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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JMU Competed in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl

This past weekend eight JMU students along with their two coaches, Dr. Joe Derby, College of Business, and Scott Ingram, Ethical Reasoning Engagement Fellow, traveled up to Marist College in New York to compete in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Northeastern Regional Competition. This is the second time that JMU has fielded a team at an Ethics Bowl competition. The team consisted of students from a vast array of backgrounds and areas of study who each have a vested interest in unraveling moral dilemmas.

Team members:

Abby Wallen – Public Policy Administration

Allahjah Smith – Justice Studies

Brook Poyer – Psychology

Kailee Cunningham – Marketing

Katrina Libera – International Affairs and Psychology

Mira Gruber – Psychology and Philosophy

Nick Langkau – Political Science and Philosophy

Olivia White – Justice Studies

Throughout the semester, the team worked together to use the 8 Key Questions in analyzing fifteen difficult cases that would be argued at the competition. The students enrolled in a class where they learned the 8 Key Questions in depth, along with various argumentative strategies and debate techniques. Over the course of the semester, the students would develop positions on the cases and then would argue with one another to determine what stance the team as a whole would take. Sarah Taylor Mayhak from the School of Communication even came in to teach about particular debate strategies, having competed in persuasive speaking competitions herself.

When December 1st rolled around, the team was certainly well-prepared to face difficult opponents such as Yale, Salisbury, and St. Francis. In the first round, the team went against Yale and discussed cases dealing with midwife practices in the Amish community and law enforcement’s usage of genealogical data. After an extremely close match, the Dukes fell to Yale by only 1 point. The team went on to face Salisbury University, where they fell after another competitive match. This match highlighted one major challenge that teams face in preparation for Ethics Bowl: how should teams handle judges who disagree with their position? In the second round, our team argued in opposition to the censorship of vulgar language on television, which seemed unsatisfactory to one judge in particular. After the completion of the round, the team received both the highest and lowest scores during their time at the competition. For a coach, this seems extremely perplexing with regards to how we can best prepare next year’s team. Our practices were both extraordinary and insufficient in the eyes of the judges, so whose advice do we follow? Thankfully the team finished off the day by dominating in a round against St. Francis, where they discussed cases of trans-racialism and reinstating felons’ right to vote.

Overall the entire experience was worthwhile for the eight students seeing as how they were able to better themselves and bring to light the distinctive practices we have here at JMU. Ethics Bowl exists to serve as a means to prompt difficult discussions about ethics and to prepare students to adopt a critical stance in ethics debates—our students did that and more. After deepening their understanding of the 8 Key Questions and putting them into practice throughout their course work, the students were able to learn how to better interrogate ethical dilemmas. Regardless of the outcome of the weekend, JMU stood out as an exemplar of critical thinkers and cordial individuals. Our students set the tone for what was expected in each round and clearly showed that they were capable of analyzing both sides of a case. Having presented first in all three rounds, the team from JMU was able to work the language of the 8 Key Questions into their own presentations. This language was then picked up by the opposing team and the judges, providing a common ground for the entire room to rely on. If nothing else, this competition showed how useful the 8 Key Questions are in both interrogating moral questions and serving as an easily adaptable language to effectively communicate the complexities of the question at hand. It is encouraging to see such great potential in a group of students who care deeply about finding answers to pressing moral problems and who are able to reason to and articulate possible solutions to these problems.

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Using Plays to Discuss Ethical Reasoning

Every year the School of Theatre and Dance at James Madison University gathers a team of approximately 14 people to serve on the Season Selection Committee (SSC). This super group of students and faculty assemble bi-weekly to take on one of the greatest challenges the unit faces: picking three plays and one musical from a large list of community-generated proposals to produce on the Forbes Center Mainstage.

Deciding a mainstage season for the School of Theatre and Dance is difficult work. Sure, it’s fun to read plays and talk about their merits with a group of intelligent and motivated artists. However, more often than not this yearly puzzle is a shape shifting monster that refuses to be tamed. The committee has to consider a myriad of questions ranging from “Why is this play better than that play for our students next year?” to “Do you know how difficult it is to build a usable grave on stage?” Pedagogical and practical implications abound!

Seeing as we’re already asking so many questions about these plays, I thought it might be prudent to introduce a few other questions into the mix. Have you guessed where this is going? YES! The Eight Key Questions! The plays we choose are, of course, some our best teaching tools for the upcoming academic year. Part of introducing 8KQ into our season selection process is to find a new opportunity for students, faculty, and staff outside of our unit to use these same tools.

My goal is to work with SSC students to create a single-page document for each play on our upcoming 2019/2020 mainstage season. These documents will use the 8KQ framework to kick start conversations by asking a few sample questions related to the ethical dilemma(s) found within the plays.


Here’s an example using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Fairness—Was it possible for R&J to act equitably and balance the interests of their families?

Outcomes—What choices could have been made to achieve a happier outcome for all involved?

Responsibilities—What responsibilities do R&J have to their families? To one another? To themselves? Did they shirk responsibility for their love?

Character—What actions might you take if you were either of these characters? What better choices could have been made for R&J to become their ideal selves?

Liberty—How might audience consent apply when showing suicide on stage? Does this play need a trigger warning?

Empathy—How might you feel if you were Juliet (or Romeo..or________)?  How would you feel as a family member at the end of the play?

Authority—What are the major authorities at play? How might religious authority dictate the actions of R&J?

Rights—Do R&J have the right to be together? What are the character’s rights when it comes to carrying weapons?


Prompt Ideas:

  1. Pretend you’re Romeo and use the 8KQ to decide whether or not you should fight Tybalt.
  2. Do the same for Paris in Act V, Scene iii (and rewrite his speech starting at “This is that banish’d haughty Montague” using the 8KQ).


My hope is that students and faculty will use these documents as a starting point to dig into individual moments or talk about our plays in general with an ethical reasoning lens. Additionally, I’d love to hear if/how this sparks other ideas about how to use the 8KQ in theatre, literature, film studies, and playwriting courses.

  • Is this type of resource you might use or modify for your class/team/group?
  • Do you have any suggestions for making the most out of this new effort? Let me know in the comments or at

PS…Now is the time to get involved in the School of Theatre and Dance’s season selection process. We’re currently accepting proposals for the 2020/2021 season!

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A “Wicked” Proposal

Friends, how have we already turned a corner into November? Fall, with all the trappings of Homecoming, Halloweekend, Voter Registration, and so much more, has flown by just as the Birds zooming across campus. From where I sit, my students are beginning to crane their necks to see ahead to final exams, presentations, and the respite of fall semester’s close.

As we look ahead, I’d like to bring your attention to the work of the first year Honors College students. Back in August, I shuffled onto one of several packed buses and caravanned with 200-some-odd, bright and shiny students to James Madison’s house. On that day, myself, Honors College faculty, and these fresh-faced students opened a loop. We began to ask what it means to be Madisonian in 2018 and what responsibility that might rest on the shoulders of this new Honors cohort.

Within the School of Communication Studies, we have spent the semester considering this question through the lens of persistent public problems. A symphony in three movements, our students have asked:

  1. What do I care about?
  2. So what am I going to do to about it?
  3. What can we do to help here?

First, we have asked our students to identify a particularlywickedpublic problem. Our definition of wicked in this case is not the stuff of Oz, but rather, problems that are hard to define, and even harder to identify solutions for. It took a little digging, but our students began the work of identifying diverse and complex wicked problems. Sexual Assault on College Campuses, Literacy, The Digital Divide in Education, Mental Health, and Binge Drinking are just a few of the persistent problems our students worked to articulate and flesh out.

Next, after sifting through the muck to find their wicked problem, our students worked with the Ethical Reasoning Educators to start the wobbly process of articulating solutions using the language of the 8 Key Questions. From this perspective, our students were able to start identifying the benefits and drawbacks of potential solutions. This month, in a forum style presentation, groups are sharing out potential solutions and deliberating with their peers to determine which solution best addresses their persistent public problem.

Finally, in an effort to close the loop we opened in August and bring these wicked public problems home, our students will develop Civic Action Plans to ask what we can do HERE to address this public problem. With the help of the Center for Civic Engagement, student groups will dream up how to make these incremental solutions come to fruition in specific and tangible ways. The gestation period for this project has been long, but we have operated under the hope that you, our students, will feel capable of addressing these looming, impossible problems floating just above you.

