Feeling the Pull: Ethical Enquiry and the Tension It Creates for Teachers

  • Grace Robinson


Ethical topics are attractive starting points for philosophical enquiry with children who must live and learn together in classrooms that accommodate a plurality of values. However the appealing familiarity, practicality and accessibility of certain ethical topics can obscure the challenges such sessions present to teachers and their students. The teacher’s role as facilitator of philosophical enquiry requires her to encourage open-ended, conceptually-focused dialogue, fuelled by questioning that, for the most part, ‘doesn’t offer any new ideas or information to the group but simply attempts to make visible, clarify, or connect what has already emerged’ (Kennedy 2014 p. 755). Even where a facilitator does introduce new information, ideas, questions, or lines of enquiry, these contributions are not designed to lead the class to a particular conclusion. The facilitator typically assumes a ‘self-effacing non-judgemental, and neutral role’ with regards to the verdicts reached by the children, intervening only where it will challenge the class to work harder and not to advance her own position. However the teacher also embodies the often-unarticulated role of ethical instructor. In this role she must inform, guide, praise, promote, encourage, incentivise, reward, uphold and police conventional standards of good character and conduct. When we examine these two roles in context as this paper does, we begin to feel the pull. How can a teacher create space in which ethical norms can be challenged – even rejected – in the spirit of intellectually vigorous philosophical enquiry whilst simultaneously upholding and reinforcing them as non-negotiable expectations? The paper argues that the tension between the roles of ‘teacher-as-philosophical-facilitator’ and ‘teacher-as-ethical-instructor’ is not intractable, in fact when acknowledged and better understood, the apparently competing demands of these roles can be dissolved leading to an enriched ethical education for children.