Teaching Ethics…Earning Trust

By Gary Marx

Expedient:  What’s easiest?  Pragmatic:  Whatever works.   

Ethical:  What’s the right thing to do?

We hear about a breach of ethical behavior.  We’re appalled.  Many of us follow the story for weeks–even years.  We ask:  “Who would ever do anything like that?”  “Who do they think they are?”  “Look at the people they’ve hurt with their selfishness.”  Lives and organizations are damaged or destroyed.  Trust, often meticulously earned over a lifetime, is lost in an instant.

What do we mean by “ethics?”  Webster’s calls it “the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.”  It can involve “principles of conduct governing an individual or group, such as a profession.”  In fact, the marks of any profession generally include:  a body of knowledge, a language or lingo, and a code of ethics.

If ethical behavior is so important, why are we reluctant to talk and teach about it?  Do we fear that we might have our own skeletons in the closet?  Do we harbor a secret admiration for those who have reached their version of success by taking advantage of others?  Are we concerned that someone might think we see ourselves as “holier than thou?”

Whatever the reason, we simply need to get over it.  Let’s face it.  We can turn out students who develop reputations as the best educators, politicians, business people, mathematicians, scientists, technologists, or physicians in the world.  However, if they breach a code of ethics, all bets are off.  Forget the positive news that’s been filling the air.  A violation of ethics will suck all the air out of the room.

How can we teach about ethics?  Generally, through precept and example.  Build an understanding of ethical principles.  Then, reinforce them with real-life stories, case studies,  role-playing, and current events.  The news is brimming with possibilities that can enliven class discussions.

Consider Precepts.  In Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, I suggest we check our ethical behavior in comparison to four key markers—integrity (Are we who we say we are?), fairness (How do we treat other people?), trust (Are we honest and dependable?), and character (What motivates us?).  Add them up and they help define our reputation, our good name.

I often ask people to consider an Empathy ↔ Arrogance Continuum.  If we are empathetic, we care very much about how our decisions, pronouncements, or actions affect others.  If we are arrogant, we really don’t care.  As a test, we should constantly ask where we are on that continuum.

Michael Josephson, who founded Character Counts, focuses on the “Six Pillars of Character:  trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.”

Philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

Charles Kearns, associate professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University warns, “Leaders who are motivated by self-interest and the exercise of personal power have restricted effectiveness and authenticity.”

    Discussion Starters:  Get the ethics discussion going with a few case studies, such as:

  • An elected official signs a private pledge to support a certain type of legislation in return for a promise of campaign contributions. Should this be considered a conflict of interest, a violation of trust, an ethical issue, or all three?
  • A person cleared for access to classified information and sworn to uphold confidentiality releases that information to the media. Is it whistle blowing or espionage?
  • A classmate tells you confidentially that he is bringing a gun to school tomorrow. He tells you, “Don’t be a snitch.”  What will you do?  When?

Why do people and organizations use bad judgment?  Often, it’s because they build a culture on something less than a firm ethical foundation.  Examples:  a belief that power equates to personal privilege, deliberate misinterpretation of information, attempts to hide information from the media and the public, blaming others for problems we’ve caused, overconfidence, stereotyping, and a superiority complex.  Add to the list, keeping in mind that some things may be legal but still not be appropriate, even ethical.

Mahatma Ghandi put it all into perspective:  “Power is given to you by others.  It is not yours; it is in trust with you and it is a great responsibility.  Power is to be used for the benefit of those whose trustee you are.”

In education, ethical problems raise their heads in hiring and other personnel decisions, teacher and student placement, financial concerns, discipline, fairness, class, multicultural sensitivity, handling of disasters and accusations, management of personal information, attempts to discredit others, privacy vs. access, hacking, testing and assessment, and student or staff cheating.

Today’s students will face hundreds of far-reaching issues that will demand a firm grasp of ethics.  Among them:  stewardship of the environment; access to fresh, clean water for everyone; the use of intellectual and physical enhancements, such as pharmaceuticals; government gridlock and unwillingness to compromise; crime and corruption at many levels; and even the introduction of life forms on other planets.

Rushworth Kidder, founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics, reminded us that, “Without moral courage, our brightest virtues rust from lack of use.  With it, we build piece by piece a more ethical world.”

Read More:

To read more about Ethics, check out Chapter 17 of Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future by Gary Marx.  The full book and Guide versions are available for single- and multiple-copy purchase to help us build an understanding of these and other trends.  Order from the publisher, Education Week Press, www.edweek.org/go/21Trends (print and electronic); from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Twenty-one-Trends-21st-Century-Trenches/dp/1939864046  (print and Kindle); or from Barnes & Noblehttp://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twenty-one-trends-for-the-21st-century-gary-marx/1119436648 (Nook).


