by Hugh Riminton
I teach primary school ethics in NSW... and I am little conflicted about it.
I was raised a Catholic, the solid Irish tribal variety. The education was strong on corporal punishment and obsessed with sin. As a child, I found it creepy rather than comforting that guardian angels sat on my shoulder and God knew and judged my every thought and action.
Leaving Catholicism was a painful wrench that lasted for many years. I missed the comforting promise of eternal life after death, the belief in a paradise awaiting and God’s merciful reward for my (broadly) virtuous existence.
As I aged and travelled, I also found the Bible stories useful in unexpected ways. My first trip to Jerusalem, and every subsequent trip across the wider Middle East, was enriched by my grounding in Biblical history.
The parables and stories from both Old Testament and New are a peaty source of cultural commonality. Like reading Shakespeare for the first time, Biblical stories are reminders of things we learn from our elders before even realising where that knowledge came from.
If NSW public primary schools taught comparative religion, or the history of religious thought, or the cultural legacy of Christianity, nothing would delight me more.
But they don’t.
The choice, when we moved from the ACT to NSW, was simple: scripture or non-scripture.
To help decide, I sought out the Catholic scripture teacher at my kids’ school. She was a pleasant woman, a retired senior teacher from a well-known Catholic high school.
What would she be teaching her five-year-olds this week, I wondered.
“This week, I’m going to be telling them how God created all the animals,” she replied, with a benign smile.
Something seized up inside me.
“Do you teach them that it is the traditional Christian belief that God created all the animals, or do you teach them that God created all the animals?”
“Oh, we’re not controversial,” she replied. “I simply teach them that God created all the animals.”
Another scripture teacher told me that she started her five-year-olds with a lesson on how they were God’s sheep.
“I get them to go around the classroom pretending to be sheep and then I read them Psalm 23.”
The Lord is my shepherd, etc.
All of this at a publicly-funded state primary school. Any kids opting out of scripture were required to waste their time. It is expressly forbidden for children doing non-scripture to learn anything useful – because that would disadvantage those children doing scripture.
That absurdity forced me to act.
I had some time in the mornings before work, so I volunteered as an Ethics Teacher. A few weeks later, after a police check and other formalities, including sitting in on an ethics class, I went to Parramatta for a two-day intensive training course.
My fellow teacher-volunteers were an interesting lot – smart, diverse and committed. The training was both intellectually satisfying and pragmatic.
I have now taught at two schools. I find the kids (I teach “Early Stage One” – Years 1 and 2) to be engaging, curious and switched-on to the ethical issues presented to them. The curriculum we teach is the result of extensive work by ethicists and educationalists. The themes themselves are carefully calibrated to be age-appropriate.
Ethics might seem an arcane subject, but children as young as five already have grappled with questions like “is it always wrong to lie,” or judging when pride is a proper thing and when it is not.
The teacher’s job is not to make judgements on right and wrong but to encourage questioning and reflection by the kids themselves.
The availability of ethics, as a subject, has caught on like wildfire at my kids’ school. More parents are volunteering. Each class is full to its limits.
I think it is a great adventure. I am confident the children will be better for it. I hope with their well-trained enquiring minds, they will one day make up their own minds about the rich history of religious thought.
by Clive Thompson
Can you have ethics in the absence of faith?
It's a question often posed by quizzical parents and teachers when the option of ethics classes at our public schools in New South Wales is presented.
The Greeks asked and answered the earlier variant of this question in Plato’s time: is something good because it is discernibly so or because the gods command it?
Scholars of the quarreling Abrahamic faiths have wrestled over the issue for centuries, but today’s moral philosophers like Peter Singer give it short shrift: religious dogma is an obstacle to ethical reasoning and outcomes.
Some commandments, for instance, can withstand the test of goodness, others cannot.
One that can (and which is not one of the Ten):
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
And one that fails (the second of the Decalogue):
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image… for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me
Young and inquiring minds are not troubled by the faux dilemma and quickly distinguish between altruism and narcissism.
But their own thought processes are a fascinating blend of prejudgement and freshness.
When I ask my class of ten-year olds “Where do your ideas come from?” and expect the “right” answer of “From my family, my friends, books, television”, I get something different:
“From my head”.
Are they being naïve, or profound? Their other novel contributions often make me think they’re onto something... and it isn’t prejudice.
Whether we are debating the use of drugs in sport, environmental quandaries, greed or democracy, it turns out there always just a handful of principles and factors in play: fairness, equality, empathy, purpose, in-groups and out-groups.
The kids tease them out, but there are some leaps and falls on the way.
One storyline they are asked to grapple with regards the good citizens of Liguria, a refuge planet for earthlings. The earthlings, as ever, are divided. The worthy ones have taken command of the city and live ordered, plentiful lives. The outcasts run loose in the wilds and have a torrid time.
The ethics class are inducted as members of the Ligurian parliament, with a decision to make: should the taxes of the industrious city folk be spread to provide the outsiders’ children with schools and hospitals?
The arguments cover the field: the outcasts are probably all rogues, but is it fair to punish their innocent children? The taxpayers have worked hard to get what they have and the feckless should reap only what they sow. But, then again, perhaps the next generation can be turned if a helping hand is extended to them.
And so on.
Ethics is not only about debate, it is also about the responsibility of decision-making. So, the class must vote. Sixty percent call for the resources of Liguria to be shared, forty percent demur.
And then, they are presented with philosopher John Rawls’ veil of ignorance: assume you are about to be born in Liguria but don’t know whether you will be the offspring of an insider or an outsider. The unborn must vote on the reach of the taxpayers’ funds.
And so they think again. And then they vote again. 22 now believe that sharing is a good thing; only one does not. The virtues of equality are not hard to fathom when your own future depends on its vitality.
And the dissident? He thinks the freedom to run wild is not such a bad thing.
For some, liberty trumps equality.
And the class of 2015 are wise, too. When asked whether the voting age in Australia should be reduced to ten, they say no.
“Because we’re just kids. We want to play. We want to have fun. We don’t want to worry about grown-up things.”
Our future is in sage hands.
by Debra Pittam
This is my third year teaching ethics at a primary school and every week I am grateful for the privilege of helping children learn how to think. Today is my second lesson of the year and I am looking forward to helping them explore the topic of empathy over the next few weeks.
Ethics classes are structured to allow children to share their opinion and build on each other’s ideas. They are encouraged to really think about issues and told that their opinion is important.
Children sit in a circle as we take a journey through such topics as forgiveness, laziness, sharing, pride, courage and rules. They listen to stories related to the topic and then talk to each other by way of answering facilitated questions in pairs, small groups and as a whole group.
They love the stories and I have learnt to become a better storyteller myself.
To learn in this way is dependent upon them following a set of rules designed to help them listen and contribute whilst, at the same time, especially with Year 1 and Year 2 children, being able to move and talk to each other as well as sit quietly in the circle.
Last year, I had a class of more than twenty Year 1 and 2 children who were all amazing and who all contributed to the class in their own unique and wonderful ways. However, whilst I get an idea when I ask them to recap the previous week, it isn’t always easy to know how engaged they are and whether or not the children are learning how to think in our class over time.
Because of this, at the end of last year as a way of helping them understand their own ethics journey and also for me to gain an understanding of their experience and learning, our closing lesson had me asking them what they liked best about ethics class and this is what they said:
- Some of the stories very much and remembered many of the activities – they really enjoyed revisiting these!
- Sharing their opinions
- The group rules
- Different topics
- Working in groups
- The learning space
They also learnt things they didn’t know and how “to not muck around”.
I was really pleased with this and what really made my day was the response this year with a new class. When I asked the children who were there last year to explain ethics class to the new children, they explained that we talk about what we think, you can’t be wrong in Ethics and that there is often no right answer.
Also, the lesson is that not everyone has to think the same as everyone else and that that’s okay. We build on other people’s ideas and that there are no put downs in our class.
To me, this shows that ethics classes are an incredibly worthwhile and valuable addition to children’s thinking and learning and I am ready for another year!
by Leith Clayton-Brandt
God arrived in the schools in New South Wales long before my son David began his education.
In 1860, the State took over public education from the Anglican and Catholic churches in order to guarantee education for children. The payoff for the churches was the hour per week to be set aside for special religious education. Quite a golden handshake.
Perhaps parents of the time had no quibbles, or even approved of this agreement between Church and State. Even forty years later, only 0.4 percent of the Australian population then identified themselves as observing no religion.
In 1987, my son entered our local primary school. At the time, he was four years and nine months old. We were told that he needed to join a scripture class.
I identified as agnostic, while David's father was a nominal Anglican who attended few religious services aside from christenings or funerals. Nonetheless, we felt our little boy would benefit from the Christian message with its implications of hope and charity. Off to the Anglican scripture class went David.
It was three weeks later when he arrived home to complain that "scripture is stupid" and he didn't want to go back.
"Why?" I asked.
He gazed at me earnestly. "Well, God made the world in six days. Okay, mummy?"
"Well, we're up to sheep and cows now..."
Alarm bells were jangling somewhere in my brain.
His voice grew louder.
"And there's no mention yet of the DINOSAURS! Why mummy? Why didn't the lady talk about the dinosaurs?"