With that said, we want to share the fruits of this fall’s harvest with ALL of you! On behalf of the Honors College SCOM Faculty, I want to formally invite you to our December Symposium to see what wicked public problems JMU’s newest batch of Honors College students want to see SOLVED. We so hope you join us for compelling presentations, critical questions, and complimentary snacks.

Join us on Sunday, December 2nd between 1-4 PM in Harrison Hall. Schedules will be posted on the first floor of Harrison, just beyond the faculty lounge.

In Ethics + Empowerment,

Sarah Taylor Mayhak, MA

Instructor; The School of Communication Studies

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Tips for writing an ethical reasoning scenario

Writing an ethical reasoning scenario can feel like an overwhelming task, especially if you’ve never done it before. Once you begin, however, you will likely find that it is rewarding for the author(s) and for those who allow the scenario to prompt their own moral reasoning.

To help you get started, we offer a few tips to keep in mind while constructing an ethical reasoning scenario:

  1. Scenarios Evoke a Sense of Agency and Urgency

An ethical reasoning scenario places participants in a situation in which a decision urgently has to be made. Participants are agents immersed in the action rather than spectators standing outside of the action reflecting on decisions that have already been made. The agency-stance activates participants on the inside and puts them in the position of having to think for themselves about what should be done. This difference highlights the distinction between a scenario and a case. Think of what it is like to learn a new language; it is relatively easier to recognize what someone is saying in a new language than it is to produce conversational sentences in the new language partly because we experience our agency and the urgency of the situation. Conversations in which we participate actively have an aliveness about them. Ethical reasoning scenarios gain their vibrancy from a similar sense of aliveness. When we construct scenarios, we create a real-world, tension-filled situation that needs be resolved in the present.


  1. Identify a dilemma with multiple stakeholders, perspectives, and solutions

As you begin to construct a scenario, it is helpful to have identified a relevant moral dilemma in mind. Inspiration for dilemmas can come from multiple sources. It can be a personal experience, yours or a friend’s, or perhaps a story found in the news. Good dilemmas usually involve more than two persons, groups, or stakeholders in the scenario. Each person, group, or stakeholder offers a perspective from which the scenario is experienced, giving the scenario complexity and texture. Provide participants with enough information from each stakeholder so that it can reasonably support seeing things from that perspective. At the end of the scenario, you can offer participants the choice among a number of decisions or you can leave it open for them to come up with their own decisions to encourage creativity.


  1. Avoid scenarios with pre-established opinions

The most effective scenarios are ones that participants can enter into without a lot of pre-established opinions and bias. The desired outcome of a scenario is to promote the ethical reasoning habit of asking the 8 Key Questions. When participants have already established beliefs about a particular topic, they are unlikely to approach a situation with curiosity before making a decision. Ultimately, ethical reasoning helps us to become the kind of persons who are actively questioning all of our pre-established beliefs and bias, but the goals of a scenario—and especially the “It’s Complicated” scenario—are more modest. A scenario designed for first-year college students or people new to ethical reasoning should prompt someone to think about a situation in a way that they have never thought before. Examples of highly contentious topics where students have settled opinions include, but are not limited to, gun control, abortion, sexual assault, government spending, and alcohol consumption.


  1. Write a complicated scenario, not a confusing or obvious one.

Scenarios that invite participants in are ones in which there is sufficient information to be able to identify the dilemma and the perspectives of stakeholders, but not so much information that the scenario becomes either too confusing or too obvious. When facing difficult decisions in real life, we often do not have all the information we would like—that is what gives life a sense of risk. Information that is very technical or relies on a lot of background knowledge can also be confusing and require a lot of explanation. Information that rules out the perspective of a stakeholder can simplify the possible decisions so much that the scenario becomes too obvious. You want your participants to be able to understand just enough of what is going on to prompt them meaningfully to ask the 8KQ questions—to engage their ethical reasoning—because the scenario is complicated.


5. Send your scenario to Ethical Reasoning in Action for It’s Complicated! 

Ethical Reasoning in Action is looking for submissions for the new It’s Complicated scenario. The winner of the scenario submission will receive a $500 honorarium. After reviewing the submission guidelines and developing your scenario, share your idea using this form by December 3, 2018, 5:00pm EST. If you have any questions, email

Have fun writing!

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