Currently reading Part II of the book “Sustainable Development Teaching – Ethical and Political Challenges”, edited by Van Poeck, Östman, Öhman (2019)

Following up on “PART I: Education and the challenge of building a more sustainable world” that I summarized here, and the first part of the summary of part II, here comes the second summary post on

PART II: Choosing teaching content and approaches

So now that we have accepted that we do need to talk about ethics and morals, how do we do it? This is where I start feeling really very much out of my depth. But chapter 7 by Öhman & Kronlid will give us some ideas:

“A pragmatist perspective on value education”

One of the cross-cutting key competency of the UN SDGs is “normative competency”. How do we facilitate learning of it? First, it is important to distinguish between ethics (i.e. questions that are theoretically relevant) and morals (i.e. questions that are practically relevant in our daily lives). Then, we’ll follow Dewey’s thoughts on “pragmatist view on ethics and morals”: we need to start with moral practice also when engaging in critical ethical reflections on how we think and act morally, rather than only engaging in abstract reflections on how we ought to act and think“.

In our daily lives, we are constantly in moral situations since we are always interacting with other people or the environment. Through reacting to other people and observing them react to us, i.e. mutual coordination, norms are created. Norms become habits, and therefore we don’t need to think about how to act in most situations. But what exactly the norms are of course depends on context.

But sometimes, we need to actively think about how to act, when we are in new contexts or encounter dilemmas. Dilemmas are situations where we have to choose between actions that could be seen as good or bad from different perspectives, or where we have to choose between several negative consequences. Then we cannot rely on habits but need to reflect and consider the consequences. How this process plays out depends on, again, context and prior experiences.

Based on this, there is no universal right or wrong, but morality is always evolving, for individuals and society, as it is negotiated in new situations. A universal right or wrong would not let us react appropriately to all contexts, e.g. “lying is wrong” might not be the best action in all situations, sometimes lying might keep someone from suffering unnecessarily, which we might value higher in that situation than categorically not lying.

Even though he says that morality is evolving and not fixed, Dewey argues for moral ideals, e.g. democracy. In his ideal of democracy, it is not people with fixed positions trying to gain power over people with other positions, but it is about appreciating others as individuals with unique viewpoints and experiences that they bring to the table, and trying to understand each other and influence each others’ understanding, thus creating new ideas and possibilities and growth for each individual and society. This is, by the way, very much how I think about co-creation, and the authors also say that “one of the central functions of school is citizenship education and to lay the foundation for a coexistence in a pluralist society“. Even if this is not always the explicit topic of teaching, there are a lot of implications about hierarchies etc in how we teach through the companion meanings mentioned before, so it is super important to pay attention to those!

Now on to the principles for teaching ethics and morals that the authors suggest:

1) start in students’ moral experiences of concrete cases

Starting from students’ own experiences (whether those are experiences from their lives outside of school, before coming to class, or provoked by the teacher through reading or a movie) is always a good idea, and also recommended in this case. Then, stick to the concrete example and don’t move too quickly to the abstract, student have to “live through” the problem. And make sure that students have the chance to communicate their moral responses and connected emotions openly, “without the teacher imposing epistemological (they are incorrect), formal (they are badly formulated) or moral (they are immoral) norms.

But not all experiences lend themselves to learning equally well: Personal experiences are the ones that touch students deeply, and where communication about them can lead to improved reflection and deeper thoughts. Private experiences, on the other hand, just concern individual students and therefore are not as easy, interesting and fruitful to communicate about.

2) introduce ethical theory and language

This is where I freaked out a little when I first read it. How should I be able to teach ethical theory and language, let alone teach teachers how to do that?? The authors say to teach ethical frameworks and progressions, mostly to help students develop new ways to express and thus to think and communicate about ethical questions and challenge their thoughts, but at this point I don’t know what that means in practice.

Without knowing what exactly the ethical theory is that we are supposed to teach, I totally buy their point that the alternative to using theory would be to use the teacher as moral model, which then would become indoctrination rather than critical reflection and development of independent thought.

[At this point, I did a quick search for ethical theory and I *think* what the authors call for is to consider the different perspectives that for example utilitarianism (overall, what would cause the most good?), deontology (there are absolute rules we must follow), virtue theory (who do we want to be?), social contract theory (what rules would rational beings agree to), or feminist ethics (care about others) would bring to the table, and see how considering those different viewpoints can inform discussions]

Since this is really not satisfactory (and that’s not a criticism of the book, it’s just that I clearly don’t have the prior knowledge they are assuming), I am skipping ahead to part 3, chapter 12 here, where Van Poeck, Östman and Öhman write about

Ethical moves — How teachers can open up a space for articulating moral reactions and deliberating on ethical opinions regarding sustainability issues

Luckily, here things become a lot clearer and more accessible to me. We are supposed to talk about values and the actions that reflect those values, and, as mentioned above, use authentic moral experiences and turn them into ethical deliberations. For this, there are two groups of ethical moves that teachers can employ: Generating and Judging.