He wasn't yet five years old but he wasn't buying into any Creationist myth. How could we argue with that?
That was the end of scripture class for my son; and later, his sister. It eventuated that there was a non-scripture class for those who didn't fit the scripture model so they spent the rest of their primary school years during that period colouring in, watching cartoon videos, twiddling their thumbs which didn't bother them unduly. It bothered me though. I never forgot David's dilemma.
Fast forward some thirty years later.
By the 2011 census, the numbers of those who identified themselves as adhering to no religion had grown to 22.3 percent, while a further 8.55 percent had not answered the question. Australia had altered drastically.
Despite lobbying from the churches from 1980 onwards and governmental compliance with church wishes, parental pressure eventually prevailed. When St. James Ethics Centre founded Primary Ethics, an independent, not-for-profit organisation, to seek and train volunteers, I was ready.
I put up my hand to become a volunteer teacher for philosophical ethics in my regional area. I was retired, already trained to teach, could think of nothing more important than developing with children their ability to think and question. It meant travelling to Sydney at my own expense for a weekend for training before I became the first ethics teacher in the Shoalhaven district.
Four years later, my primary ethics class remains an important part of my week; researching each age-appropriate topic provided by Primary Ethics, printing out handouts, considering how fully to engage the students, plus face-to-face time with my class.
I have worked with children from Years 3 and 4, 5 and 6 in two local schools, mentoring new volunteers who have heeded the call. Our organisation has fought an unequal fight for its very existence but, since our inception, our class participation numbers have continued to grow.
And for me?
The thrill of engaging with kids using the Socratic method, presenting them with stories to be examined and questioned, commented upon, added to, never goes away. I am not presenting them with The Truth. I ask them to listen, read, think, respond, question, eventually find their own truths in matters which are truly complex, whether one is nine or 49-years-old.
In the complicated world of the twenty-first century, I can do no better thing.
Never again will I need to comfort a perplexed child whose perception is unacceptable or inconvenient to some rigid dogma.
WHY? Such a little word. Yet, it forms the basis of our work as we seek to turn passive consumers into actively-engaged citizens.
by David Williams
I'm the Ethics Coordinator at the local primary school. I liaise with the school Principal and our volunteer Ethics Teachers to help deliver the Primary Ethics classes to 135 students.
This morning, I've popped into the Year 6 class to pick up some forms that the kids have returned and to have a quick chat with our Ethics Teacher. The students' conversation has just started, so I sit off to one side (outside of their circle) so as not to interrupt.
They're generally a pretty well-behaved bunch, but the mood is distinctly different this morning. There is a quiet attentiveness. They are discussing homelessness - an uncomfortable topic for many adults let alone Year 6 kids.
It's a subject that is unlikely to feature on the radar of most local families in our "reasonably well-off" area. It's clear that a few of the students have quite well-informed opinions on the subject, whilst the more naive remarks from others expose what a foreign topic it can be for some.
The variety of comments and perspectives prompt me to wonder how much I would have known about homelessness when I was 11 or 12 years old - basically nothing is my conclusion. I'm not sure whether it was a taboo subject or just something that I wasn't exposed to. Either way, I can't imagine the complexities of this sort of subject being discussed in a school environment back in my day.
One of the boys suggests it's because they don't have the money for a house. Another contends that it could be because they can't get a job. One of the girls who rarely speaks up thinks that being homeless could be a better situation than being forced to stay in an abusive home environment.
My intention was to stay for only 3 or 4 minutes, but I can't leave. There is deep learning happening here. There is a maturity being displayed that could seem beyond kids of this age. The subject matter almost demands it. The learning is happening through the exchange of opinions of the peer group; facilitated by an adult, but not being imposed on by an adult.
When the discussion zeroes in on children who are homeless and whether they would be able to go to school, have friends over to play or have money for after school activities, there is a palpable change to the engagement of the class. I see a gulp or two, averting of eyes and a sense of "what if that was me?".
The suddenness of the school bell immediately breaks the discussion and accompanying introspection. The Ethics Teacher reminds the kids to think about homelessness through the week in readiness to develop the conversation further next week.
As the kids scurry off to resume their regular Friday activities, I am left in the room with the teacher. All I can say is, "Wow!".
I wonder if today, perhaps in an unintended way, I have learned just as much as the kids have?
by Jane Oakley
We were living in Auckland when our eldest child turned three and a half.
This is the age when children can enter New Zealand’s public education system and begin kindergarten. The NZ system sees children gradually increase their kindergarten hours up until their 5th birthday. This milestone is met with a big party – it’s their final day.
The following day, the child moves into Big School. This class is “New Entrants” and provides kids with a peaceful transition between systems. Teachers are drip-fed new students throughout the year, kids who usually already know fellow classmates from kindy. It spares everyone the difficulties of dealing with twenty frightened and crying little people (and some frightened and crying parents) all facing Day 1 simultaneously.
I was delighted to find our school had a dental clinic with six-monthly check ups. It also had a pool. With so many students coming from an Islander or Maori background shoes were optional. The national anthem was sung in Maori and English. There were no scripture lessons.
Moving back to Australia and dealing with the NSW education system was a surprise. There were no dental clinics, no pools, covered shoes compulsory (getting the boys to wear shoes again was a nightmare!) and Special Religious Education (SRE).
To me, it seems arrogant to teach one branch of religion in public schools with children from a huge variety of faiths and cultures as well as agnostics and atheists. Being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness has left me particularly sensitive to religious instruction.
Now an atheist, I prefer that my children’s education either remain secular or that they learn the history of religion or of the many different faiths that exist. In a multicultural society such as ours, this type of religious education would promote harmony and tolerance rather than exclusivity and suspicion.
So, I was very pleased to learn about the option of ethics classes, developed and delivered by Primary Ethics, which are gradually being implemented throughout NSW. These classes foster discussion on goodness, right action, and moral responsibility. Using a philosophical approach, they explore ethical concepts and issues and help children learn to think critically and deeply.
The Christian Democrats, however, are completely opposed to any alternative to SRE. One reason Fred Nile provided for his opposition to ethics is because the classes would be too interesting and should therefore be available to all students.
His concern for children’s education, however, does not extend to the ones whose parents remove them from SRE. He prefers the existing arrangement where these kids occupy themselves, watch a DVD, colour-in or pick up rubbish in the playground.
Ethics classes are run entirely by volunteers with no government funding provided to the program. Classes are only provided to a school if there is sufficient student demand. Then, suitable teachers need to be sourced and trained. An Ethics Coordinator organises this. Regional Managers provide support for teachers and coordinators.
All of these people are volunteers.
Concessions given to the Christian Democrats means that ethics classes cannot be offered as a direct alternative to SRE. They can only be offered to families who have already removed their children from scripture, effectively hiding the full range of options open to parents.
My personal experience has left me particularly aware of the territorial, almost predatory nature of the fundamentalist. Let those who come between them and their invisible friend beware. Fred Nile sees ethics classes as a direct threat to his god which takes priority over the education of our children.
Despite these obstacles, ethics classes are being eagerly picked up by NSW families. Since classes began in 2011, 24,000 children at 347 schools are taught ethics by 1,100 teachers. But with 100,000 children opting out of SRE, thousands more volunteers are needed.
Can you be one of them?
Jane Oakley is an Ethics Coordinator at Bel Air Primary School
by Ryan Liddle
For the past six months, I have had the pleasure of being an Ethics Teacher at a public school in Lake Macquarie.
As the new school year swings into motion, I have begun working with many students, some as young as six and as old as nine. As an alternative to religious education in New South Wales, I am confident ethics education has enormous potential.
In that sense, I find it regrettable that there are those that feel ethics is unbeneficial or, at worst, a program that needs to be repressed, even as an alternative to religious education.
A discussion of my role as 'Ethics Teacher' often begins with confusion as to what I am supposed to do, and what level of responsibility I possess. To friends and acquaintances, it continues to be an object of semantic misundertanding.
I try to frame it best by explaining I am not a 'teacher', in the literal sense of the word, but there to facilitate a discussion. I often say that it's not my role to dictate what is right or wrong, merely to show students how to voice their opinions and make up their own ideas about ethical and philosophical issues.
Some students take time to understand what my role is as well. A vocal student asked why she should be encouraged to ask questions when her mother says she does it all the time.
Another mentioned that I'd make a good teacher. "No," said yet another, "He's too nice to be a teacher".
Their honesty is unflinching. If a student doesn't like your approach, they don't hesitate to let you know. But there's no mistake that it makes their positive feedback all the more rewarding as a teacher in the program.
The openness of students about their ideas is the core of ethics and the only real objective when I enter the school is to promote a proactive exchange of students' opinions. I find it somewhat trite but undeniable that, in the role of an ethics teacher, the students themselves have something to teach me.
Their ideas and worldviews are endearingly diverse for a group of people without the burdens of taxes, mortgage loans and careers. As they develop their ethical thinking, so does their awareness for other people and ideas.
One student remarked that poverty would be hard because poor children have no toys or video games to play with. It may not be the most compassionate view but it's a start to being aware of these issues.
