Would you rather your child was smart or good?

Of course in an ideal world we would all shout out “both” — but what if it could only be one or the other?

If you eventually said “good”, or even came close, then this gives you real pause for thought about what we are all doing in our schools. In a school system that is increasingly NAPLAN- and marks-driven, should we be making space to get kids to talk and think about ethics? Not just hoping they pick up their ethics osmotically through the examples of their parents, teachers and sports heroes, but instead planning for them to really concentrate on ethics in an explicit and sustained way?

Schools would be different. I think they would be better too.

In NSW, ethics classes have been trialled for several years. Unfortunately, the only way these lessons could be shoehorned into schools was to have them timetabled “against” religious studies, creating a frankly bizarre turf war among advocates who should have been allies. After all, one major function of religion is to prompt us to live ethically, and a major wellspring of ethical thinking has been religious figures. This internecine dispute I think blinds us to two more major questions about teaching ethics — shouldn’t it be delivered to all students, not just some, and shouldn’t it be taught by the same professionals who we trust to teach our children English and maths, instead of other volunteers?

But, moving the agar plate of some schools aside, what could ethics in schools look like? Time to dream here …

For a start it would be a regular discussion lesson with trained teachers in which every child got to have their opinion, and got to have their opinion respected. At the same time, the discussions wouldn’t simply be a “values clarification” exercise where every opinion was as good as every other. Instead the teacher would act as a traffic cop in the discussion, scrutinising ideas, guiding discussions and getting students to think about their own assumptions, biases, world views, etc. This of course is a world away from a teacher pouring their own superior ethical views into the empty vessels that are the students’ minds.

And what would the kids all talk about? Well, they would talk about ethical dilemmas from all over the world. It might be issues as small scale as “if grandma knitted me a terrible jumper and asked me if I liked it, should I tell the truth and hurt her feelings” or “should I download my friend’s USB stick full of music into my iTunes library?” It might be issues as large as “would you torture a bomb maker to get him to reveal where he had planted a bomb”, or “should you make AIDS drugs free in Africa?” And everything in between — euthanasia, business ethics, plagiarism — the list goes on and on.

However, you wouldn’t just talk issues in these lessons. You would talk ethical theories too. Kids could learn the girders that underpin ethical  decisions. The philosophies are big, but they can be boiled down quite simply too. For example with the granny jumper question above, a utilitarian (big word for kids No.1) would say “look at how much pleasure and pain your lie causes — if it makes granny happy  and no one sad, then it can’t be bad. A deontologist (big word for kids No.2) is more likely to say “hang on, a lie is a lie, and a lie is bad. Better to let granny have it straight.”

In addition there are dozens of ethical thinking techniques and potholes that kids could be explicitly taught to make their thinking stronger. A very good ethics program wouldn’t just give the kids ethical meat, it would give them the ethical teeth to chew things over with too.

Children can do this, by the way. I have been doing it with young people for 20 years where I work (at Cranbrook School in Sydney) and I am regularly amazed at how insightful, thoughtful, reflective and mature they can be. Sometimes they teach me a thing or two as well. Dozens of other teachers I know have been teaching ethics at public, private, secular or church-based schools, and they all report the same thing.

If we think it is as important for our kids to be good as it is for them to be smart, and we are collectively willing to follow up on this, then we could have an ethics program that is absolutely second to none. And then at the very least we’d have a next generation that might come and visit us in the nursing homes too.

*Lessons probably start from the age of about 10 — although low-level stuff about friendships, etc, could happen much younger than this