Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Need for Ethical Literacy in a Digital Age

Today’s teachers are in a position of potentially powerful leadership in a wired new world.  They are using new technology in their classrooms on an almost daily basis and, if they are bold enough, can still demand a say in how and for what moral purpose this technology is used.  However, this opportunity may prove fleeting if teachers do not seize it with appropriate conviction and vigor.  How can teachers use their current influence to encourage students to live ethically in both real and virtual environments? 

I believe fostering ethical literacy will be teachers’ great challenge, and great responsibility, in the future.  I am not alone in this belief.  For example, Sternberg (2011) writes that today many “of the problems facing us in schools and in the world at large are not caused by a lack of knowledge” but rather by people not using “that knowledge ethically.”  He argues teachers need to teach students “how to reason about ethical situations.”  Taylor (2011) quotes King (2010) in speaking out against “the lack of morality in leaders in all aspects of society and the preponderance of leaders, overcome by greed and money, who actually justify their self-centered behaviors as being acceptable.” (In reading this, one cannot help but think of Canada’s recent Senate expenses scandal and feel there is much reason for King’s concerns.)  And as far back as 1991, Starratt wrote that educational administrators “need to consider their responsibility to promote an ethical environment in their schools” during “ordinary times, which are never ordinary.” 

The digital age has opened up a whole new moral-ethical universe for societies and their students.  Never have educators’ challenges been greater, nor their responsibilities weightier, than at the present  – particularly when it comes to considerations of the ethical behavior of students and the larger societies they are preparing to inhabit.  Digital technology has provided people with a wider reach – and therefore a more powerful influence – over whether or not societies develop ethically. But although there are a lot of models out there proposing how students can become good digital citizens (see, for example, Ribble and Miller, 2013) none of them will work unless teachers are able to reach out to the digital learners of today and engage them, as human beings, in a shared sense of what it means to be ethical and have ethical societies in the twenty-first century.

I will close with a paradoxical question of the “chicken-and-the-egg” variety: if society is largely unethical how can teachers encourage students to lead more ethical, less greedy and materialistic lives?  On the other hand, if teachers can educate an entire generation of ethical citizens, won’t this ultimately lead to the moral improvement of society?

Of course the term “ethical” is fraught with difficulty – what and whose ethics are we talking about?  Nevertheless, I don’t think this difficulty should cause educational leaders to shy away from conversations of what it means for our students to be ethically literate in the twenty-first century.

Thanks for reading.


Ribble, M., & Miller, T. (2013). Educational leadership in an online world:
            Connecting students to technology responsibly, safely, and ethically.
            Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks17(1), 135-143.
Starratt, R. J. (1991). Building an ethical school: A theory for practice in
            educational leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly27(2), 185-
Sternberg, R.J. (2011). Ethics: From thought to action. Educational
            Leadership. 68(6), 34-39.
Taylor, C. R. (2011). Toward a Moral View of Education and School
            Improvement.National Teacher Education Journal4(2), 5-9.

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