The transformation I have seen with the students in ethics over the semester has surprised me beyond my expectations with the program in many ways. On one level, the impact of the classes has been clear in the confidence of the students towards being comfortable with participating in discussion.
Discussion is a format seldom encountered in ordinary classes where the objective is to teach, so the environment is often new for students. The class faces one another in a circle and I've found this format offers everybody a chance to speak and be heard. This way, every student has a platform to speak and be listened to.
Because of this, the students have not only a greater sense of confidence but also a connection and interaction with their peers. This extends to cutting down social barriers often felt between boys and girls.
There's an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa, rejected from the prom, enters the school hall to find the boys and girls separated in the corners, afraid to interact with one another. That scene fits the character of the students during the first few lessons completely.
But, over the course of a semester, I have seen the gender cliques of boys and girls disintegrate as the students are encouraged to respond and interact with one another. Slowly, but surely, all participants of the ethics classes have grown to respect and find interest in the contributions of all members of the class.
I have been privileged to enter the world of my students' ideas and experiences and, in exchange, I am confident I have helped them learn something - not from me, but from their peers, and maybe even themselves.
When my children reached primary school age I was astonished to discover that the Christian religion was still taught in public schools in NSW. I simply hadn’t thought that possible.
Weren’t the church and the state… ahem… separated?
Thanks to Fred Nile’s vigorous public opposition to the St James Ethics Centre’s developing school ethics program, I learned that fortunately there was an alternative to my kids doing who knew what for thirty minutes each week while the scripture kids were doing whatever it was that they did.
I researched Primary Ethics and learned that, to be able to offer ethics classes, a school needed to have a coordinator. So, in 2013, I became the Ethics Coordinator for Darlington Public School, a small inner-city school in Sydney.
I’d naïvely assumed that Primary Ethics would supply the teachers, so when I found out that I had to recruit them as volunteers I thought my program was over before it had begun. I seriously thought no-one would volunteer.
But, the moment word got out, all these amazing, amazing people volunteered. Like me, they felt strongly that there needed to be a secular alternative to special religious education and that children needed to be given the tools to get on civilly with people regardless of differing beliefs and learn to use reason to manage their own developing moral framework.
They were willing to give up their time and energy to train and deliver weekly classes and I retain complete admiration for them.
I called for expressions of interest in the classes from parents and, again, I was astonished by the response. The majority of parents at the school wanted their kids in ethics classes. We couldn’t train teachers fast enough to meet the demand and we had really big classes to start with because those amazing teachers didn’t want to turn anyone away.
Primary Ethics had advised me to keep the class numbers on the high side to ensure discussion was lively, even if there were shy children in the class. But the Ethics Teachers all said to me, “Where, exactly, are these shy, retiring children of whom you speak?”
It seems that Darlington kids are loquacious, highly-opinionated and not remotely backward about coming forward.
Eventually, things settled down and we’ve been able to limit class sizes to make sure all the kids can join in the discussions. Ethics at Darlington is established now and I feel confident it’s got a solid future.
I wish I’d been offered the opportunity to acquire these life tools when I was a kid. I’d love to see comparative religion replace scripture and I’d love to see ethics and comparative religion embedded in the school curriculum.
Ethics knowledge, skills and understanding have never been more important in Australian culture than right now.
by Jess K
Does God belong in the classroom?
The implied question here is whether it’s right for volunteers to come into schools and convey to children their particular religious doctrine. But, even this doesn’t get to the heart of the controversy.
Merely conveying a particular religious doctrine is not the purpose of scripture classes - let’s be honest. That is more the purview of genuinely comparative religious education. The aim of non-curriculum scripture classes appears to be twofold: firstly, to recruit future members of their local congregation and, secondly, to provide children with much needed moral instruction.
While I object to both of these aims, I'll address only the latter here.
The presumption that religious organisations are the ‘authorities’ on all matters moral appears to be endemic to society as a whole, but it is particularly prevalent in contexts involving young minds, in other words, in primary schools.
So, now I wear my hat as a parent of two young children and call on my experiences of observing these little minds grow and grapple with the complex social and emotional world they are becoming a part of.
What surprised me most when I became a mother was the discovery that children are really quite impressive! In my youth, I thought of them as basically empty and somewhat stupid vessels that got ‘filled up’ by experiences and instruction. This could not be further from the truth.
Only a parent (or a teacher!) can truly appreciate children’s sophisticated grasp of complex social and emotional situations. Children show innate empathic proclivities from an amazingly early age, an impressive appreciation of other people’s mental states and a keen awareness of the social and emotional consequences of their actions.
I’m not suggesting that children grow up to be moral exemplars all by themselves but it has become clear to me, both as a parent and also in my PhD research on the moral development of children, that they are at least equipped with the necessary tools to carve out a way of being in the world that takes account of the wellbeing of others. After all, isn’t that what moral sensibility really is?
In contrast to the ‘instructive’ approach taken by scripture classes whereby children are told what they should judge to be right and wrong, Primary Ethics* classes seem designed to invoke the skills and capabilities that children already have, and to encourage children to come to their own views about the rightness or wrongness of particular actions.
This really is the unspoken but truly revolutionary premise on which the Primary Ethics program has been developed. Children are not instructed about what to think but are encouraged to have the confidence in their own ability to think for themselves.
This reflects a humanist approach to life – that, as human agents, we are capable, indeed obliged, to think for ourselves, to take responsibility for our own actions, thoughts and emotions, rather than to live in subservience to the doctrinal statements of others.
Children have a natural tendency to wonder about the world – its beginnings and its workings, to ask questions, to doubt some answers and be persuaded by others, to think independently about the little problems of living, to ponder the harmful or helpful consequences of their actions, and to care about the interests and wellbeing of others.
It’s our job as adults to facilitate these tendencies, not to thwart them.
I have loved listening to my children’s stories about the vibrant discussions that take place in their ethics classes – a bunch of seven-year-olds debating the merits of different answers to moral and ethical dilemmas. It restores my faith in humanity!
Children are capable of thinking for themselves – of questioning, and doubting and deciding. Their little minds deserve our respect.
*Although I’m the Ethics Coordinator for the ethics classes offered at our wonderful little primary school up here in the Blue Mountains, I don’t represent Primary Ethics in writing this. I was moved to respond to the call for stories rather as a parent and as someone who objects to the idea that, were it not for scripture classes, children would be wandering helplessly in the wilderness of moral complexity without a compass in sight.
by Toni Leemen
Julia Cameron’s formulation in The Artist's Way always struck a chord with me. She said if you’re having difficulty when I talk about God, just think of it as "Good Orderly Direction".
Whether or not God belongs in our schools, it’s difficult to see how teaching students skills that can help them to reason, think, disagree respectfully and discuss questions and issues where there is no right answer can be anything other than a good direction.
The trend in our inner-west Sydney primary school suggests so too. We have 17 ethics classes for 275 students starting this year, up from fourteen in 2014 and seven in 2013.
Four new teachers will complete training by the end of April, bringing the number of teachers to fifteen. More volunteer hours are accrued by our coordinator – who manages a strong relationship with the school.
As part of this group, I have gained friendships, borrowed teaching resources, been inspired and found my way to contribute to my school community.
My Year 3 class, which includes my eight-year old son, got underway last week. We began by having a look at what they’d written on Post-It notes in December. As they finished Year 2, they were asked ‘What did you enjoy about Ethics this year?’
These had remained buried in a folder on the bookshelf, unread over summer. I dusted them off, unstuck them and carefully pondered ‘senaryo’. Luckily, someone else also enjoyed ‘sinayeos’. (Pretty cranking phonetics from Year 2, no?) And I realised that they’d enjoyed the scenarios provided to help them relate to and talk through different aspects of a topic.
Other highlights were ‘the stories’, ‘doing group work’, ‘thinking’, ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’. And for one seven or eight year old, ethics was ‘all the interesting things that we have been talking about’.
I wonder whether it’s not so much the ethics topics as the way ethics classes are run that is the true learning for the kids. They value being heard. They value thinking time. They enjoy working things out together. That is, they value being part of the ‘community of enquiry’ that is the goal of an ethics class.
Teaching ethics weekly has brought anticipation, frustration, joy, surprise, exasperation, connection, anger, appreciation, interest, excitement, happiness, pride.
I’ve learnt a bit about how wind and weather and proximity to the end of term can dictate how any thirty minutes with a group of eight and nine year olds might go. I’ve developed some skills around ‘behaviour management’ and I’ve gained a deep and abiding respect for the job teachers do.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet the scripture teachers who come to our school and to observe their commitment as we step around the sign-on book.
Ethics and scripture aren’t, of themselves, mutually exclusive. The Catholic scripture teacher expressed surprise over our end of year cuppa that ethics wasn’t taught across the curriculum. And, I wonder, with the students’ own emphasis on stories, whether there isn’t place for more stories, with more lessons, from more religions to be up for discussion.
Scripture is available in many varieties at our school. The take up of ethics alongside it definitely signals a preference for time spent at school to be enriching rather than passive.
But I think it also signals a desire for more values-based discussion. For there to be space to consider right and wrong, for there to be a sense of community around this.
