Education Ethics of Teaching
Carl R. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0071


While much of the attention focused on education today emphasizes priorities in areas such as reducing achievement gaps, high-achieving school systems, and international competitiveness in education and economies, many would contend that in order to best serve students we must consider ethical decision making. As noted in many of the references citied in this review, ethical decision making begins by asking what challenges we may face in a given situation in truly meeting the needs of those we serve and having the courage to actively and publicly pursue this goal, often at personal risk. At the heart of our students’ ability to sufficiently wrestle with ethical issues is the ability of our teachers and schools to foster and model ethical decision making. As will become apparent to the reader reviewing the sources in this article, there are multiple models advocated for both teaching and practicing ethical decision making. However, at the heart of ethical struggles is a realization that neat, clean, and prescriptive solutions may be elusive when addressing ethical decision making. One of the ironies in our intensified focus on achievement in our schools, as measured by standardized tests, is a recognition that such a quest may lead to subtle and, in some cases blatant, unethical behavior in our schools. Discussions of our ethical responsibilities in education have a long history. What may be different in contemporary society are the multiple pressures being applied to our schools, teachers, and administrators to engage in behaviors that bring to light significant ethical issues.

General Overviews

Any discussion of ethics in teaching and our schools also overlaps with what many consider to be the moral dimensions of teaching. Recent literature, such as that described in this article, also remind us that ethical questions cannot be decided by facts alone or by what has been defined as correct behavior as defined by codes of conduct. It is also important to discuss ethical decision making related to areas such as character education and social justice. As stated in the Introduction, there are also issues of the pressures of current educational reform and the “high stakes” associated with value-added systems that focus on narrow-band measures of achievement. In this section, Strike 1988 and Campbell 2008 present issues regarding the ethics of teaching and its relationship to areas such as social justice and character education. Newman 2012 suggests that these pursuits may also lead to challenges from parents and others in the community with regard to the basic purposes of education and the tension between individual and collective interests. A more in-depth analysis of these competing interests is presented by Higgins 2010 and Huttunen and Murphy 2012. A cross-generational view of student ethical behavior is shared by Gross 2012. Finally, a broad perspective on the goals of our educational system, including the importance in developing constructs such as wisdom, is presented in Audi 1994, Sanger 2012, and Sternberg 2013. See also Holma 2012.

  • Audi, Robert. 1994. On the ethics of teaching and the ideals of learning. Academe 80.5: 27–35.

    DOI: 10.2307/40250664

    Audi states that we are sometimes in the role of teacher and at other times the role of student. He asserts that we consider the “ideals” in the learning setting rather than mandated “correct” behaviors. While much of this article focuses on higher education settings it seems, to this reviewer, that the concepts discussed cross over into Pk–12 education.

  • Campbell, Elizabeth. 2008. The ethics of teaching as a moral profession. Curriculum Inquiry 38.4: 357–384.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-873X.2008.00414.x

    Provides a wide review of the literature related to ethics and teaching. Reviews the overall field of ethics in teaching as contained in a broader context of the moral dimensions of teaching and schools. Speaks directly to the moral situations faced by teachers in our schools. Also discusses the power of case studies in the preparation of teachers.

  • Gross, E. R. 2012. Clashing values: Contemporary views about cheating and plagiarism compared to traditional beliefs and practices. Education 132.2: 435–440.

    The author asserts that cheating among students is a reflection of the changing value orientation of the postmillennial students and is part of a larger distinction between the older generation and current students. The author also asserts that punishment as a consequence is not likely to be effective, but appealing to humanistic values such as compassion, mercy, and helpfulness holds more promise.

  • Higgins, C. 2010. Introduction: Why we need a virtue ethics in teaching. Journal of Philosophy of Education 44.2–3: 189–208.

    Addresses the fundamental question of what motivates individuals to become teachers. Contrasts the altruistic explanation with more self-serving hypotheses. The author also points to the meaning of teaching in the teacher’s quest for self-understanding and dealing with significant issues of meaning in life.

  • Holma, Katariina. 2012. Fallibilist pluralism and education for shared citizenship. Educational Theory 62.4: 397–409.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.2012.00453.x

    As defined by the author, “Fallibilist pluralism is a moral and epistemological position that preserves both broadly conceived ethical pluralism and the possibility of searching for a shared moral vision” (p. 397). The author asserts the importance of emotion and reason in such a quest and the complexity associated with how we search to create a body important in citizenship education.

  • Huttunen, R., and M. Murphy. 2012. Discourse and recognition as normative grounds for radical pedagogy: Habermasian and Honnethian ethics in the context of education. Studies in Philosophy and Education 31:137–152.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11217-012-9285-8

    This article addresses the relationship of radical pedagogy to social justice, democracy, and ethics. The authors contend that the ethical demands of love and human flourishing may be forgotten in discussions of power and inequality. The foundation of radical pedagogy is noted in more specific structures described by Jürgen Habermas (1990, 1996) and Axel Honneth (1981, 1996).

  • Newman, Olivia. 2012. No child is an island: Character development and the rights of children. Educational Theory 62.1: 91–106.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.2011.00437.x

    Discussion of contrast between liberal claims of children having the “right to an open future” versus the fundamentalist claim that children have a right to a life directed and influenced by religious values that have been chosen for them. The author asserts that we should advocate that children should have a right of exit from constraining cultural and religious milieus.

  • Sanger, Matthew. 2012. The schizophrenia of contemporary education and the moral work of teaching. Curriculum Inquiry 42.2: 285–307.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-873X.2012.00590.x

    An in-depth discussion of the current paradox of what the goals or goals of education are and implications for the practice of teaching. The author points out that the current focus of educational reform seems to be entirely on traditional learning and measuring the progress of such while ignoring the importance of relationships and other critical factors beyond traditional academics.

  • Sternberg, R. J. 2013. Reform education: Teach wisdom and ethics. Phi Delta Kappan 94.7: 44–47.

    In this article, Sternberg asserts that academic skills within our students do not lead to wisdom. Furthermore, the author contends that we are failing, through our current assessments, to measure the domain of wisdom. Wisdom as a foundation for our ability to seek common good is, in his opinion, at the center of positive ethical values.

  • Strike, K. A. 1988. The ethics of teaching. Phi Delta Kappan 70.2: 156–158.

    The author presents several scenarios in which teachers are faced with ethical challenges. In dissecting the components of ethical issues, he proposes that such situations are characterized by terms such as fair or unfair, they are situations that cannot be settled by facts alone, and they can be distinguished from values.

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