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Online July 2009 | Volume 66
Revisiting Social Responsibility
Brent Loken and Sheryl Gruber
A two-year ethics course opens students' eyes to how their actions affect the planet.
On October 4, 1957, Sputnik's little beep reached Earth from space. This beep and the psychological shock wave that followed prompted a rapid reevaluation of science and math education in the United States. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 and invested billions of dollars in new science curriculums (Abramson, 2007) in an effort to raise the competitive edge of U.S. students.
Today the world is hearing similar but progressively louder beeps from all corners of our planet. The disappearance of the polar ice caps, beep; the loss of the Indonesian rain forest, beep; the loss of cultural and ethnic diversity, beep; corporate greed and the recent economic collapse, beep. The United States responded immediately when it perceived that the long-term survival of the country was threatened. Today, the long-term survival of life on Earth is threatened, and we must once again respond—this time with a commitment to train a generation of socially responsible students.
One example of this commitment was our effort at Hsinchu International School to consciously redesign the curriculum to infuse it with a social and environmental ethos. We did this by becoming a 1:1 laptop school (the first in Taiwan); looking for international collaboration opportunities through such programs as
Challenge 20/20; implementing an art course in which students creatively responded to social issues; instituting strong community service and internship programs to send students into the community; and focusing on democratic ideals and empowering students. The capstone of our commitment was a mandatory two-year course called Global Ethics taught during the junior and senior years. This course integrated philosophy, economics, environmental science, anthropology, history, and zoology, enabling students to look at global problems through a variety of lenses. It culminated with a senior project and exhibition.
Global Ethics provided an integrated humanities capstone experience that replaced the traditional stand-alone humanities courses taught in many schools. Because the course incorporated multiple disciplines, it helped students understand the complex nature of tackling global problems and gain the knowledge necessary to begin taking action. For example, students cannot understand habitat destruction without an understanding of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of corporations and the global economy. They cannot understand overpopulation without appreciating the importance of the Agricultural Revolution and religious and cultural differences among world cultures.
In designing the course, we used an original amalgamation of
expeditionary learning and
Understanding by Design (Loken, 2008) to build four expeditions, which take two years to complete. We modified the Understanding by Design template to incorporate the school's policy of using expeditionary learning in the curriculum design. We included student outcomes in the template, as well as specific indicators of how each outcome was reinforced in each expedition.
We tried to design a course that was flexible enough that we could adapt it to current global and local issues. For example, the recent global economic collapse changed how our third expedition, which was about corporations, was taught last year. However, the learning goal of this expedition never changed. Students continued to learn the content through Socratic seminars, debates, blogging, podcasting, discussions, and independent research projects.
Expedition I Learning Goal: Students will understand that throughout history the human species has made important choices that have had a global impact.
The first expedition of Global Ethics laid the foundation for the course. Books, movies, discussions, blogs, podcasts, field trips, and TedTalks
helped students understand the events in human history that have led to our current global situation. Two such events are the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Students explored how the Agricultural Revolution allowed humans to grow food to support cities and larger populations and how the Industrial Revolution increased our domination over nature and allowed for more rapid population of the earth through the use of coal and oil.
The main reading for this expedition was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (Bantam, 1992). Through this book and other resources listed
on our Global Ethics resource page, students explored the idea of sustainability and the biological and natural laws that govern all species on this planet. At the end of the expedition, students demonstrated their understanding through a student-driven project. Some past projects included creating original movies and art, writing research papers about a specific topic of interest, and engaging the class in a debate about a specific controversial idea the class had discussed.
Expedition II Learning Goal: Students will debate their ethical responsibility for the other creatures on this planet.
The second expedition challenged students to reflect on the ethical and moral responsibilities humans may or may not have as the dominant species on the planet. The main reading used during this expedition was When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Delacorte, 1995), which explores the emotional lives of animals. Students considered the implications the information in this book has for everyday choices they make regarding foods to eat, products to buy, transportation, and electricity use. The emphasis was on how seemingly innocent choices can directly affect other species.
Expedition III Learning Goal: Students will discuss the role corporations have played in the past and the responsibilities they should have in the future.
The second year began with the third expedition, a study of economics and corporations. Students took a historical journey from the rise of the corporation to its current global influence. Students asked what ethical responsibilities corporations have to society and whether their structures should be changed. Students discussed democratic ideals and the role of the government, as well as capitalism and economics. Current events, such as the fall of Enron or the recent downturn in the world economy, brought relevance to this expedition.
Expedition IV Learning Goal: Students will understand what others have done to change the world and will demonstrate their readiness to become contributing members of society.
The last expedition of Global Ethics put knowledge into action. Students spent the semester investigating such individuals as Jane Goodall, Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathai, and Nelson Mandela, as well as lesser-known individuals from around the world. The focus of this last expedition was on building hope and encouraging action. During this expedition, students spent a large portion of time on their senior project.
