male student sitting at a desk typing on a laptop with male instructor looking over his shoulder
October 14, 2022

Teaching Ethics

Ideas from the Summer Workshop
by Kiran Bhardwaj & Ryan Ravanpak

In August, 18 educators joined in the Ethi{CS} Summer Project, an annual virtual conference which, this year, focused on “Teaching Ethics in the Computer Science Classroom.” The session was designed to give computer science educators time and space to reflect on their own courses and practices, and to present techniques from ethics pedagogy to support their work.

One of the thoroughgoing themes for CS educators who want to include more ethics in the classroom is that there are pressures against doing so—after all, there is only so much time in the school year and there are a daunting number of CS concepts that we might feel students should learn in that time. One of the solutions we prefer at the ethi{CS} project is to lessen the time pressure by having students thinking about ethics while learning technical concepts from CS. Computer science instructor and Tang Fellow Nick Zufelt shared sample lessons from his and other ethi{CS} project-supported courses that do exactly that: a salutations generator, spellchecker assignment, and business card generator.

There is another kind of time pressure as well—that we as educators only have so much time to plan and redesign classes. The session was intended to frame options that could be borrowed or adapted, as well as allow educators time and space to find the easiest access points for their own classes and have time to confer with others about what’s currently on their minds by rethinking labs and projects accordingly.

Finally, it is rare for a CS educator to have had the opportunity to study ethics formally—and rarer still to have had any experience teaching ethics. How should teachers who aren’t sure where to start, get started?

Small moments of ethical inquiry, built into the fabric of a course, can make ethical consideration a habit—not an afterthought.

Here are a few things teachers can do in the classroom to inspire good ethical inquiry from students.

  • One misconception is that ethics education is about teaching students how to make decisions between what’s right and wrong. Actually, the work is about giving students techniques to frame better questions about ethics, have them reflect on the limitations of what they believe and know, and, after that, determine what makes for better and worse answers for the topic at hand (using various kinds of frames that can assist them). Often, this isn’t a matter of framing questions of right and wrong, but good v. good: we’re often trying to decide how to compare and decide between options that promote different kinds of goods. Yet there are ways to choose between these goods: we might want our students to consider some goods, like securing justice, as more important than other goods, like securing one’s own self-interest. The students are the ones who are tasked with making up their own minds, but well-designed ethical frameworks can help them understand what’s at stake and how they could choose.
  • Also, it’s important to show students that you can change your mind—and that you ought to consider contrasting views charitably, even if you don’t agree. In philosophy, these are taught by reference to two intellectual virtues: the principle of charity and intellectual humility, which are introduced at the beginning of the year and treated as norms of the class. Educators can model both how we want students to respond to their own mistakes and be open to revising their own views, as well as how to constructively frame disagreements. Doing so can inspire constructive conversation that works to make each other's ideas shine as best as they can given the facts on hand.
  • Last, teachers should consider that, sometimes, the best learning comes from smaller assignments that ask the student to think about their ethical choices and values at small moments over time–in small points of consideration and over a long time rather than through singular, one-off engagements. Doing so can also help teachers bring ethics into the classroom easier: for example, perhaps a week prior to a project that has an ethical question in focus, teachers can ask students about their base intuitions about the central ethical question—and use those responses to inform their own lesson design and offer students something to come back to after the assignment. Small moments of ethical inquiry, built into the fabric of a course, can make ethical consideration a habit—not an afterthought.

For more tips and tricks, we will be offering an abridged version of our Summer Workshop on October 20, 2022. Sign up, or learn more about our professional development offerings for the year.

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Dr. Kiran Bhardwaj is an instructor in philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy and a Tang Institute Fellow with the ethi{CS} project.

Dr. Ryan Ravanpak is the Tang Institute's visiting scholar in ethics and technology. In this role, he teaches in the department of philosophy and religious studies and works with the ethi{CS} project.

Categories: Fellows

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