Ethical Conundrums Revisited

More About Ethics in Education – Part I

“Food for Thought”

Facing Those Misconceptions, Dilemmas, and Problems in Daily Professional Decision-Making

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As I travel around Pennsylvania presenting sessions on “Ethics for Music Educators” at state conferences, regional professional development workshops, and collegiate music education seminars, as well as writing articles for PMEA News and hosting webinars, I seemed to have stirred up a lot of questions (which is GREAT!) and some confusion (not so good). This “hot topic” has become a lot like “peeling an onion.”

After discovering that few music or other subject area teachers have had formalized ethics training (pre-service or in-service), in fact most never even seeing their state’s “code of ethical conduct,” I feel like this is more complicated than it appears to be. Indeed, here and in other blog-posts, I am endeavoring to “peel the onion” – explore the problem one layer (step) at a time, to thoroughly understand what’s causing the conflict.

As a prerequisite, if you have not read my other articles on ethics from this website, please review the following:

 

A Closer Look at the Definitions

Ethics: moral principles that controls a person’s behavior.

Conundrum: a difficult problem or situation

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An ethical conundrum is a problem that causes one to make a decision based on their personal values. It may question an individual’s beliefs of what is right and wrong. Ethical conundrums can range from simple everyday problems to serious illegal infractions.

What is the difference between an ethical conundrum and a dilemma? Thanks to https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-conundrum-and-dilemma-Can-you-give-example-with-respect-to-a-context, we have a little more clarity (or barring that, at least a lot more detail to consider):

“Remember this phrase — on the horns of a dilemma.”

“A dilemma… [by definition] is a difficult choice between two (and only two) things or courses of action (as in two horns), both of which have some kind of undesirable consequences.”

“A choice of two things isn’t a dilemma — it may be a conundrum. A choice of one good thing and one bad isn’t a dilemma. A choice of two bad things is a dilemma.”

“A conundrum is about one thing — it’s just a difficult or confusing problem, and nearly always in the sense of having no possible solution or answer, or it’s an unbelievably hard challenge to produce the solution or answer. In short, a riddle.”

– Robert Charles Lee

These examples may be helpful, and were provided on the Quora website:

Dilemmas:

  • “We’re stuck in this dilemma of either jumping into shark-infested waters, or staying on board the burning ship and be burned alive.”
  • The proverb “Die if you do, die if you don’t.”

The classic conundrum facing thousands of students everywhere every year is which college to pick (the ‘one’ thing). College No. 1 has a better faculty but not fun. College No. 2 has a reputation of being more enjoyable and a more socially active student body. College No. 3 has average faculty but always get overseas placements. Which college is better for your future happiness?

A conundrum that resembles a dilemma: Should I work abroad alone for high pay? Or should I stay locally with my family for average pay?

A conundrum that feels like a dilemma: Do I save my mother or my children?

How about dealing with the sometimes controversial terms ethics vs. morality? This is from https://www.diffen.com/difference/Ethics_vs_Morals:

Ethics vs. Morals

“One professional example of ethics conflicting with morals is the work of a defense attorney. A lawyer’s morals may tell her that murder is reprehensible and that murderers should be punished, but her ethics as a professional lawyer require her to defend her client to the best of her abilities, even if she knows that the client is guilty.”

“Another example can be found in the medical field. In most parts of the world, a doctor may not euthanize a patient, even at the patient’s request, as per ethical standards for health professionals. However, the same doctor may personally believe in a patient’s right to die, as per the doctor’s own morality.”

– Diffen.com

 

Sample Situations in Daily Life

“A tree falls in the forest, is there sound?” Apply that “open-ended” philosophical approach to the ethics question, “If you find a $100 bill on the sidewalk and no one is around, what should you do?”

There are a myriad of real-life scenarios from numerous sources that may provide more insight in the adoption of ethical and moral “best practices.”

  • “Disabled placard abuse is a big problem in downtown San Diego. Handicap parking places are occasionally abused by people who do not possess a disability. These people typically use a family member’s handicap placards, for their own benefit. This leaves no accessible parking places for the people who truly need them. Would you?”
  • “Involving limited space and sold-out reservations, is it ethical for a hotel to charge someone for late cancellation (family emergency) in the case when no income would be lost because the room is easily sold to another hotel guest?”

 

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Jeffrey Selgin of RealSimple.com released a thought-provoking article, “10 Ethical Questions – Answered” on the CNN news feed website: http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/wayoflife/03/10/rs.10.ethical.questions/index.html.

“Stealing is a no-no; cheating is bad. When it comes to moral quandaries, the thou shalt-nots are no-brainers.”

“The truly tough dilemmas are those small, more ambiguous ones that you may stumble upon anytime, anywhere.”