June 30, 2015


Polarization or a More Civil Society? That is the question.

By Gary Marx

Assignment #1:  How well are we preparing young people to become interested, engaged, and contributing members of a truly civil society?  As you think about it, consider these questions:  Do our students know how to gather, consider, and present evidence?  Do they understand the importance of reasoned discussion?  Do they have a commitment to comprehending, not necessarily accepting, a variety of points of view?  OK, what’s your score?  For schools?  For your community?  For your nation?

Use a scale of 1 to 10 (10 high). 

Whatever our scores, we are fairly certain about one thing:  We aren’t there yet.  In fact, polarization is eating our lunch.  Shouting matches have too often replaced civil discourse.  While social media theoretically open the door to a world of information, growing numbers of people program their dashboards for apps and web sites that do nothing more than justify single, narrow, pre-determined conclusions.

In street language, here’s how polarization blares at us from newspapers, radio and television, and our choice of web sites or social media, even at the coffee shop:  “It’s us versus them.”  “This room isn’t big enough for both of us.”  “Are you from a blue state or a red state?”  “Forget about principle.  All that matters is whether we win.”

What’s going on here?  On the one hand, we intone the absolute necessity of developing good citizens of our families, schools, colleges, communities, nations, and the world.  On the other, we shamelessly short-change civic education and the social sciences.

If we have any hope for a sustainable future, polarization and narrowness will need to bend toward reasoned discussion, evidence, and consideration of varying points of view.  Yet, too often, we end up self-righteously fractionated, constantly in conflict, paralyzed by unresolved disagreements, and verbally attacked by people who haven’t been heard because someone hasn’t been listening.

New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman warns that we’ve become so partisan that the best we can hope for is “suboptimal responses” to our biggest problems, only reflecting “the sum of all interest groups.”  Still, let’s remember what former U.S. President James Madison had to say.  Writing in the Federalist Papers, Madison observed, “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”  Of course, as often as possible, we should resolve those differences in a way that serves the common good.

    Civic Education, Social Sciences, and the Civic Mission of Schools.  Educators who believe in the civic mission of schools are generally appalled by political gridlock that slows or blocks their efforts to give all students, across all diversities, a shot at a better tomorrow.  Many are caught in the classic tug between those who have a great deal and want more…and those who have very little and just want some.

What are the implications of this exploding dilemma for education?  How can our education system bring greater civility to fractured and warring communities—whole societies, for that matter?

Let’s start by thinking about the skills, attitudes, and behaviors each of us needs to be declared “civil.”  Among them are: empathy; ethical behavior; respect for others despite their differences; the ability to think, reason, and solve problems; the know-how to resolve conflict peacefully and democratically; and a commitment to engage people in discussion and listen to their ideas.

Add a willingness to collaborate and reasonably compromise, do research, network, consider multiple points of view, and build a case.  Among basics are the need for media literacy, consensus building, and negotiating skills.  Of course, another essential is getting a grip on the dynamic flow of trends and issues in a fast-changing world.  All of the above should be coupled with creativity, imagination, and breakthrough thinking that can put us on the road to solving problems, seizing opportunities, and creating a more hopeful tomorrow.

Any civic educator will tell us that our students need to understand and have hands-on experience with public engagement and policymaking.  Most would encourage them to take initiative in improving their communities.  All of us, including our students, should be familiar with how government at every level is intended to work and how laws are made and changed.  Top this preparation for enlightened citizenship with a working knowledge of concepts such as authority, privacy, responsibility, and justice.

Rebecca Mieliwocki, 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of Futures Council 21 for development of our book, Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, puts it this way.  As teachers, “our work knits the fabric of society together like nothing else.”

The Center for Civic Education urges all of us to aim for a civic temperament.  That might just be the answer to what has too often become a polarized, gridlocked society.

    Assignment #2:  Identify ten things we should start doing now to make sure our students are ready to become active and contributing members of a truly civil society.

Read More:

To read more about Polarization and the need for civic education, check out Chapter 15 of Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future by Gary Marx.  The full book and Guide versions are available for single- and multiple-copy purchases to help us build an understanding of these and other trends.  Order from the publisher, Education Week Press, www.edweek.org/go/21Trends (print and electronic); from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Twenty-one-Trends-21st-Century-Trenches/dp/1939864046  (print and Kindle); or from Barnes & Noblehttp://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twenty-one-trends-for-the-21st-century-gary-marx/1119436648 (Nook).


