Thoughts on Core Ethical Values in Schools

Identifying a school's core ethical values can involve either a cursory mention of vague principles (e.g. caring, respect, and responsibility) or can quickly become a rabbit-hole of moral and ethical conundrums resulting in more confusion than solutions. Finding an effective middle ground for identifying core ethical values is by far the most important consensus to have for a school and its staff, especially when engaging in conversations regarding social, emotional, and character development of students and their families.

For example, a school which elevates the value of respect as a school-wide core value might find the word respect to be interpreted a number of different ways depending on who is part of the conversation. Is respect an authoritarian structure of power and control? or is respect a more egalitarian, collectivist perspective that places a smaller distance of power and control between its levels of bureaucratic structure? I know that was a lot of big fancy words, but I only mean to highlight the complexity of the word "respect" and the stark differences and challenges that come with using the word as a core ethical value in a school setting.

Using a word like respect in schools directly impacts instructional practices, especially when they different perspectives are subtly or widely different from classroom to classroom. Instructional leadership from an administrator will add to the complexity when a classroom teacher interprets guidance from an administrator regarding respect in classroom management and instruction.

Ethical Values in Western Philosophy

This becomes a particular challenge when schools use language without adequate definition in context of the environment. Referring to an idea such as respect as a core ethical value of a school may actually be a misplacement of it as a virtue in the first place. Claims of disrespect are often presented on the grounds that a person has been deemed of no worth, or less than their perceived worth. In this way, respect may be seen as a defining of assumed worth based on varying characteristics, titles, or other attributes. If this was not how you initially considered respect, you are not alone. The idea of respect is often seen more as behaviors related to obedience of authority, kindness to parents, and other such unidirectional behavior expectations.

What might be better is to consider actual ethical values of Western philosophy such as magnanimity (having great spirit; noble and giving) and temperance (having self-control and restraint with regards to pleasure). There are excesses and deficiencies to such virtues that a school seeking to formalize core ethical values may want to discuss openly and honestly. Seeking temperance in our behaviors lends itself to ideas of self-regulation which are quickly becoming more popular in social-emotional learning programs. However, an excess of temperance might result in an insensible restriction of simple pleasures, while an extreme deficiency results in a constant state of self-indulgence. It is not as simple as exercising one form of temperance in any and all situations. Life for students in the K-12 grade levels becomes increasingly complicated with each passing year and their behaviors become more complex as their social and societal expectations become more complex. Developing virtuous behaviors begins by defining core ethical values with purpose and intent.

Discipline policies and behavior management strategies are also directly impacted by differences in understanding of a core ethical principles. Perhaps a school uses responsibility as a core ethical value expressed by a school's administration to promote intrinsically-motivated student responsibility for their decision-making processes. A misinterpretation of this value might lead teachers to place rules of consequence for students who aren't responsible for their things or take responsibility for making mistakes. This would find those teachers defying the administration's desire to develop intrinsically-motivated responsibility due to an underlying philosophical difference not only in what responsibility means but how responsibility might be trained in students. By now, it is becoming clear that communication is the key component for schools seeking to explore more meaningful core ethical values.

Pluralism and Diversity in Schools

One other consideration is the plurality of a public school setting. Core ethical values can be a difficult topic for discussion in school communities which do not have a large majority of stakeholders sharing similar interpretations of specific school-defined values, ethics, and other moral codes of conduct. I believe pluralism and diversity is to be valued in a public setting and that schools seeking to define their core ethical values would benefit from crowdsourcing their own definitions from their community stakeholders. Additionally, differences and disparities of philosophical interpretation can be better understood through the direct instruction and modeling of appropriate conflict resolutions strategies both in and out of classrooms, school grounds, as well as throughout a school's community. This is only one consideration which leads me to connecting explicit social and emotional learning instruction and assessment in schools as well as connecting a school's organizational structure, culture, and climate.

Pluralistic diversity in public schools is a reflection of our communities.

As I continue to reflect on this topic as an educator, I see a difficult question needing to be answered by each school within its own community. Is it better for a school to reflect or to develop the ethical virtues and values of its community?

Organizational Culture and Character Development

I see a need for government officials and policy-writers to see schools for what they are - opportunities to develop in students what to develop a strong understanding of organizational culture while they are working to develop a meaningful approach to social, emotional, and character development (SECD). The challenge I see in schools as I continue working through this connection is that schools don't have an objective measure of specific elements for organizational culture like they do with CASEL's organized competencies for social and emotional development. I believe the more we help schools shift toward a perspective that embraces SECD, the more we'll see schools needing to specifically address deeper-rooted culture and climate related measures for systemic changes to both their policies and their philosophies - and I couldn't be more excited.

Core Ethical Values are embedded in a school's Elements of Culture and approach to SECD.

My work in connecting SECD and Elements of Culture in schools is directed specifically toward creating a self-directed learning environment within a school system. As I continue my work, I hope to connect with other educators and leaders in education seeking to adopt and adapt such an environment through the use of a standards-based approach to social-emotional learning with a developmental perspective. Interested educators or school leaders can contact me directly at to learn more about my work.

April 26, 2020

Greg Mullen

Exploring the Core LLC

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