“The ethical decisions we confront daily are toughest when there’s a significant downside to making the ‘correct’ choice — or when it’s unclear what that choice is. Here’s how to identify the right thing to do; it’s up to you to do it.”

Selgin offers an interpretation of the morality of these sample questions for day-to-day reflection:

  1. If something at a yard sale is far more valuable than the posted price, do I have to let the seller know?
  2. Is it considered stealing to take pens from a bank? What about extra napkins from a fast-food restaurant?
  3. If a charity sends me free address labels and I don’t make a contribution, is it OK to use them?
  4. Is it unfair to move into better (open) seats at a sporting event or a concert?
  5. My boss gave me credit for a project on which a colleague did most of the work. Should I accept the praise?
  6. If someone tells an offensive joke, is it my responsibility to speak up about it?

 

Ethical Conundrums in the Professions

We will start start with a perspective from the science profession, also providing a good summary of the “fiduciary” and moral responsibilities of the medical and law professions:  (https://helix.northwestern.edu/blog/2014/07/ethical-conundrums).

“Medical students, before commencing their duties as compassionate caregivers, take the Hippocratic oath, promising to always treat the ill to the best of their ability and to make decisions that are in the best interest of their patients.”

“Law students, before beginning their duties as defenders of the world, take an oath of professionalism, promising to honor and advocate for the community with integrity and cooperation towards others.”

“Now, let’s talk about scientists, the lab-coat wearing, world-saving breed of professionals, most commonly seen in their natural habitat surrounding long-standing rows of benches usually filled with biological and chemical substances that they use to save lives. Where is their oath?”

– Khyati Meghani

 

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Responsible for discovering drugs or other therapies that could stop us from aging,  finding the cure for cancer or the common cold, or for inventing miniaturized medical devices that could track the health of vital organs from within the blood stream, medical scientists are entrusted with our lives and must face “awesome” ethical obligations.

“Let’s take a time tour starting in the 1800’s. Meet, Alfred Nobel – a chemist and the inventor of dynamite, after whom the very famous Nobel Prize is named. Although his intention in developing dynamite was to create something more stable than nitroglycerine, and even though he is not responsible for killing millions around the world, he is still accountable for creating the invention that did. But, it is important to mention here that Nobel did establish the Nobel Foundation, which is funded by the wealth that he accumulated during his lifetime.”

“Next, meet Shiro Ishii, a microbiologist who had no ethical conscience while unleashing deadly pathogens on thousands of human research subjects under the delusional idea of creating a bacteriological weapons program.”

– Khyati Meghani

In his blog-post, “Ethical Conundrums,”  Khyati Meghani could give us countless other examples where scientists have conducted unethical research either for their love of science or under the delusion that they were helping mankind.

Why don’t we expect all professionals who deal closely with children (especially teachers) to take an oath to adhere to the highest standards of ethics and personal morality? It has always bothered me that educators are the only “fiduciary” whose charges are a “captive audience” and patently uninformed about the subject with little initial “ethics training” or “refresher” workshops. Even my investment counselor has to master (usually monthly) online course work on ethical practices.

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In one published study of educator scenarios (Shapira-Lishchinsky, O., Teachers’ critical incidents: Ethical dilemmas in teaching practice, Teaching and Teacher Education 2010, doi:10.1016/j.tate.2010.11.003), the aim was to “explore ethical dilemmas in critical incidents and the emerged responses that these incidents elicit.”

“Teachers deal with many ethical problems in their practice. They encounter issues such as inappropriate allocation of resources, situations in which pupils are being discussed inappropriately, and irresponsible colleagues. When teachers’ sense of proper action is constrained by complex factors in educational practice and decisions are made and carried out contrary to the ‘right course,’ critical incidents which involve ethical conflict and moral distress result.”

– O. Shapira-Lishchinsky

Five main categories of 50 critical incidents were reviewed:

1. Caring climate versus formal climate.
2. Distributive justice versus school standards.
3. Confidentiality versus school rules.
4. Loyalty to colleagues versus school norms
5. Family agenda versus educational standards

For examples of these incidents, read the entire research study at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8bbd/62c820d76cfaa35181319dcc3906790a4f00.pdf.

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I was also happy to run across the excellent online article “Ethics in the Classroom” by Leah Shafer from the Usable Knowledge blog-site of the Harvard Graduate School of Education: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/16/04/ethics-classroom.

“Ethical dilemmas abound in education. Should middle school teachers let a failing eighth-grade student graduate, knowing that if she’s held back, she’ll likely drop out? Should a private school principal condone inflated grades? Should an urban district pander to white, middle-class families — at the expense of poor, minority families — in order to boost the achievement of all schools?”