Generating moves are the “clarifying ethical move” where teachers ask students to elaborate on their arguments, and “articulating ethical move” where teachers ask students to voice their standpoint and the arguments that support it.

Judging moves are the “evaluating ethical move” where students have to decide if they agree or not, the “testing ethical move” where students test the validity of an argument, the “controversy-creating ethical move” where the teacher stages a controversy and makes students take a position, and the “hierarchizising ethical move” where the teacher makes students prioritize different values and makes them take a stand.

While it is helpful to explicitly consider the different moves, they are basically all things that a teacher would use in facilitating a fruitful discussion anyway. So that takes a lot of pressure out of the “teach ethics!” thing!

But now back to where I was in Part II: Håkansson, Van Poeck and Östman writing about

The political tendency typology — Different ways in which the political dimension of sustainability issues appears in educational practice

The political dimension is about how to organize society, which is of course very controversial and depending on all kinds of competing values and interests. There are different ways in which we can address the political dimension:

  • political norms: teaching the correct form and process of participating in democracy, but also “how to distribute voices and power within the classroom and the school as an institution” — this is about qualification and socialization
  • political reflections: relating the political dimension to sustainability questions. Is something good or bad? Who will benefit or suffer? What are solutions? Cognitive approach, but not taking a stand.
  • political deliberation: also reflections, but now about arguing for students’ own opinions
    • normative deliberation: the teacher knows the desired outcome of a discussion, the one valid solution, but it’s hidden from the students who have to discover/guess and accept it
    • consensus-oriented deliberation: outcome not set by teacher but found as consensus
    • conflict-oriented deliberation: students can bring up different perspectives without the goal for consensus
  • political moment: a strong, emotional, spontaneous reaction because something is suddenly perceived as personally relevant and it is “bodily felt”. Any teaching situation can, intendedly or not, result in such a political moment for one or several students, including feelings of exclusion and antagonism.

We can never fully prepare for whether a situation that was designed for conflict-oriented deliberation will stay there, it might easily turn consensus-oriented, or be perceived as if they should figure out the teacher’s standpoint as the normative, correct one, or vice versa. This is very much dependent on the dynamics and context in the group and not easy to manage.

In the next chapter, Tryggvason and Öhman write about

Deliberation and agonism — Two different approaches to the political dimension of environmental and sustainability education

They start by pointing out that the political dimension of sustainability isn’t just facts and information, but that there is a big role of visions, hopes, opinions that we also need to consider. They suggest a theoretical ground to approach discussions of the political dimension of sustainability in pluralism: Deliberation and agonism.

Both, deliberation and agonism, share that they acknowledge that pluralism of perspectives as starting point of democratic education, and conflicts, not just as disagreements but as strong bodily experiences and as starting point for discussions, are key.

Deliberation is rational and consensus-oriented:

  • rational and respectful communication: stress arguments and avoid emotions and personal conflicts. It is easier to change minds when you are just arguing against arguments, not identities. Also traditions and status or charisma and rhetoric are not important, just the strength of an argument. Arguments are nevertheless made by people, so the person needs to be respected even if there is disagreement on the issue or there is a hierarchy or something involved
  • aiming for consensus in the classroom: the aim of a discussion is to find consensus. Consensus does not have to be everlasting, just on a concrete decision. But people need to be able to change their minds. Also a consensus might just appear to have been reached on the surface, because for some reason some people choose to not speak their mind.

Agonism embraces emotions and conflicts:

  • emotions as part of the political dimension: here, the authors separate moral emotions (directed towards personal objects or relations like sibling mistreating a cat) or political emotions (directed towards societal objects like the Amazon rainforest). Political emotions should be given space in the classroom as legitimate part of learning and engagement. But it is difficult to keep discussions focussed on the issue and keep them from turning into personal conflicts between students when emotions are involved.
  • aiming for democratic conflicts in the classroom: conflicts are democratic when the other is not seen as an enemy but rather as someone who happens to want something different.

So which one should a teacher aim for? That, of course, depends on the intended learning outcomes, but also on context! You are on your own here, sorry!

And this is the end of Part II. Stay tuned for Part III, where we’ll find a lot more practical examples and tips, I hope!

Van Poeck, K., Östman, L., & Öhman, J. (Eds.). (2019). Sustainable Development Teaching: Ethical and Political Challenges (1st ed.). Routledge.

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  1. Pingback: Currently reading Part III of the book "Sustainable Development Teaching - Ethical and Political Challenges", edited by Van Poeck, Östman, Öhman (2019) - Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching

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