The senior project was the capstone of Global Ethics and of the entire high school experience at Hsinchu International School. At the end of their junior year, students began to ponder ideas for their senior project, knowing the project must embody the Global Ethics ideals. The project included a research paper and an action project. Students began with an inquiry question to direct their research, and over time they developed and supported a thesis statement through their research.
Students also formulated a project that would make a difference in the world. For example, a senior project about green building design might lead to a proposal and fund-raising plan for replacing the school's windows with a more energy-efficient brand. Another student might look at how mass media influence the way consumers think and then develop a curriculum for educating other students. The action project had to be long-term and sustainable. Students presented their senior project at a year-end exhibition. All school community members were invited to attend, and an outside panel of experts assessed the exhibition.
You can find a complete list of teacher resources and examples of student work for each expedition on
our Global Ethics resource page.
The power of Global Ethics and similar curriculums comes not from exam scores but from the way they change lives, forever. Students left Global Ethics as transformed individuals who wanted to make a difference in this world. Comments like these reveal how Global Ethics made students more globally conscious:
Before taking this course, I lived no differently than most people; eating meat and shopping for clothes, make-up, and other products without considering the consequences and the ugly facts behind the scenes. After becoming more conscious, I was able to reevaluate my own actions. … This course is not trying to promote vegetarianism or persuade us to live in the jungles, but rather it challenges our moral integrity and the everyday decisions we make.
Global Ethics has made me realize I am not living in my own little world, but I am living in a place where there are many other people facing problems I wasn't aware of. I have grown tremendously after taking Global Ethics; I am more caring, empathetic, and aware now.
Global Ethics has opened my eyes to many of the current issues I was previously oblivious to. It taught me important things about our world, completely reshaped my views on controversial subjects, and inspired me to make changes in my lifestyle for the sake of my own well-being and that of society. In a world where people are indoctrinated to submit to a single set of beliefs, this course is truly enlightening; it challenges students to break out of society's conventional box and start to form opinions of their own.
Implementing a course such as Global Ethics is possible in every school. The resources we used in this course are relatively inexpensive, and many are available on the Internet for free. We wanted to design a course that was inexpensive and replicable in every classroom. Figure 1
shows the template we used to design each expedition. The template represents a partially designed expedition and is meant to serve as an example. This template, as well as peer review of each expedition, was an important part of our design process.
Although Global Ethics was an exciting part of our curriculum, we faced some challenges in developing and implementing the course. Some students were resistant to the ideas discussed. These students said they resented "feeling guilty" for their lifestyle and felt like they had been "turned upside down and shaken up." This reexamination of often-unquestioned belief systems led to important discussions about the source of this resentment and promoted open and honest dialogue with students. This environment, in which controversial topics could be discussed and openly debated, prepared our students for active and responsible participation in a democratic society.
Some of the logistical challenges involved juggling student schedules, graduation requirements, standardized testing requirements, and the needs of other courses. The senior project and exhibition also took a large amount of time for a teacher to coordinate and for students to complete. If time is an obstacle to implementing Global Ethics, teachers considering using this curriculum can choose to teach two expeditions instead of all four. However, we believe beginning with the first expedition is important to begin awakening global consciousness in students.
When we introduced the course a few years ago, we took a chance by mandating this course in grades 11 and 12. We never anticipated the influence this course would have on our community. Global Ethics has spawned new courses, such as a socially conscious art course, as well as international trips, such as participation in the World Forum for Social and Environmental Responsibility in Lille, France. When students talked about what made them proud to be a Hsinchu International School student, they mentioned Global Ethics.
When more schools begin adopting a course like Global Ethics, students will be able to connect with others around the world and gain a global perspective on world issues. This global perspective is crucial to begin training a generation of socially responsible students.
As a way of multiplying the positive effects we have seen in implementing a Global Ethics course, we have created an organization called Ethical Expeditions, whose mission is to conserve our natural world through education. Our organization connects teachers and students from around the world who are interested in both discussing and finding solutions to many of the problems our world is facing. We also provide expeditions that enable students to become directly involved in conservation work.
The world is sending out distress signals, beep, from the near and distant corners, beep. Let's open our ears, minds, and hearts and begin educating a generation of students who will leave a legacy the human species can be proud of.
Abramson, L. (2007, September 30). Sputnik left legacy for U.S. science education. All things considered [Radio broadcast]. Washington, DC: National Public Radio. Available:
Loken, B. (2008). Differentiating math through expeditions.
Educational Leadership, 65(9).
Brent Loken and Sheryl Gruber are founders of Ethical Expeditions. Brent is the former Principal and Director of Curriculum and Innovation, and Sheryl is a former math teacher and Internship, Community Service, and Exhibition Coordinator at Hsinchu International School in Taiwan.
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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