The roll-out of ethics in schools generally shows us that significant numbers of parents, grandparents and community members identify themselves as members of this values-led community. Through this action they show students (their kids, their kids’ friends, the kids in their school) that knowing how to think for themselves about what is right and wrong is important.
They turn up to class each week and, by doing so, they also say to our students, we are interested in you and what you think and have to say.
And there were enough comments in the Post-It notes to make me smile, and feel that is something the students appreciate and value too.
by Nick Stone
I started teaching with the Primary Ethics program about six months ago at Broulee Public School on the NSW South Coast, which my two boys attend. I’d always been inclined to excavate ethical dimensions to centre stage in the various university courses I’d been teaching over the years. I was puzzled that the ethics program creators had met with so much resistance in a state-based, allegedly secular system to providing an alternative to scripture in that legally prescribed time slot.
To me, the content looked like a sensible balance of clear analytical thinking, social and communication skills applied to a range of age-relevant issues. The philosophical underpinning included pervasive themes such as free will, personal control and responsibility, independent, considered thought and argument and the right to respectfully disagree, even with an ‘authority figure’.
I took the final school term over from another volunteer teacher who had become too busy with her own private business. The class was no more than 30 minutes, often less, and tightly wedged between the school assembly and the Thursday afternoon rush for the buses home. Not exactly the settled, reflective ambience I’d idealised in advance.
Although I’ve been ‘educating’ in some form or other for 30 (quite) odd years, it was 25 years since I’d managed a school classroom. So I was a little nervous. It was a Year 5/6 composite, pretty normal in most respects: a couple of kids seemed to have trouble sitting still or maintaining attention to the activities at hand. Not really very different to the university classes I’d been teaching. They all, however, showed various signs of more or less ‘getting’ and engaging with the key ideas - each student, of course, in their own unique way.
For the last class of the year, I ran an informal evaluation activity to get a clearer sense of what they were learning. I wanted to know what morals they got from the stories presented. I wrote on the whiteboard: 'What was the most interesting, enjoyable or useful thing you learned this year in Primary Ethics?’ A photo of their written summary points is provided, but their spoken responses were far more revealing.
1. "Learning to communicate with each other." They clearly understood the big part of the program dedicated to improving communication skills, especially actively listening to and respecting each other’s contributions. Clearly one of the biggest challenges for some, they still recognised its importance and relevance.
2. "How your opinion can change your future," and "You have more choice than anyone else in your own actions." Out of context these might seem enigmatic, but surrounding discussion revealed they knew you have much more choice about what you do than people often assume, or are taught to assume. In philosophy jargon they truly grasped issues around free will, personal control and responsibility versus fatalism, determinism and learned powerlessness.
3. "One thing leads to another." They vividly remembered a simple activity wherein a balloon was popped to stimulate increasingly sophisticated discussion of causes and effects. From, "It burst because you stuck a pin into it," they expanded to list dozens of possible causes, as far as blaming my parents for having me, along with some startling university level, multi- factorial, physics concepts. They seemed to 'get' the transferability of this causal chain analysis to other areas of their lives.
4. "Weather (sic) smoking is good or bad and your opinion." They seemed to have really understood the nuances of respecting someone's right to have an opinion even though it may be 'wrong' or even have negative consequences for themselves or others.
More points were spoken than written on the board. One in particular stood out, "You don't have to necessarily believe something just because it comes from an authority such as a parent, teacher, police officer or politician."(!) So questioning blind appeal to authority sunk right in. Perhaps this element was part of the reason for so much obstruction from some of the more hierarchical scripture groups. I believe some of these groups are now actually incorporating parts of Primary Ethics into their own programs, so maybe it doesn’t present the threat that was imagined in some quarters.
by Jade Warne
A few years ago, ethics classes were introduced as an option, alongside traditional scripture, in public schools across Australia.
Like scripture, the classes are held each week for around an hour and are taught by volunteers, if they can be found.
Earlier this month, the ABC’s Radio National weighed in on the topic wondering how religion should be taught to young children - and questioning if it should be taught at all. As I gear up to step into the classroom to teach my six year-old daughter and her classmates for 45 long minutes next week, it’s something that’s on my mind too.
When I was in primary school, I carried my comic-book bible everywhere. By Year 5, I knew the Old Testament off by heart (Deuteronomy was my personal fave), could lead a group prayer session and would regularly evangelise about my faith to other students - pleading with them to “accept Jesus into their hearts”.
Thinking back to that time evokes a gut-punch of emotion.
Mortification, first. Not because of the religious ideas specifically, but because of my naivety absorbing and recalling them without question.
Incredulity, second. How could my parents/grandparents present their faith as fact? (When my grandmother told me the red splashes on the petals of hibiscus flowers were the blood of Jesus Christ, I believed her. Whoa.) Why didn’t they balance their beliefs with science or acknowledge their way was one amongst many? (As a parent myself now, this one seriously has me shaking my head).
But, there’s one feeling that’s stronger than all the others. Something curious and utterly unexpected: admiration.
Admiration for the brains and effort it took to remember all the lines from that thumping big book. Admiration for the confidence and eloquence it took to talk to kids I didn’t know. Admiration for the compassion and thoughtfulness the ideas stirred in my heart.
It is only looking back on my own behaviour that I really see the truth of the cliche: children are sponges. Smart, sincere sponges with a limitless appetite for myths and stories and spiritual doctrine that takes root in their imaginations and flourishes for a lifetime to come.
If you could teach a child anything, knowing they would take your kernel of information and more than run with it - pour their heart and soul into it - what would you teach them? English, maths and science, of course. You’d teach them to eat well, move their bodies and understand basic health.
But what about their emotional, mental and spiritual health? What about empathy, body confidence, the ability to resist advertising, politely disagree, handle bad luck and to be a true friend?
Ethics is the branch of philosophy that explores human action and interaction. It encourages self examination and aims to teach the skill of ethical reasoning - that is, encouraging individuals to think for themselves on the basis of reason and evidence. As opposed to skills that can be fairly well mastered like maths and English, ethical reasoning is a nebulous skill that involves constant evolution and constant reflection.
For me, personally, ethical reasoning comes into play every single day.
Should I download Game of Thrones or buy a Foxtel subscription? Should I opt for the expensive organic free-range eggs or the cheapies that may or may not be the real deal? Should I say something when I see a four-year-old boy in the park cruelly tease his sister? When my garbage is overflowing is it OK to take my extra bags and dump them in next door’s bins?
Ethics is implicit in many subjects and many places. It’s found across almost all school subjects and certainly in all scripture teaching - no matter the religion.
Through the program that I’m involved in, the Primary Ethics platform, teachers are given a defined curriculum - every subject, every lesson, every comment is laid out completely - and each teacher is under strict instructions not to deviate from the script. Topics include pride, teasing, animal rights, laziness, forgiveness, sharing and being similar and different.
The ethics class I go through with my daughter each week is not about freewheeling discussion or chatting to the kids about my personal experience. More often it involves telling a story, setting up a scenario and then asking questions about it:
Why do you think that is?
Does anyone agree or disagree with that?
What does it depend on?
Why would it be OK for some people but not for others?
What would happen if everyone decided to do that?
And, let’s be honest, these are six-year-olds, not budding philosophers. If an answer will give them a chance to a) make their buddies laugh b) get you off their case or c) give them a little more time to stare intently out the window - that’s the one they’ll cough up.
But sometimes, unexpectedly, you’ll get a glimmer of brilliance and someone will say something so profound and true you’ll have to stop yourself and ask, “Yeah, why doesn’t the world work that way?”
What I like about ethics is that it doesn’t aim to tell you the “Truth” (implicitly hinting any other ideas are “Lies”), saddle you with buckets of guilt or proselytise others. In fact, none of that is even remotely the point.
Ethics simply aims to get you to ask questions - of the children and yourself. To reflect and evaluate what could be right and wrong in different situations for different people.
And, as cool as Deuteronomy is, that’s exactly what I wish someone had taught me.
Listen to an audio recording of this piece on the ABC Open Soundcloud page
This blog was first published at the Mumtastic Parenting website
Read more of Jade's writing at her Hipstermum blogsite
by Carey Francis
I've been following ABC'S debate on GOD IN SCHOOLS with interest. If by "God" we mean preaching religions in an attempt to convert people, then no, I don't believe God does belong in schools.
Teach children to think and reason. Ethics and comparative religious education belong in schools.
I teach Ethics as a volunteer to around seventy children at three primary schools in Sydney. I chat with the Special Religious Education (SRE) teachers as we wait for our students to arrive. Many of the SRE teachers say it’s a pity ethics isn’t part of the standard curriculum for all the students. I agree with them and say that students should learn about the world’s religions.
Ethics helps children think about their answers, the reasons for their answers and whether those reasons are any good. Children come up with some amazing thoughts when given the chance to think and talk about life’s questions.
My kindergarten son has only just started ethics but he already counters my exhausted “Just because” (whenever I get tired of answering the inevitable “But why?” questions at home about anything and everything) with “But that’s not even a reason, Mummy!’
Comparative religious education in schools would help children learn about the many different belief systems practised in today’s multicultural world. They would have some understanding of why one friend might dress in a particular way and another follow a certain diet.