“Teachers, principals, superintendents, and education policymakers face questions such as these every day. And for many, amid the tangle of conflicting needs, disparate perspectives, and frustration over circumstances, lies the worry that discussing an ethical dilemma with colleagues will implicate you as not knowing how to make the right choice — or as already having made the wrong one.”

– Leah Shafer

Research compiled by educational philosopher Meira Levinson and doctoral student Jacob Fay take up these challenges in their new book Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries (http://hepg.org/hep-home/books/dilemmas-of-educational-ethics). “In detailing the moral predicaments that arise in schools, the researchers also provide a framework for educators to discuss their own dilemmas with colleagues, opening the door to making these conversations more common.”

Their book offers “six detailed case studies of common educational dilemmas, each accompanied by commentaries of varying viewpoints.”

“Case studies offer a safe way for educators to begin recognizing and discussing ethical dilemmas they may face in their own work, since no real person is implicated. ‘We hope that by reading and talking about the cases and commentaries, professional communities can become more practiced and comfortable in having these sorts of discussions, so that when their own particular dilemmas arise, they have the cases and a language to be able to speak about what it is they’re struggling with in their own practice,’ says Fay.”

– Leah Shafer

 

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Referencing the National Education Association’s Code of Ethics (http://www.nea.org/home/30442.htm), and the Council for Exceptional Children’s Ethical Principles and Professional Practice Standards for Special Educators (https://www.cec.sped.org/Standards/Ethical-Principles-and-Practice-Standards), RedOrbit posted an outstanding blog “Teachers’ Ethical Dilemmas – What Would You Do?” written by Jessica L Bucholz, Cassandra L Keller, and Michael P. Brady: https://www.redorbit.com/news/education/1141680/teachers_ethical_dilemmas_what_would_you_do/.

“What is considered ethical often comes down to determining what is in the best interest of the student. ‘Behaving ethically is more than a matter of following the rules or not breaking the law-it means acting in a way that promotes the learning and growth of students and helps them realize their potential’ (Parkay, 2004, p. 195). When professionals or students engage in unethical behavior, it can damage a good student-teacher relationship. Unethical behavior can ruin trust and respect between teachers and their colleagues. In extreme situations unethical behavior can result in a teacher losing his or her teaching position and/or certification. Resolving ethical dilemmas requires difficult educational decisions that do not always have a clear-cut ‘right’ answer.

Here we present several short vignettes of ethical dilemmas that both veteran and novice teachers have faced. We then ask you to consider the possible solutions for these examples and ask you what you would do if faced with a similar situation. Finally, we analyze each vignette using either the NEA’s or CEC’s code of ethics, identify ethical indicators that cover the situation, and propose a solution for each dilemma based on the code.”

– Jessica L Bucholz, Cassandra L Keller, and Michael P. Brady

Interesting classroom ethical scenarios are offered with recommended solutions. These six “mock dilemmas” are discussed in detail:

  • Possible learning disability
  • Assessment conflict
  • Medication
  • Standardized tests
  • Petty behavior
  • Religion

 

More to Come

From politicians to movie stars, CEOs to the companies they lead, and especially heinous – teachers, coaches, and other school personnel, ethical misconducts are being uncovered and aired daily in the news. This is too important not to sponsor a frank discussion on ethical standards applied to professional decision-making.

For Part II of this series “Ethical Conundrums Revisited,” we will rehash a few more modern-day scenarios in the school music education workplace, prod you to respond “what would you do?” (at least in your mind) to address these problems, and even explore a few areas you may not think are true “ethical issues.” What are your views on…

  • Privacy protection versus “open door” meetings with students?
  • Acceptance of congratulatory “musical hugs” versus the practice of avoiding all physical contact from students?
  • Refusal of gifts from music industry vendors versus acceptance of “free” offers or dinner meetings?
  • Use of social media networks to support student learning versus the risk of crossing the student/teacher boundary with inappropriate informal communications?
  • The sharing of anecdotes or details of an incident that occurred during a class or school activity with family members or colleagues?
  • The sharing of contact information with outside organizations or businesses?
  • Identification of individuals (especially the names of students), geographical locations, or specific information about your school district on social media?
  • Certification of inaccurate or exaggerated reports, such as “fudging” data on time-in and time-out attendance logins?
  • The exercise of a teacher’s “freedom of speech” rights versus the practice of maligning school administrators or their decisions in public?
  • The exercise of a teacher’s “freedom of expression” rights in having tattoos, body piercings, or wearing certain fad or provocative clothing versus compliance to school policies and norms?

 

PKF

© 2018 Paul K. Fox

Photo credits (in order) from Pixabay.com: “meadow” by geralt, “ethics” by 3dman_eu, “ethics” by Tumisu, “scientist” by luvqs, “poses” by NDE, “boys” by White77, and “yes” by geralt.

 

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