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Applying ethical principles in the high school classroom

| October 29, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Susan Stos

Corruption is endemic in South Africa, according to public prosecutor Thuli Madonsela.1 Many of us watch with horror the visuals of gang violence in Manenberg in the Western Cape on television. When chief of police and president of Interpol, Jackie Selebi, was charged with corruption, it must have been confusing to the youth that the man entrusted with prosecuting criminals is a criminal himself. According to Liz Dooley, former director of the Family and Marriage Association of South Africa (FAMSA),2 our families are under siege.

The concomitant pressures of time and resources mean that family mealtimes, when children learn about ethics, infrequently occur.3 Teens need parental involvement and influence as much as they ever did, yet most adolescents spend time alone with their own entertainment systems in the form of iPods, computers and cellphones. Parents who once had an idea who was calling, now have no clue as to whom their children are speaking.

Do as I say, not as I do
Coupled with that isolation, teens develop a ‘hypocrisy detector’4 and recognise the gap between what their parents say and what they do. They are told not to drink or smoke, warned that lying is wrong, but may see their parents doing those very things. They are beginning to think for themselves about the big issues, often rejecting parental values.5 If our aim is to create authentic leadership among the youth – leadership that is based on morality and conviction – ethics must be a substantial component.

Stos steps in
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that governs right and wrong behaviour. As a concept, it is sometimes difficult to teach. I am an international and local journalist with 30 years of experience and mother of two 20-something adults, and I decided to develop a programme for teaching ethical decision-making to senior high school students.

It came about as a result of undertaking a Master’s degree on the subject. I realised that every decision in my chosen career – journalism – is an ethical one; who to interview, what to ask, what to edit. Do we invade privacy to expose wrongdoing? Conceal our identity to uncover a criminal? My research indicated that those decisions are mostly made unconsciously, based only on ‘gut feel’. I think it is important to be more deliberate about the ethical choices we make, to be aware of the consequences of our decisions. But how to do that; what framework to use?

Ethics must start early
When I read the King III report, which states that companies of a certain size must now have a social and ethics committee,6 it occurred to me that it might be too late to start teaching adults how to be ethical. Surely that kind of education should begin with our youth. To that end, I developed a programme, APPLY Ethics, which is pragmatic rather than esoteric – a simple series of steps to making an ethical decision. APPLY Ethics’ name is an acronym: Assess, Principles, Philosophy, Loyalties and finally, Your decision.

It is not up to you or me to tell another person what ethical action to take. Each person considers different aspects when making such choices. The important point is the decision has been carefully thought out through the prism of one’s principles, philosophy and loyalties. We need to give our students the vocabulary and opportunity to think about what they believe in. Just as we exercise our bodies and brains to be fit and strong, we must develop ethical ‘muscles’.

Pondering philosophies
The APPLY Ethics programme comprises student workbooks and a teacher’s guide. It begins by asking pupils about the people they admire, and why. What attitudes do those people espouse? What kind of person do they want to become themselves? Most of us have never given thought to that question. Principles and values are discussed, wherein schools can include their own motto or mission statement. What does it mean to be fair? What is the value in compassion? Next, we turn to philosophies of life. All of us need to consider what we believe in. There is discussion around the ethic of reciprocity: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What is particularly great about this philosophy is that it is the basis of every major world religion, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Judaism or Hinduism. Other philosophies are also discussed, such as ubuntu, which Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has called “the basis of humanity”. Loyalties are then considered. Wherein principles and a philosophy are constants, loyalties vary, depending on the situation.

Practical element
Age-appropriate case studies are included in the workbook. In one ethical dilemma, students are asked what they would do if they have promised to keep a secret about a friend’s destructive behaviour. They learn that in this situation, their loyalty to their friend is actually loyalty to the friend’s secret, whereas they also need to consider loyalty to their friend’s health, safety, reputation, future, even his/her life. A technique is taught to discern their foremost loyalties. So, if one believes in truth, honesty, kindness and compassion, and one’s philosophy of life is ubuntu where we’re all part of a whole, and top loyalties have been determined, the ethical decision has just been made a whole lot easier.

It can be justified and will sit well with the person making it. This programme was workshopped at Kingsmead College in Johannesburg, where reaction from the students was overwhelmingly positive. Many said that learning the process would always inform their life decisions. A number of schools, including St Alban’s College in Pretoria, have used the method to great effect and head of life orientation (LO), Esmé Momberg, maintains that “this strategy really gives us the ability to avoid ‘knee-jerk’ reactions. More thoughtful citizens can only be good for our country.”

Ethics should be everywhere LO is the perfect vehicle for APPLY Ethics, as the programme incorporates a number of the stated national curricular objectives such as critical thinking about religion, life skills, philosophical thought and human rights. If we want our students – our future leaders – to act ethically, they need specific tools to do so. APPLY Ethics is a process that can be used for the rest of their lives.  Contact Susan Stos at cellphone: +27 (83) 265 8257 or e-mail

References: 1. See, for example, 1.1269981#.UicPCZK1H8Y. 2. See 3. See, for example, initiative. 4. See, for example, 5. See, for example, 6. The release of the revised King Code of Governance Principles and the King Report on Governance (King III) on 1 September 2009 represented a significant milestone in the evolution of corporate governance in South Africa, and brings with it significant opportunities for organisations to embrace the principle that free enterprise prospers in an environment of good and balanced corporate governance. Source:

Category: Summer 2013

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