Chapter One: Making Sense of Public Schooling

1.6 The Moral Nature of Schools and Teaching

A final complication in the discussion of the goals and purposes of schooling has to do with its moral nature. Schooling is not simply a matter of teaching prescribed sets of knowledge and skills to students, although this is how it is often described. Rather, schooling is essentially concerned with introducing young people (and, increasingly, adults) to the nature of the world as we understand it, and equipping them to live and engage actively in that world—what we earlier called the development of self-knowledge. In this process, moral and ethical considerations are of fundamental importance, and students learn as much from how they are taught and treated in schools as they do from what they are taught. It is important for educators to consider which moral codes are affirmed within the school and whether others have been minimized and/or excluded as a consequence. As we have seen in media coverage, in the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in the research on youth suicide and bullying, the experience of many students in schools has been one of exclusion and marginalization. It is important that we continually critique the moral codes that play out in our everyday actions so that we do not perpetuate the inequities that have been enacted as systemic racism, sexism, etc. Every day, teachers and school administrators are acting as moral examples to students and one another, and are creating a community that embodies particular concepts of ethical behaviour. If some students are treated as unimportant, as people whose ideas and feelings are of no consequence, then they are more likely to see the world as one in which some people matter while others do not. If teachers embody respect for all students, for one another, for their subjects, and for the development of knowledge, then students are more likely to develop and value these qualities. According to Robert Starratt (2005), teachers:

illuminate that moral character of learning through an exposition of those moral virtues embedded in the very activity of authentic, integral learning. These virtues…are not a kind of value-added, icing-on-the-cake supplement to the more basic intellectual character of learning. On the contrary, they are essential for the very intellectual quality of learning; without them what passes for learning in schools is superficial, vacuous, artificial, make-believe, frivolous, and possibly dishonest…. school leaders and all teachers need to evaluate what they do in the light of the moral character of learning… (p. 13)

There are obviously important technical skills to be learned about teaching. Teacher candidates are understandably anxious about their ability to manage classes, maintain order, and create reasonable learning experiences for students. But these skills are not meaningful unless they are tied to an ethical and moral view of teaching. When individuals think back to the teachers they had, they often see that the example set by good teachers had more impact on them, and is more vivid in their memory, than the subject matter taught.

Moral issues are not only embedded in the fabric of teaching, they are also integral to school organization and administration. Such matters as the division of schools into classes, grades, and ability levels, the assignment of work to students, or the awarding of marks and credits also have important moral dimensions.