04th April 2014

Teaching Ethics to Eight Year Olds

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I’ve recently started teaching ethics to my 8 year old daughter’s class.

Up until the last few years, if you had a kid at a NSW state primary school who chose not to take a weekly 30 minute scripture class, they had to sit in the library and do nothing – colouring in was the only allowed activity. With a limited choice of religions on offer (no groovy Buddhist monks ‘round our way) and a general aversion to hypocrisy, we decided to have our kids take the colouring-in option. Good colouring in skills can be keenly sought after later in life.

All that has now changed through some effective activism and the persuasive powers of people like Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre. After seeing off the religious lobbies and careful trialling and testing, Philosophical Ethics is now an alternative to scripture. But only after parents opt out of scripture (it’s not presented up-front as an option) and only if the school has a volunteer ethics coordinator and enough trained, volunteer ethics teachers.

We had been part of the activism effort to make it happen, but when we learned that our eight year old and other kids we knew wouldn’t get the chance to learn ethics because of a shortage of teachers, my wife Jo and I decided we had to get more involved – so we both went through the training and here we are, in week five of our first term of teaching ethics – me to 8 year olds; Jo to 10 year olds.

Now, I facilitate and coach senior executives on a range of things in my professional career (including some stuff on ethics in the corporate world), but nothing’s as challenging or as fun as rapping about ethics with 8 year olds! There’s been a great curriculum developed, and the lessons are all well written and engaging – the biggest learning is how to manage 22 eight year olds with varying degrees of interest, patience and physical stillness. And yes, 8 year olds can grasp ethical concepts and engage in an enquiring dialogue, and get on their own journey to become critical thinkers – well not all of them, but most. And I’ve got to say, the 30 minutes a week I spend with my little philosophers is enlightening and fun. Here’s some things I’ve learnt so far:

  • There’s such a wide range of apparent abilities in a group of 22 kids – some are so together and well formed, others are still trying to put it together and just get through in the moment. But fire up their interest in subjects like selfishness, greed or social norms and they can all express a point of view on them
  • At eight years old, it’s the girls who are most engaged, interested and committed. The boys? Well, with some exceptions, they’re just not as smart and into it. What happens in the next 15-20 years? I might have to the girls a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” at the right moment. My great hope is that more of these girls end up running our institutions in the future
  • Eight year olds can think ethically. They have a pretty solid sense already of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong and social justice already, and are open to examine the reasons behind their views. Mind you, they can also be irreverent, distracted and illogical – just like some of the people you meet in the corporate world
  • There are budding philosophers all around us. One boy in particular in my group is just incredible, giving me a dictionary-like definition of a fable – “it’s a story, often from back in time, which contains a lesson or a moral in it“ he tells me, before proceeding to say that he has not one, but three examples of morals that he’s aware of from seemingly child-like fables
  • You’re never too young to understand social discourse, listening to other’s points of view, supporting your opinion with data or facts. And of course, learning to think critically, to see things as they really are and to examine alternate points of view is an essential set of skills to make anyone a better world citizen – I sure wasn’t doing that at eight, but I wish I has been. It sure beats listening to doctrine and old myths
  • Hats off to primary school teachers – my thirty minutes a week is challenging; I’m on my toes and doing my best to keep them interested and under control. I can’t imagine stretching that to 30 hours a week!

So, my life is now richer because of 22 eight year olds who run (mostly) into the school hall to see me on Tuesdays, sit in a circle and open their minds each week. It’s fabulously rewarding, and the opportunity to engage with little kids on their journey in life makes me feel more complete as a person. Aristotle said that if you want to be a virtuous person, it’s not enough to just think virtuously, you have to act with virtue as well. Thanks for the reminder Aristotle.

The Primary Ethics movement has got to where it is now due to some untiring efforts from a lot of parents and citizens who wanted to give young kids some choice. To Barry O’Farrell’s credit, he hasn’t caved into pressure and has maintained the legislation in place to continue the program. Participation is growing rapidly, but I understand schools west of the inner city and coast are lacking resources and information. If you want to make a difference, go to www.primaryethics.com.au and see if there’s an opportunity for you to donate, co-ordinate or even teach at your local primary school.

Next week we’re discussing “the difference between excuses and reasons”. Better start my preparation now!


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