Our Obligations: Moral and Legal?

Mark Guzdial raises an interesting point over at a BLOG@CACM article, namely that, if we don’t keep up to to date with contemporary practice in learning and teaching, can be considered unprofessional or even negligent or unethical? If we were surgeons who had not bothered to stay up to date then our patients, and certifying bodies, would be rightly upset. If we are teachers – then what?

The other issue Mark discusses is that of the legal requirement. The US has Title IX, which should extend the same participation rights to all genders for any education program or activity that attracts federal funding. If we do not construct activities that are inclusive (or we design activities that, by their nature, are exclusive) would we be liable under US law?

Mark’s final question is: If we know a better way to teach computing, are we professionally (and even legally) required to use it?

That is a spectacularly good question and, of course, it has no easy answer. Let me extend the idea of the surgeon by building on the doctors’ credo: primum non nocere (first, do no harm). Ultimately, it requires us to consider that all of our actions have outcomes and, in the case of medical intervention, we should be sure that we must always consider the harm that will be caused by this intervention.

Let us consider that there are two approaches that we could take in our pursuit of knowledge of learning and teaching: that of true scholarship of learning and teaching, and that of ignorance of new techniques of learning and teaching. (We’ll leave enthusiasm and ability to the side for the time being.) While this is falsely dichotomous, we can fix this by defining scholarship as starting at ‘knowing that other techniques exist and change might not kill you’, with everything else below that as ‘ignorance of new techniques’.

Now let us consider the impact of both of these bases, in terms of enthusiasm. If someone has any energy at all, then they will be able to apply techniques in the classroom. If they are more energetic then they will apply with more vigour and any effect will be amplified. If these are useful and evidentially supported techniques, then we would expect benefit. If these are folk pedagogies or traditions that have long been discredited then any vigour will be applied to an innately useless or destructive technique. In the case of an inert teacher, neither matters. It is obvious then that the minimum harm is to employ techniques that will reward vigour with sound outcomes: so we must either use validated techniques or explore new techniques that will work.

Now let us look at ability. If a teacher is ‘gifted’ (or profoundly experienced)  then he or she will be more likely to carry the class, pretty much regardless. However, what if a teacher is not so much of a star? Then, in this case, we start to become dependent once again upon the strength of the underlying technique or pedagogy. Otherwise, we risk harming our students by applying bad technique because of insufficient ability to correct it. Again, do no harm requires us to provide techniques that will survive the average or worse-than-average teacher, which requires a consideration of load, development level, reliance upon authority and so on – for student and teacher.

I believe that this argues that, yes, we are professionally bound to confirm our techniques and approaches and, if a better approach is available, evaluate it and adopt it. To do anything else risks doing harm and we cannot do this and remain professional. We are intervening with our students all the time – if we didn’t feel that our approach had worth or would change lives then we wouldn’t be doing it. If intervention and guidance are at our core then we must adopt something like the first, do no harm maxim because it gives us a clear signpost on decisions that could affect a student for life.

One of the greatest problems we face is potentially those people who are highly enthused and deeply undereducated in key areas of modern developments of teaching. As Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord would have said:

One must beware of anyone who is [undereducated] and [very enthusiastic] — [s/he] must not be entrusted with any responsibility because [s/he] will always cause only mischief.

If your best volunteer is also your worst nightmare, how do you resolve this when doing so requires you to say “This is right but you are wrong.” Can you do so without causing enormous problems that may swamp the benefit of doing so?

What about the legal issues? Do we risk heading into the murky world of compliance if we add a legal layer – will an ethical argument be enough?

What do you think about it?

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