Poverty: Getting Past the Cost of Neglect

By Gary Marx

Definitions of poverty seem too clinical, and its consequences can hardly be measured by percentages on a well-designed chart.  We’re talking about real people who, for one reason or another, are living with resources so slim that even their access to food, clothing, and shelter are severely limited.  The U.S. Census Bureau reports that “individuals are considered poor if the resources they share with others in the household are not enough to meet basic needs.”

The official 2013 U.S. poverty rate for children under 18 was 19.9 percent.  An estimated 45.3 million people overall lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Meanwhile, in the fall of 2014, UNICEF reported that 32.2 percent of children in the U.S. lived in homes where household income was below 60 percent of the 2008 national median income (measured toward the beginning of the Great Recession).

For the record, the 2015 U.S. poverty threshold was set at $24,250 for a family of four.  The low income threshold for that same size family is generally considered to be twice the prevailing poverty level, although it can vary for specific programs.  Using a similar measure and looking back to 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) noted that 51 percent of students across the nation’s public schools were low-income.  In 21 states, a majority of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book consistently shows that the percentages of children living in poverty vary widely across racial and ethnic groups.

We could recite numbers until we’re breathless.  The driving question simply must be, “What are we going to do about it?”  Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman declares, “Shameful child poverty levels call for urgent and persistent action.  It’s way past time to eliminate epidemic child poverty and the child suffering, stress, homelessness, and miseducation it spawns.”

Persistent problems demand dogged persistence in solving them.  During the Great Depression, jobs programs created opportunities for people to find work.  In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty.  The effort was strengthened by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Head Start programs for disadvantaged preschool children beginning in 1965-66, and the historic National School Lunch Program.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) aimed to lift all students, including those from low income circumstances, to within reach of the Golden Ring, as members of civil society and the economy.

The battle was sparked, in part, by unequal opportunities and injustices that prevailed for decades.  That led to Brown vs. Board of Education, a bold statement that our future depends on providing equal educational opportunity for all.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Lincoln Memorial “I Have a Dream” address during the 1963 Poor People’s March on Washington continues to echo across the nation and world.

What have we learned?  Where do we go from here?  If we hope for a brighter future, we need to get even more serious about finding answers and moving forward.  The sense of urgency is flaming.  The time is now.

Health, nutrition, affordable and acceptable housing, high quality education for all, safe communities, support for families of young children, decent jobs, help with child care and transportation as well as some other work-related costs, wrapped in a sense of dignity and respect, are an investment, not an expense.  Pre-kindergarten programs and high expectations for all students seem essential.  Peter Edelman of the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, has called for “launch of a full-scale attack on poverty.”

In an article for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Richard Rothstein, research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, wrote, “Closing or substantially narrowing achievement gaps requires combining school improvement with reforms that narrow the vast socio-economic inequalities in the United States.”  Rothstein goes on to say, “Without such a combination, demands that schools fully close achievement gaps not only will remain unfulfilled, but also will cause us to foolishly and unfairly condemn our schools and teachers.”  The Iceberg Report, released in 2015 by the Horace Mann League and National Superintendents Roundtable, emphasizes the need for sound education policy that can only have a chance if it is supported by sound social and economic policy.

As we make clear in Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, education and society should be determined to help those caught in poverty to get out of it and those who aren’t to avoid it.

The cost of neglect is another elephant in the room.  When we neglect children and education, we all pay for it, one lifetime after another.  Morally and economically, that cost is greater than the up-front investment.  Public neglect shows up in compromised student achievement, dropouts or push-outs, and a likelihood that too many young people will give up on pursuing or sticking with postsecondary education.  Add to that a whole lot of personal frustration, maybe fuller jails, doused dreams, and diminished hope.  Homelessness, poor health, and hunger have consequences, both for those who suffer them and for the whole of society.

Will we ever know the diseases we could have conquered, the ideas and inventions that might have  lifted our economy and our civil society, the peace we might have won, and the justice that might have prevailed, if we had just made sure that all of us put our minds and hearts to overcoming poverty?

Keep this in mind:  If even one person is poor, in one way or another we are all poorer because of it.

Read More:

To read more about Poverty, check out Chapter 19 of Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future by Gary Marx.  The full book and Guide versions are available for single- and multiple-copy purchases to help us build an understanding of these and other trends.  Order from the publisher, Education Week Press, www.edweek.org/go/21Trends (print and electronic); from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Twenty-one-Trends-21st-Century-Trenches/dp/1939864046  (print and Kindle); or from Barnes & Noblehttp://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twenty-one-trends-for-the-21st-century-gary-marx/1119436648 (Nook).