What’s the point of school? That’s what my son asks me quite often, normally at bed time when he realises that he has to go to school again tomorrow!
Most parents would probably agree it’s not just about learning facts to pass exams. Martin Luther King said “the function of education … is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education.” (The quote comes from a 1947 newspaper article titled The Purpose of Education).
In Australia, education ministers came together in 2008 and committed (in what became known as the Melbourne Declaration) to ‘supporting all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens’.
But those fancy words won’t help my five-year-old understand the point of school.
For him, I use simpler – but no less pithy – words. Words similar to those in I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett:
I want a proper school, sir, to teach reading and writing, and most of all thinking, sir, so people can find what they’re good at, because someone doing what they really like is always an asset to any country, and too often people never find out until it’s too late. …. Learning is about finding out who you are, what you are, where you are and what you are standing on and what you are good at and what’s over the horizon and, well, everything. It’s about finding the place where you fit.
I originally volunteered at my daughter’s school because they needed a new volunteer for Years 1-2 to add to their team already teaching the Years 3-4 and Years 5-6 ethics curriculum. I wanted her to experience something more meaningful than the ‘colouring in’ that bored her during non-scripture.
Before having children, I led the business ethics programme at an international company and helped employees think through our code of conduct, so Primary Ethics seemed a good match for my skills, particularly as our family believes that you can be ethical without being religious.
Now I’ve been teaching ethics for 18 months and I find preparing for the lessons fascinating and personally thought-provoking. For example, last year one of my classes discussed whether they were the same person now as they used to be.
While preparing that lesson, I remember debating what made me me with my husband after reading a story where a man transferred his memory into a robotic brain (Where Am I by Daniel Dennett). Teaching ethics makes me think about things as much as it makes the children think.
“Good morning, ethics explorers!”
“Good morning, Carey!” chorus the children seated in a circle in the classroom.
And then, armed with a squashy beanbag for the child who’s speaking, we’re off into whatever topic is on Primary Ethics’ curriculum for that week.
by Joana Carvalho
When we first moved to Australia, with our eight-year-old daughter, finding a school for her was a major concern. Everything was new for us: a new country, a new language, new people… Great expectations!
We’ve decided to live in the Northern Beaches, in Sydney; Mona Vale Public School was our choice. The curriculum offered wasn’t very different from what we expected, except for one thing - Primary Ethics. I can’t describe how thrilled I was, not only because we had the chance to provide our daughter with the experience of being part of a community of inquiry, but also because I could volunteer and participate in the project as well.
Presently, I’m a Primary Ethics teacher volunteer at Mona Vale Public School. Why? Because I strongly believe every student should be given the opportunity to see the world, themselves, the others, through a different perspective: a philosophical one. They should all be encouraged to develop a critical way of looking at life, and be given the tools to gain an inquisitive way of thinking and wondering about everything they are told and taught. If we truly want to build a society based in conscious, aware citizens, that is imperative!
By engaging young students in discussions about ethical subjects, we are in fact, no more no less than trying to awake their minds from the uncritical common sense point of view we all share. Wondering about the “ethos” of our actions, the consequences of our choices, questioning what is right or wrong is what Primary Ethics classes are about. In every aspect, this pursuit does not collide with the principles that guide education itself in a democratic, open-minded, healthy society. On the contrary! It reinforces them, and that is teaching and teaching belongs to schools.
What about God? Does God belong to schools too? As I see it, God belongs to the ones who seek for religious comfort and explanations in their lives. God belongs to them, and they are, of course, free to have Him for themselves. It is a private matter, though, an individual choice that should be respected as so. That is exactly why God belongs to whoever calls for Him. No doubts about this.
However, religion is not knowledge. It is an undeniable dimension of human nature, among many others, which we should therefore acknowledge, respectfully. But that’s it. And that’s also the reason why, although I understand the ultimate need to believe in God(s), I also think we must make things clear: people’s faith belongs to their own hearts and beliefs, but faith has no universal value, nor should it have. It is proof less, by definition. Its truth relies in itself and in the person who believes.
Certainly, we are all free to believe or disbelieve in whatever, whomever we want. Yet, religious believes should not be taught as a school subject - notice that I’m not referring to teaching history of religions, for example; that would be knowledge - and definitely not in public, secular schools. It’s a matter of principle: indoctrination does not belong to schools. Why not? Because that would be preaching, not teaching.
Volunteering and helping Primary Ethics philosophical intentions spread through Australian schools is, again, a matter of principle, and hopefully a modest way to contribute to a more democratic, social and self-aware society, in the future.
Moreover, and having in mind Matthew Lipman’s words about critical thinking, we must not forget, “that the role of critical thinking is defensive: to protect us from being coerced or brainwashed into believing what others want us to believe without our having an opportunity to inquire for ourselves.” (M. Lipman, Thinking in Education. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 2nd ed., p. 47).
I’m involved in a secret movement in Sydney.
It is kind of like the new version of the Sydney Push, but not quite. It apparently started in the latte drinking, Sydney Morning Herald reading set of Sydney and was whispered about quietly in the cafes of Marrickville, Mosman and Maroubra.
The original idea was radical enough – teach children in public schools to think about things, instead of doing non-scripture. Who’d have thought it? Give children the opportunity to think instead of playing tips or sitting still in ‘private study’ for a mandated non-educational half hour, whilst other students went to religious studies.
It was a radical idea, but one that Primary Ethics managed to pull off. Following on from a trial in ten schools in 2010, the Primary Ethics curriculum now covers classes from Kindergarten up to Year 6 and is available in over 300 public schools across NSW.
I was an Ethics Teacher in a school in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs and am now the Ethics Coordinator for that same school. It is a great local school and one that people would move suburbs to get in to. But I can’t help but feel like ethics is a secret movement.
I got into teaching ethics through word of mouth. Both a friend and a colleague told me about it. I followed up and became an Ethics Teacher. It’s quite a process – you have to start with an interview about your motivation and commitment to teach ethics, attend two days of training, complete online training, get a police record check, get a Working with Children check.
Teaching ethics isn’t for the flighty. It is, however, a system which is thorough and maintains a high standard of teaching.
I loved teaching ethics. The kids are both interested and interesting. It is definitely one of those volunteering roles where you feel like you get back as much as you put in.
So why do I feel like I’m part of a secret movement? Because often you have to be in the know to know about ethics. If someone didn’t mention it to you in the playground or a parent to a friend, you might not be aware of the existence of ethics classes in your school.
Only one kindergarten child was registered to take ethics at the start of the school year in my school – the child of an Ethics Teacher who went in to the office and insisted that she wanted to enrol her child. It would seem that none of the other parents of the 100 or so children starting Kindy knew about ethics classes.
The school bulletin that went home at the start of the school year had a very helpful section on scripture classes. The bulletin stated that scripture classes are available for all children, and to check the school website for more details. When I checked the school website for details, there were details of all the religions on offer as part of Special Religious Education (often called Scripture) – Catholic, Anglican, Buddhism – but no mention of ethics.
When you look at the form where parents choose which religious instruction they would like their child to attend, there is no entry for ethics. It is only if a parent or carer opts out of scripture that there is any hope that they can find out that ethics classes exist as an option for non-scripture students only.
Heaven help you if you wanted to change out of a scripture class into ethics. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 – you can’t find out about the existence of ethics until you lose hope, opt out of scripture and then, maybe then, you will be told that an ethics class is available.
Captain Yossarian would have been proud of the current system.
Ethics classes are a great option. If we are going to have Special Religious Education offered in NSW primary schools, I’m all for offering choice. However, can we please just be open about the option of philosophical ethics education for kids?
This is a movement that really shouldn’t be pushed underground.
by Jane Lewis
I've been teaching Ethics at my local primary school for a few years now.
The reason I teach it is not because I have a child at the school who I want to be able to do Ethics; it’s not because I'm anti-religion. I teach Ethics because I think it's more important for kids to learn to think about what they believe and why, rather than be presented with one point of view and told that’s what they should believe.
When given the opportunity to do so, kids are more than willing to explore ethical issues – ranging from lying and selfishness, to how we should treat living things. They are happy to form and express their opinions, and equally happy for others to express theirs.
I think all of us – adults and kids alike – could do with giving a bit more thought to the big issues… to what’s okay and what isn’t okay and why. We stand to become more ethical and responsible people if we can examine our reasons for holding a certain opinion, and – if they aren’t good reasons – change it.
In fact, I think one of the best things about Ethics is that it teaches kids that it’s okay to change your mind. Another is that it shows them that there is often a range of opinions on one topic… and that’s okay too. As long as there are sound reasons for those opinions. Some reasons are not sound at all and it’s good to know the difference.
Surely, these kinds of lessons are more useful in this day and age than lessons about religion? And, if you were going to teach kids about religion, wouldn’t you want them to know about more than one of them?
We’re in the 21st century now. There are many religions. Many different points of view. Much diversity. Kids need to learn how to live in that world. They need to know how to work out what they believe, while understanding that not everyone thinks the say way, or has the same beliefs. And to navigate their way, they need strong powers of reasoning.
