Author(s): Michael S. Pritchard, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University & Theodore Goldfarb, Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook
NOTE: This contribution appeared as a featured resource in the online and printed issues of ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators Vol. 8 no.3, published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC.
Harvey R. Rabinowitz, Oceanside High School, Oceanside, Long Island, NY.
Back to Top
Homework assignments can be for each student to prepare alone, or each group can be asked to prepare a consensus statement that represents decisions and responses arrived at by all members.
A student has just completed a short unit of study on recycling in her science class. As a part of this unit, she receives a copy of the official town policy on recycling, which recommends the placement of newspapers, scrap (non-glossy) paper, and all metallic and plastic objects in an official town container that is placed curbside each week. She has become convinced of the importance of and need for recycling. This student and her family are friendly with their next-door neighbor; she has done some minor chores and run errands for the neighbor. While walking to school, she has observed her neighbor setting out trash containers which, she notices, never contain any recyclables. In her own home she is careful to recycle all acceptable materials, but her parents only recycle a few items, sporadically, and sometimes not at all.
This lesson requires students to engage in shared reflection on their convictions concerning a significant issue in society today--recycling. It also requires them to connect what they learn in science class with their daily affairs. In the hypothetical scenario it is clear that the student believes that recycling is important, and she incorporates this in her own treatment of recyclable materials. However, the scenario raises another kind of question of responsibility. What responsibility, if any, does one have to attempt to persuade others to share, and act on, that same belief?
An interesting feature of the lesson as described here is that students work together in small groups, and they are expected to try to reach consensus. This is a valuable activity in its own right, since such cooperative undertakings are typical of much of what we must do in our everyday and work worlds. Furthermore, striving for consensus requires listening carefully to others and trying to negotiate differences in ways that extend respect for those whose views may be different. This often results in genuine changes in our ideas, since others may bring up important matters that we would not think of on our own. But it also exemplifies some of the features of democratic life, especially those that require cooperative action even when there is not full agreement among those who must act together.
At the same time, insisting on consensus, particularly in controversial areas, is not always desirable. A consensus view is not necessarily more likely to be more adequate than a dissenting view. So, students should not be encouraged to think that consensus necessarily determines what is best.
As described above, this lesson requires groups to role-play attempting to persuade others to recycle. It is quite possible, however, that some groups will reach a consensus that, while the student should try to approach a parent, she should not (or need not) approach the neighbor. Or a group might conclude that the neighbor should be approached, but not a parent. Or a group might conclude that neither should be, or need be, approached. For these groups, role-playing the student approaching neighbor or parent might be difficult (although still worth trying). A possible variation on the lesson would be to allow groups simply to role-play whatever consensus they obtain. For example, the student could be portrayed as discussing with her friends why she is reluctant to approach either a parent or the neighbor. The friends can be portrayed as trying to convince her that she should. Or she could be portrayed as discussing with a parent why she (or the parent) thinks it best not to approach the neighbor. And so on.
The final assignment, writing responses to the summary questions, is important because it requires students to put their thoughts on paper--after there has been much exchanging of ideas with others. This will encourage further reflection, and it will encourage students to refine their thoughts even further. This can be a group assignment, requiring an effort to formulate a group consensus statement (although it would be good to allow individual differences to be expressed as well). Or each student could be required individually to write responses to the questions.
Return to Part 2 - Model Classroom Lessons
Return to Ethics in the Science Classroom: An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers