The Importance of Questions Part 2 – Ethical Considerations For New Proposals

I am currently approximately 2/3 of the way through my planned career in education. In that time, like many others, I have seen a number of curricular (and other) proposals brought forward. In my observation, a small number of them have had elements that have managed to become sustained within the education system. Many others have not. I am not alone in this observation. Colleagues have made similar statements to me over the years. Eminent thinkers such as Larry Cuban (See Cuban’s Oversold and Underused for a sense of his ideas on the topic) have also shared these observations.

In every single instance that comes to mind, the innovations I’ve encountered (either proposed or implemented) were always well-intentioned. I may not have agreed that the intention would have been achieved, or I may not have agreed that a proposed project would have been a priority. At the same time, one must credit the project leaders with the fact that their main aim was to make improvements to the system. This fact speaks well of the professionalism and integrity of our profession as a whole.

When considering an innovative proposal, the primary ethical consideration that we must follow as educators is that its implementation must be associated with an intention to improve the status quo. The actual improvement can vary based on the proposal, but I have never encountered a suggested innovation whose aim was to maintain the status quo (or, more ridiculously, worsen the educational experience for our students).

While this primary ethical consideration is key, I also suggest that there are additional considerations when examining a proposed innovation. Again, in an effort to provide innovators with some additional food for thought, I have outlined them below. Again, I don’t consider these to be all-encompassing, they are just the ones that come to mind when I think about the proposed innovations I’ve encountered in recent months and years.

Question: Should we introduce this innovation for all relevant students, or just some of them? When taken within the context of why we introduce innovations into education, this question is more complex than it first seems. For the purposes of this question, a group is defined as a students of a similar grade or following a similar course curriculum. Regardless of the depth to which an innovation is researched beforehand, educators introduce change with an expectation of making things better. Within the public education system, we often start off with a smaller-scale deployment. This can be for a number of reasons. Among these might be:

  • A lack of funding to offer the same innovation to all relevant students at the same time
  • A lack of consensus among educators about the broad applicability of the innovation
  • A lack of available staff development to ensure that all teachers are able to embrace the innovation and make effective use of it in the classroom
  • Differing philosophies and priorities among teachers working with similar groups of students
  • The constraints of school timetables (causing students to be grouped in certain easy, and to work with certain teachers)
This list isn’t comprehensive, but it does give some idea as to why innovations are often undertaken as ‘pilot projects’. However, a ‘pilot project’ (by its nature) doesn’t offer the innovation to all those who might potentially benefit. Herein lies the dilemma. If we expect the change to make things better, shouldn’t we offer the same intervention to all students?
Financial considerations may require that an innovation be introduced in this way, but as educators we must ask ourselves whether this approach is ethically defensible under the ‘do no harm’ principle of introducing innovations.

Some readers might argue that I’m advocating for a system where equity means the same for all students. I don’t think that’s the case, and I’m not advocating for such here. The purpose of this series on questions is to give some suggestions to innovators regarding questions they can ask themselves before they move forward with a plan. The debate of equity=the same is best left for another time.

Are there other ethical considerations that we ought to include in any reflection on a project? Feel free to share your perspectives!

Additional Resources:

  • Ethics in Educational Research
  • (Note: In an effort to provide alternate perspectives and information on the topic of ethics and educational innovation, I found a lot of information on research perspectives, but the online discussion around ethical considerations ad the school system level were mostly academic in nature, and generally in .pdf format).
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