Bridging Theory and Practice in Diversity in Elementary Education: Ethical Reasoning and the 8KQ

When I came to JMU in 2014 as an Assistant Professor in the Early, Elementary, and Reading Education Department, I was immediately drawn to Ethical Reasoning in Action. I had recently found a book of cases that matched perfectly with the content and dilemmas that arise in my Diversity in Elementary Education course, and I felt excited to match teaching cases with the process of ethical reasoning as a means of bridging the theory to practice divide. Gorski and Pothini’s Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education (2013) is full of disorienting real cases from Virginia schools that easily answer the questions I usually get: “Why do we have to learn about racism (or sexual orientation, sexism, etc.) to be a teacher?” While the book has its own process for examining cases, I decided the Eight Key Questions was a solid and engaging pedagogical strategy that students could systematically apply in class or in a field practicum. That being said, I was nervous to begin! Where to start? Did I know enough? Where would I find the time in my packed syllabus?

These questions rattled around in my brain and tried to convince me to abandon my plan to integrate ethical reasoning and the 8KQ into the course. However, after seeing yet another newspaper headline that described a situation in which teachers and students failed to respond ethically to dilemmas in the classroom, I knew this pedagogy was desperately needed. The upsetting headlines are no surprise when you consider that we rarely, if ever, provide either the skills or the time to expose our preservice teachers to the ethical dilemmas they may face when they graduate and enter our nation’s schools. Teacher education programs are full of methods, theories, and foundations courses, but we do not intentionally teach ethics in education even though it is a standard by which we are assessed. By intentionally teaching education students to systematically engage in ethical reasoning in action, we are preparing them better for their roles and responsibilities in their personal, professional, and civic life.

I felt a little intimidated my first semester here to experiment with integrating ethical reasoning into the course. I was not a philosophy or ethics professor and was worried that I didn’t have the skillset or the knowledge of ethical theories to teach my students ethical reasoning. However, after merely one 8KQ workshop and jumping right into this pedagogical strategy, I realized that THIS was the theory to practice bridge I had been looking for during my seven years of teaching this course. I wanted my students to see how ethical dilemmas play out in today’s classrooms, so they could explicitly work on their responses using ethical reasoning while I provided coaching and feedback. By taking a theoretical and practical approach, preservice teachers have experiences that help to shift and evolve their thinking from quick and superficial understandings of complex problems to much more thoughtful and caring approaches that consider many nuances and perspectives when examined.

Over the course of the semester, we delve into real cases that focus on complex issues such as sexual orientation, gender, religion, race, and language as they play out in classrooms. Each week, my students ask the 8KQ and apply the ethical reasoning process to each stakeholder in the case. They analyze, question, and reflect critically before making informed decisions. Each week their questions and critical thinking evolve. Soon, they are applying the 8KQ to their reading responses and classroom discussions without any prompting. Students work in groups to identify a current event in education that involves one of these course topics. They apply the framework through a scaffolded approach using brainstorming, questioning, and discussion. Finally, they write a persuasive business letter to a person in power (e.g., school board member, administrator, superintendent, SCOTUS, Board of Education, policymaker, etc.) that demonstrates their ethical reasoning of the situation, and the decision they would have made or can make, given the opportunity. By extending the in-class discussions to include advocating for a more ethical decision in the education milieu, students combine critical thinking, ethical reasoning in action, community engagement, and advocacy. It is my hope that this process and these learning opportunities foster these critical skills needed in today’s society.

If you would like more information on how to integrate ethical reasoning in action into your classroom activities or assignments, please do not hesitate to reach out. I can’t imagine teaching without this bridge from theory to practice and would love to help you envision it in your classroom context.

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