is more general and systematic but less rich than personal experience. And everyone has some level of philosophical training or interest. This seems to me a model for how to think about thorny issues.