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Friday June 18th

When is it ethical for teachers to direct classroom discussions?

At first instinct, one may think that teachers should always remain neutral and impartial, but lecturer Paula McAvoy reconsidered that notion in her talk on Monday evening titled The Ethics of Steering Classroom Discussions.

McAvoy was the debut speaker of the Parr Center for Ethics’ new lecture series, Ethics Across the Disciplines. 

The launch of this lecture series is part of the Parr Center for Ethics’ new program meant to showcase how ethical issues arise in all types of contexts, not just in philosophy, the field with which ethics is generally associated. 

“I think that particularly some of our new lecture series and some of the new stuff we are putting in place ought to be of interest to a lot of the campus, so we just want to encourage anyone regardless of field or background to feel that they are a part of the Parr Center’s activities,” said Sarah Stroud, director of the Parr Center for Ethics.

McAvoy shared her view on the practice of teachers steering discussions about moral and political controversies, a topic relevant to both the students and professors who filled Unks Lecture Hall in Peabody Hall. 

She posed the question: when, if ever, are teachers justified in steering class discussions of moral and political controversy?

“I think, in general, people want to say steering is not OK– that is the public’s instinct that teachers shouldn’t be manipulating discussions – but I think that it is more complicated than that, and there might be educational reasons why the teacher is helping students move toward different answers,” McAvoy said.

Deborah Dwyer, a doctoral student in the School of Media and Journalism who teaches Media Ethics, discusses topics in class such as the #MeToo movement and the Trump administration.

“There can be a tendency for professors to want to shy away from the issues period, and the truth of the matter is it’s OK for a classroom environment to be a little tense. Sometimes we want to step in before we should because when students are engaged with one another and challenging each others' ideas in a safe and respectful way, that's when real learning can happen,” Dwyer said.

McAvoy shared a similar view: teaching on a controversial issue can be beneficial as long as educational value comes from discussion of the topic.

Because of this, professional judgement must be used to determine if and when a controversial topic should be introduced in class. Then, teachers must also use professional judgement to decide whether they are going to steer the discussion to a predetermined outcome or not. 

If an instructor chooses to steer students to a certain outcome, it must be responsive, said McAvoy. Responsive steering is based on student authority, right intentions and an empirical foundation.

“My job is how the journey occurs, not to the conclusion that they draw, because that is highly personal,” Dwyer said.

McAvoy is an assistant professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University and is also involved in research that examines philosophical and empirical questions about the relationship between schools and democratic society. 

She co-authored the book “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education," based on a longitudinal study of high school classrooms. The book was awarded the 2016 American Educational Research Association's Outstanding Book Award and the 2017 Grawemeyer Award for Education.

McAvoy said she hopes that people "leave the lecture with a clear understanding of what classroom discussion is and what we are trying to do when we have classroom discussions, and to think a little more carefully about what we are trying to do and where we are trying to go when we are facilitating discussions."

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