As the motto of Primary Ethics says: ‘Just think about it.’
by Alison Bradshaw
If primary schools taught politics, but required parents to select which type of classes they wished their children to attend by ticking a box identifying their political affinity, there would be parental outcry.
Shouldn’t children have their minds opened to all ways of thinking so they can decide for themselves which political ideals they wish to adopt? Shouldn’t young minds be exposed to critical analysis of many points of view, not pigeon-holed into one doctrine or another?
When it comes to teaching religion, we force children into categories according to their parents’ beliefs, failing to promote the concept of open-mindedness and critical appraisal.
Many aspects of the world are unrecognisable from when I started primary school forty years ago but not, alas, segregation in the teaching of religion. One of my earliest memories of school is of all the children with brown skin funnelling off to a different room for assembly and Religious Education. I was puzzled and assumed those children must be somehow different from the white kids.
Four decades later, little has changed at scripture time. My children have to choose between Anglican, Catholic, Baha’i and non-scripture (a euphemism for half an hour of non-learning) whilst wondering what they are missing from the other mysterious rooms.
If we are striving for a peaceful world of racial and religious harmony, separating five-year-olds on the basis of religion is not a practice that schools should be engaging in. It is an antiquated and divisive practice that has no place in a 21st century education system.
Two and a half years ago, when Ethics was offered as an alternative to scripture, I jumped at the chance to get involved in the development of the thinking skills of future generations.
At the training course, when Primary Ethics CEO Teresa Russell explained how much opposition there had been to the program from both the government and the church, my resolve to get involved was strengthened further - an idea that had caused much controversy between church and government had to be worth exploring.
Ethics classes are available to all children, irrespective of parents’ political or religious affiliations. We discuss open-ended ethical questions and invite students to explore ideas such as "Is it always wrong to tell lies?" and "How should we treat living things?"
Lively debate with fellow students with differing opinions is encouraged. A simple framework of rules encourages everyone to speak in turn and not to be afraid to voice their thoughts; ideas can be challenged on merit but cannot be dismissed out of hand because of the “No putdowns” rule.
For ethics students, there are no wrong or right answers, only insightful questions and different attitudes to explore. Ethics teachers facilitate the drawing out of students’ philosophies, helping them build upon each other’s ideas, taking turns to speak and then listening and absorbing quietly and eagerly.
I work hard with my students about the careful use of language, understanding how different words can be used subtly to convey meaning. If I could change one thing about Ethics it would be its name. The full title of the programme is “Philosophical Ethics” and I think it would be useful to emphasise the philosophical, “thinking” element of the course.
Some parents think the name “Ethics” implies some kind of moral teaching and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Ethics is not about teaching anything except how children can open their minds to carefully evaluate and respect the points of view of others.
In an ideal world, there would be a place within the school timetable for both philosophy and scripture but a scripture taught in the way history and science are taught, across all epochs, discoveries and beliefs, unlocking and broadening young minds, not narrowing and closing them.
by Rose-Anne Manns
When I was growing up in a suburb of Washington DC in the 60s, every Sunday my atheist parents would take me and my older brother to the Ethical Society in downtown DC. The adults would be upstairs taking about the Vietnam War and social issues. We kids would be downstairs doing all sorts of classes. I remember one was about different religions: one week a rabbi came to talk to us; the next week a monk; the week after a priest. Another class was sort of an early version of Survivor: we pretended we were castaway on a desert island and had to learn to live together over the course of a few weeks. At Christmas time, we made candles.
I recall these classes with fondness. They were fun, stimulating and gave me some life skills I still rely on today. When I came to Australia years later I was disappointed there was nothing similar here for my own children. I investigated the Bahai Temple in Sydney’s north, and the Buddhist temple south of Sydney. I tried putting my kids into a different scripture class each year, hoping they’d see how similar religious values are at their core. But all these schools of thought inevitably reduced moral decision-making to what was dictated by a higher authority; they didn’t do much to cultivate independent, reflective, critical thought.
But now there is an alternative which does: philosophical ethics classes in primary schools. I’ve taught a number of these classes in my role as a Primary Ethics teacher. They are so much fun. Through topics such as drugs in sport, animal rights and what makes a fair society, kids get a chance to ponder big-picture questions. They’re encouraged to form their own views, and back them with evidence and logical reasoning. Now that’s a valuable life skill, one you can’t develop in a scripture class.
Main image: Rose-Anne Manns (bottom left) with her family getting ready to go to the Ethical Society.
by Elizabeth Allen
My first exposure to the term "Non-Scripture" was when I enrolled my then ten-year-old daughter in a NSW public school for the first time and had to select which group she would join for the allotted Special Religious Education slot each week.
I spoke with the volunteer from the tradition I had been brought up in and found the responses to my queries regarding the content of the class wholly underwhelming. I ticked the Non-Scripture box.
In my naivety, I immediately thought my avid reader had gained an hour to devour extra books. Initially, I did not believe her when she told me she was not allowed to read or play chess with the other students in Non-Scripture lest that advantage them over the students in Scripture.
They watched a Disney movie each week - the same one. That is when I decided there had to be a better way than this waste of precious learning time.
As a keen student of politics and advocate for social justice, I have followed St James Ethics Centre and the emergence of Primary Ethics with interest and, when an opening appeared in my timetable, embarked on the training to become a volunteer Primary Ethics teacher.
Now into my second year of teaching Years 5 and 6 at my local public school in Sydney, it has taught me more than I could have ever envisaged. The preparation and background reading for each topic coupled with the lesson plans from Primary Ethics give me the confidence to lead the discussion on topics from A Fair Society to Animal Rights.
The students embrace the requirement to always give reasons for their view and to know that reasons have to stand up to scrutiny. It is a collaborative discussion.
I smile when students begin to use the language of collective enquiry, eg "I would like to build on Tom's point" and "I disagree with that because..." or "There is another way to look at this". Seeking consensus it is not, but earnest questioning and reasoning and consideration of real conundrums, many diabolically difficult, is the work of ethics class each week.
I am very appreciative of the fact that, in our curriculum, Ethics students are exposed to important and wide-ranging historical facts, documents and stories that we discuss and informs their thinking, eg Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on the bus, experiments with animals, The Oracle at Delphi and The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Frequently, discussion moves from my classroom to my family’s dinner table and I hear that this happens with the students too.
The topic I am preparing for next week has become eerily prescient - I am reading and thinking about Punishment as the shocking news came from Indonesia regarding the transfer of the two rehabilitated Australian men to their place of execution.
I am sure my Year 6 class will reference this as we discuss punishment. How could they not?
I have loved every minute of my involvement with Ethics and can see each week, as thinking skills develop, that it is a better way for my students than Disney on a loop.
by Nicola Judd
When my son started Kindergarten last year at a public school in NSW, I was shocked to find out that there was a scripture lesson in his school week. I was even more shocked to find that this was opt-out rather than opt-in. Parents were required to write to the school if they did not wish their kids to attend.
There is a very valid argument, I believe, against scripture being even offered in our public schools. The teaching of a particular religious doctrine in a secular school, with no agreed curriculum from the education department, is bizarre to me.
I was delighted, however, when it was announced that my son's school would be offering students Primary Ethics as an alternative. Not only did I sign my son up to take part, but I also signed on to train as a Volunteer Primary Ethics teacher.
The Primary Ethics curriculum is a well-researched, detailed curriculum designed for students from Kindergarten through to Year 6. It is fully approved by the Department of Education. The two-day training course to become a teacher of the Ethics classes is intensive and extremely thorough.
And what a joy it is to teach.
The children are presented with stories that they can easily understand and relate to. The Primary Ethics teacher then guides them with a series of questions in a group discussion to help them think about the topic.
The topics are varied and include things like fairness, friendship, empathy, charity, diversity, and reasoning, to name but a few. (A full curriculum overview can be seen here.)
It is so exciting to see the students engage with the topics in a way that is relevant to their own lives. They use their own situations and understanding to reason and discuss the topics with their peers. They back up their views with explanations; they challenge each other, and themselves, as to why they think something might be true or not.
They question, they probe, they think.
Primary Ethics allows students to develop skills that help them listen respectfully, question with integrity and become clear, articulate, independent thinkers. I certainly want that for my children. I hope that more parents and schools offer Primary Ethics to their children too.
by Lynda Ayling
Last year, I was teaching Ethics in a NSW state primary school.
It was an amazing experience which confirmed my belief that young children from any background can learn to challenge generalisations and negative stereotyping and dig a little deeper for a more balanced understanding and fairer solutions.
It was a baptism of fire for me as I was teaching 24 young people from a diverse range of backgrounds and abilities.
However, there were some brilliant moments on both ends of the spectrum. The more confident students, who were used to being heard, had to listen to a different perspective (not mine but their classmates) and the less confident students, who initially did not want to contribute, found their voices and “positively glowed in the unfamiliar experience of being taken seriously”.
In short, all were learning to be inclusive and beginning to understand the benefits of it.
I am in no way anti-religion but the population of Australia has changed drastically in the last hundred years. We are a multicultural and multi-faith society with about a quarter of parents on the last census claiming no religious belief. Primary Ethics, although not the only option, is in my opinion a step in the right direction, as it is not advocating one truth but suggests a way of discovering your own belief system.
Primary Ethics was driven by parents who had elected their children into Non Religion classes but were concerned that many of these lessons were essentially Free Time, with nothing useful actually being taught. The idea of teaching ethics seemed a good alternative.
My students came from several ethnic and religious backgrounds so I would suggest that the appeal of Ethics teaching is not confined to disenfranchised ex-Christians.
As anyone who has had anything to do with young children can tell you, they frequently come up with some profound ideas of truth and fairness which many adults have had educated out of them.
I am not talking just self-esteem here. I am talking about critical thinking, developing their willingness and ability to look deeper and investigate the information and evidence to either support or disprove commonly-held opinions, including their own. It is necessary to develop the ability to question the motivation of all who seek their dollar, their vote or their soul.
As I am writing this there is a knock at my door. OMG, can you believe?
It is a Jehovah’s Witness. Is this a sign?
He looks at the cross around my neck and states "You are obviously a Christian” and invites me to their meeting. What do I say? I tell him my truth.
“Sort of,” I say. “I believe in Christian Values.”
Which I do, in my way, which probably isn’t his way. But, really, I don’t want to engage with him because I want to finish writing this.
So, I won’t go to his meeting but I conclude that he seems like a nice man and probably is sincere in his beliefs.
Personally, I draw on many sources for my Own Moral Code. Two statements that I grew up with stay with me.
“God helps those who help themselves” and “There, but for the Grace of God go I”.
Faith, Trust and Obedience are not words that I can relate to, or words that should be indoctrinated into our children.
I quote from the leaflet just given to me: “We do not have to rely on human ingenuity to solve this long-standing problem, God has already arranged for us to be saved."
Or, even as Plato wrote: “It is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit”.
Should they trust, obey or believe in the infallibility those who have power over them. We have so many examples of where the system has failed them.
If the next generation are to help themselves or to find solutions to the big questions, the next generation needs to be imaginative, compassionate, and free thinking, not schooled to conservatism or to continue with the status quo, but to challenge it and come up with better solutions.
by Bronwyn McDonald
The old adage, a child can’t reason until after seven, is pretty quickly quashed when you are teaching ethics - you give a little one the chance to mull over and back up their arguments and they love to have a go! The reasons they can give to support their arguments range from hilariously dissonant, to (and mostly are) insightful and well thought out.
For example, to see a group of six and seven year olds discuss the principles about keeping secrets, and when maybe they shouldn’t keep a secret is so rewarding.
The group of children I am teaching at a small, low-socio economic school in Newcastle are so intuitive, smart and fun kids. The two classes we can cover so far, mean for some of the kids who have opted into ethics class, that they can have meaningful conversations and learn about important questions and even what a question is - instead of doing, well, nothing.
The certified Primary Ethics curriculum is engaging and challenging for them - their vibrant minds and tangential thought processes are amazing and pretty often amusing.
I always leave the class smiling and thinking hard about what everyone said and how it forms part of outcomes of the overall Primary Ethics curriculum, but also might help them in their everyday lives and learning.
As a more recently trained ethics teacher I couldn’t be happier facilitating this space for students who otherwise would be sitting around in a library or hallway waiting to go back to class after scripture finishes. It is so rewarding, and pretty fun!
The ethics classes offers kids a chance to engage with critical thinking, skill development, and as a their teacher I am seeing them be successful at this. Critical thinking skills can be pretty helpful in our lives, so we can understand others actions and even help us make our own decisions. Letting the kids have an opportunity to experiment and think about ideas like this can only be a positive thing.
There is plenty of time and space in our public schools for multiple classes like ethics when religious instructors are also there. For the kids I am teaching in the ethics class they are happy and engaged and I couldn’t say enough about how smart they are. To give them an opportunity to be learning something when they otherwise wouldn’t seems like a no-brainer.
My experience so far as a Primary Ethics teacher has only been rewarding, and I am so happy that the students who scripture doesn’t suit can be offered a meaningful alternative.
by Ron Woodward
It would make more sense if the topic was GOD IN SCHOOLS? a question seeking to answer whether “God in Schools” is a good thing or a bad thing, or just a matter of parental personal choice.
Firstly, is it an constitutionally-allowable thing? Section 116 of the constitution provides:
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion.
Unfortunately, the states have rejected, in two referendums, the attempt to make them have a similar provision in their constitutions.
So, NSW can make a law for establishing a religion and for imposing religious observance.
But what is a religion?
In Australia, the criteria of religion [are] twofold: first, belief in a supernatural, Being, Thing or Principle; and second, the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief.
This is unfortunate for Buddhism and Confucianism because “God” is missing.
It is good that people should be able to follow their beliefs without persecution if those beliefs are benign and do not impinge on the freedoms of others to do the same. I believe, hope really, that most Australians would feel the same.
For argument's sake, I am going to assume that that is the ideal.
The first thing we need to do is remove the need for there to be a supernatural being from the definition of a religion, or else change the constitution by replacing the word religion with the phrase “set of beliefs”.
The way things stand, Pastafarianism (a belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster) falls under the protection of Section 116.
When we talk about GOD IN SCHOOLS, I don’t think we mean the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or even Vishnu, Shakti or Shiva. I imagine God is the Abrahamic God, even when he is called Allah or Jehovah.
But how do we tell the children about God? Do we use the Bible, Koran or Tanakh?
85 percent of the schools in NSW are “faith-based”. If I was a Catholic parent and my child was being taught from the Koran I would be upset. I would believe that I had a right to have my child receive a Christian education. Obviously, I could ensure this by sending her to a Christian School.
They say an atheist is just someone who believes in one less God than everybody else. Fortunately for atheists, we have the NSW public schools.
These are (or, in 2004, were) the values of NSW Public Schools:
- INTEGRITY: Being consistently honest and trustworthy.
- EXCELLENCE: Striving for the highest personal achievement in all aspects of schooling and individual and community action, work and life-long learning.
- RESPECT: Having regard for yourself and others, lawful and just authority and diversity within Australian society and accepting the right of others to hold different or opposing views.
- RESPONSIBILITY: Being accountable for your individual and community’s actions towards yourself, others and the environment.
- COOPERATION: Working together to achieve common goals, providing support to others and engaging in peaceful resolution of conflict.
- PARTICIPATION: Being a proactive and productive individual and group member, having pride in and contributing to the social and economic wealth of the community and the nation.
- CARE: Concern for the wellbeing of yourself and others, demonstrating empathy and acting with compassion.
- FAIRNESS: Being committed to the principles of social justice and opposing prejudice, dishonesty and injustice.
- DEMOCRACY: Accepting and promoting the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of being an Australian citizen.
Sounds pretty good to me. In fact, it sounds a lot like the topics taught in Primary Ethics.
In fact, hmmmmm, let’s call Primary Ethics “NSW Core Values” and make it compulsory in all schools, secular and faith based. (That is a joke!)
Many may think that ISIS’s Jihadist schools are child abuse. Some may think that frightening impressionable children with the terrors of what is probably a fictional Hell is also harmful. That is a decision for the child’s parents, but the parent should have the option to opt out.
I had the privilege to teach both Stage 2 and Stage 3 Primary Ethics and all I can say is “those kids gave me cause to believe that Australia’s future is in good hands”.
Despite attending scripture myself as a child, I was uncomfortable with what my kindergarten-aged child was bringing home from scripture classes.
These included colouring-in sheets with bright stickers (every parent knows stickers are bribes) about how "God made the sea and Earth and sky and everything in them" plus confused stories and questions about the nailing of Jesus to the cross.
My issue was that, as a kindergarten student, my daughter thought that anything she was told by a teacher or authority figure in class was fact. The information was presented as being true, not as what some people think.
We do not attend a church. Institutionalised religion is not my husband's or my thing. We are people of science.
This was the first time our daughter had been exposed to ideas like this. We had numerous discussions at home explaining the difference between belief and knowledge, and teaching her that she doesn’t have to believe what other people believe.
Why did I not opt her out of scripture?
At our school, opting out meant colouring-in in the bag room, or spending the time emptying the recycle bins. Also, I think you can’t have an opinion on something if you are ignorant of it.
I attended scripture, and a Catholic high school, despite not being Catholic. I was required to do Studies of Religion up to Year 12, where we were taught to question, to compare and contrast different faiths and belief systems from around the world and also consider the broader issues of morality.
I have no problem with children learning about different faiths. Unfortunately, though, this is not what was being taught in scripture.
So, when I heard that another parent at the school had volunteered to complete the training to become a Primary Ethics teacher and provide ethics classes at our school, I was very interested. My husband and I both looked at the Primary Ethics website and liked what we saw: philosophical reasoning, collaborative dialogue, exchange of ideas in the consideration of big-picture moral and life issues.
This was something we could relate to, we had experience in, and could support at home.
That motivated parent spent almost a year trying to get classes up and running, encountering complete disinterest from the school. I wanted it to happen, for my child and others to have the opportunity to attend Ethics, and for parents to have a legitimate choice in what their child did rather than just attending scripture because "that's what you do" and it's preferable to the child doing nothing for forty minutes.
So I volunteered to fill the coordinator role. We completed the training and did the necessary paperwork by ourselves and last year started our first trial class with just a handful of students.
This year we have classes running in three Stages and numbers have grown purely by word-of-mouth. There are still some parents who do not know that we are teaching Ethics classes at our school. It has been challenging to establish something new.
But, when I observe a class and see the children being asked interesting and stimulating questions, see them considering what they and others think, and hear the workings of their mind as they reason and articulate their answer, it makes it all worthwhile.
by Carolyn Swindell
I’m on child number three in the New South Wales public education system. One to go.
The first two came to me by marriage and were already attending scripture classes at their primary school when we met.
They couldn’t seem to remember much of what had gone on in the day’s scripture lesson but would happily show the stickers or pencils they had received. The brightly-coloured tokens covered in rainbows and smiley-faced suns that proclaimed Jesus Loves Me.
As a child from a household without religion, my first visit to Sunday School occurred after a sleepover. I thought it largely tedious but there was cake afterwards. So, okay then. I’m in.
I went again, as often as I was invited.
The pencils had the same effect in our household.
When my son started school last year, we ticked “Non-Scripture”, knowing that would see him colouring-in for half an hour in the library each week. He loved it, referred to it as “Scripture” and would show me the drawings he had completed that day.
He missed nothing and enjoyed the experience. He would like someone to give him some stickers every now and then though. You know, like his friends get.
This year, I’ve joined the small but growing crew of Primary Ethics volunteer teachers at his school. I completed a two-day training course, during which we were advised, clearly and repeatedly, to stick to the Curriculum.
And why wouldn’t we stick to the Curriculum?
It’s expertly designed by professional educators to get each age group wrapping their heads around questions for which there is no right answer. We help them learn techniques to respectfully disagree with another viewpoint, to listen critically and to build on one another’s ideas.
It’s actually the sort of life skills that shouldn’t be denied to the kids taking scripture classes, but that’s another discussion altogether.
We talk about cake. Like whether taking the last piece of cake is greedy, even if everyone else has had one.
But we don’t give them cake. And we don’t give them pencils or stickers.
And this is my issue with Special Religious Education.
Let’s be clear, the NSW Department of Education and Communities allows schools to provide General Religious Education.
General religious education is education about the world’s major religions, what people believe and how that belief affects their lives. It is taught mainly through the school curriculum.
Last year, my kindergarten son was able to tell me about celebrations around Eid-Ul-Fitr, Easter and Christmas and Diwali and Hanukkah. All taught to him by his classroom teacher as part of the broader class... with his Catholic and Muslim and Hindu mates beside him, telling him what their families celebrated.
He’s only six, so some of the finer details may have been jumbled together for him. But he was excited by them all.
If this was what he spent half an hour a week learning across the year, I wouldn’t be an Ethics teacher. I’d be embracing his immersion in comparative religion.
But Special Religious Education – SRE – is different.
Special religious education is education in the beliefs and practices of an approved religious persuasion by authorised representatives of that persuasion.
To be perfectly frank, I don’t like SRE in public schools. I would like it removed. Even if that meant removing Primary Ethics. But, if we are going to allow SRE in our schools, let’s put a few extra rules around it.
Let’s get the stickers and the pencils and the chocolate Easter eggs out of the equation. Let’s make the teaching and the teachings stand on their merits. If the material is strong enough, and well enough taught, no teacher should need to be dispensing propaganda or enticements.
If a parent chooses to spend weekend time taking their child to religious institutions, I say let the pencils and stickers shower down from above, let the cake and lemonade run freely after the rigours of religious studies.
But, in school, let’s not create the divides. Everything the SRE teacher takes into a classroom with them each week should go home with them.
Don’t leave the shiny trinkets, that’s so 17th century.
I'll never forget getting the letter from my daughter's public school four years ago asking what scripture she would be doing.
I couldn't believe that, as her parents, our deliberate choice of a secular school still offered religion. Once my disbelief and anger had subsided, I realised the principal had no choice when it came to religion, so I knew I couldn’t change the overall system, but I could change my daughter’s school.
I began my research and discovered Primary Ethics. I undertook the training and confronted my greatest fear of public speaking - purely with my children in mind - so that they wouldn't have to be ostracized due to our non-belief.
A dear friend and I approached my daughter’s school principal and he was so supportive of us in the school! It wasn’t without its opponents, of course, but we were determined.
Volunteering to teach ethics across four grades is one of the best things I have done in my adult life. I know that sounds clichéd but it truly is. To feel so strongly about God not belonging in school and having the opportunity to make a valued difference is incredible.
I discovered that children are keen to learn, discuss and work together to try and decide what is wrong and right.
I have since moved to Queensland where I have learned that ethics is not yet in this state (note yet!). I have discovered that my daughter’s school has a chaplain as part of their paid staff and that there was no option for my daughter last year but to sit in the classroom whilst religious instruction was held.
It wasn’t until she kept coming home complaining about religion that I had to approach the principal and have her leave the room alone during this time. This is all at a state school.
This year has been much more positive though with 16 children not attending religious instruction from my daughter’s class and the neighbouring class. This is driving my incentive to get ethics classes in Queensland.
I feel God does not belong in schools and I believe this wholeheartedly.
I believe that family beliefs, faiths and religions are something that should be guided by family and not by a volunteer that has not been trained and is not governed by a form of curriculum in terms of their teachings. Ethics teachers are trained, checked under child protection laws and have their curriculum checked by the department of education.
My experience in instructing ethics lessons was that it was reflective of world views that should encourage inclusion and promote self-thought in children. It allowed children from literally all walks of life to work together on ethical dilemmas, provide their thoughts and give sound reasons for their thoughts.
I challenge anyone to sit in on an ethics class and then say that they should not be offered nationwide.
The saddest thing, in my experience, that I have discovered from the children that attend ethics is they were there as their parents did not believe in religion or (most saddening for me) because their religion is not offered at the schools. This is so appalling in 2015 that segregation still occurs based on religion.
God, therefore, should not be in schools so that the focus is on inclusion and religion and faith be a choice that families practice together and schooling be promoted on an ethos of harmony. If ethics could be a part of the curriculum, children could then learn the very idea of inclusion and unity which religion in schools is not promoting.
The passion that I felt in starting ethics at my daughter’s school in NSW was made easier as the hard work had been done by Primary Ethics, the NSW P&C and The Greens. I am committed to using this passion and working on getting ethics in Queensland as an option for children who don’t attend religious instruction for any reason.
It would not impact on current religion instruction in any way (as it has not in NSW) and it would provide a meaningful option for children to attend and expand their minds.
by Bangalow Neil
I am a recently retired primary teacher, having worked in NSW public schools from 1979 'til 2010.
During those years, I supervised many “scripture” classes taught by well-meaning, usually elderly, folk who felt they had a mission to enlighten the children about their beliefs. I felt that many of these people confused opinion and faith with fact.
They believed what they were saying was true but presented it as absolute fact, not as a value which they hold. In many cases, they used fear of punishment to frighten children into accepting their belief system.
I became very frustrated that these groups were allowed access to secular public schools. Children whose parents who chose not to subject their children to this indoctrination were forced to attend “non-scripture” which consisted of minimally-supervised “private study”. No alternative programs were allowed in this time.
I retired from the teaching service in 2010. I had heard about ethics teaching but it took two years for me to want to venture back into schools. I trained as an ethics teacher over two days at Southern Cross University early in 2014 and began teaching classes at Byron Bay Public School (Stage 3) and Bangalow Public School (Stage 1) in mid-2014.
In my Stage 1 class last year, the children learnt to recognise an ethical question and came to realise that there was no “right answer” provided by the teacher but that, on many occasions, the children were able to reach consensus on issues. This was usually accompanied by a declaration of “It’s unanimous!”
On some occasions, the views were divided but children were able to support their position with reasoned argument. They all came to realise the difference between fact and opinion.
In 2015, I have just begun teaching a Stage 2 class at Bangalow. There are seven, possibly eight, ethics classes this year with numbers around 20 in each group. Far more children do ethics than attend scripture classes.
Teaching ethics is the most rewarding teaching I have done.
The children are encouraged to think about ethical matters and express their views openly. They are asked to provide reason for their answers and are free to change their point of view during the discussion (and many do). There is no sense of “blind moral authority” as the children are not told the “correct answer” from the teacher whose role is to guide and encourage participation.
The quality of discussion from these children is outstanding and it is conducted in a very respectful and empathetic manner. They have come to realise that the common values or morals which people hold are fair more important than the differences between them.
Hopefully these children will take these values into their adult lives.
Ethics teachers are provided with a curriculum on a two-year cycle so that children do not repeat a unit. The lessons are tightly-scripted to encourage the children to engage with the content and not deviate away from the topic.
The teacher’s role is to present content, then facilitate discussion and encourage participation. A class teacher is always nearby in case there are management issues but, in my experience so far, they have not been needed and keep a low profile.
I strongly support the ethics program and hope that it remains an alternative to religious education until our system becomes genuinely secular and allows only “comparative religion” to be taught by trained teachers as part of a social science curriculum, as in many other Western countries.
I believe that the study of ethics and philosophy would then form a vital component of this study.