Ethical Issues in Pedagogical Research


Shannon Kincaid, Ph.D.

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College

The City University of New York 


Ethical Issues in Pedagogical Research (2004) Kincaid, Shannon and Pecorino, Philip, in Community College Humanities Review, Vol. 26, No.1, Fall 2006.


[N]othing can possibly be learned from an experiment that turns out just as was anticipated.  It is by surprises that experience teaches all she deigns to teach us.

Charles S. Peirce  “On Phenomenology”[i]

“Nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than the belief that it is identified with handing out to teachers recipes and models to be followed in teaching.”  John Dewey Democracy and Education[ii] 


Abstract:   Recent trends in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) indicate that there is a need for greater philosophical analysis and reflection when considering the ethical issues arising from turning classrooms into laboratories.  What is needed is a conceptual framework for ethical discourse concerning pedagogy.  This work presents an outline of a framework for ethical guidance for practice.  This approach is rooted in the acceptance of education as a profession that has fiduciary responsibilities for learners and for students as subjects of pedagogic research.. 


            One of the most significant recent trends in two-year colleges has been the increased emphasis on pedagogical research.  Given the unique demographics of their students, two-year institutions have always been focused on effective teaching.  Over the past decade, this focus on effective pedagogy has evolved into a growing emphasis on pedagogical research.  Community colleges across the country are forming centers and programs dedicated to the analysis and development of effective pedagogical practice.  Yet in the midst of these developments, the changing relationships between teaching and research has generated a new set of significant ethical issues which must be addressed if this trend towards better teaching is to be sustained.

            This increasing emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) is important for several reasons.  First, it secures the central role of two-year college faculty and administrators in the continuing attempts to improve the efficacy of post-secondary educational practice.  The emphasis on effective teaching at these institutions demands continuous inquiry into educational “best practice,” and the growth of centers, institutes, and conferences dedicated to SOTL is based on the recognition that the analysis and implementation of good pedagogy is best done locally. 

Second, it demonstrates the unique relationship between good teaching and effective research in two-year institutions.  Community college faculty, with their heavier teaching loads (as compared with faculty at four-year and research institutions), are still required to pursue scholarly research. This is in itself a situation worthy of careful scrutiny for the ethical implications related to issues involving equity and fairness.  Be this as it may there is to be noted that this obligation for scholarly research need not be at odds with teaching responsibilities.  Some have recently argued that this growing emphasis on SOTL provides an invaluable opportunity for faculty members to combine their research interests and educational responsibilities.[1]  This results in enhanced research opportunities AND more effective teaching.

An increased recognition of the vital role of SOTL in post-secondary education is an important step towards enhancing the value of the educational experiences of both students and faculty.  But in this midst of this trend, it is important to recognize that there are some serious questions and issues faced by the researchers and practitioners involved in SOTL.  These issues include the following questions:

·         Does there exist an obligation to conduct research and contribute to the SOTL?

·         How are members of the academy to handle the tensions and conflicts and dual demands of conducting research in their academic disciplines and pedagogic research?

·         How are educators who become researchers to handle the ethical issues that arise when classrooms become laboratories with human subjects?

These issues cannot be addressed in a manner that would produce a resolution that is both intellectually satisfying and practically manageable without a consideration of the basic conceptualization of the role of an educator and its incumbent professional responsibilities, most particularly the fiduciary obligations of educators.  Such considerations have been few and often found outside of SOTL and in the works of philosophers examining the professions in general.  What this work is in part a call for is the conjoining of those two fairly isolated modes of discourse that have been fairly well been kept apart.

Most significant among these growing concerns is the unique set of ethical questions facing scholars of teaching and learning.  As the gap between classroom and research narrows, the traditional ways of viewing the ethical obligations of pedagogical researchers changes dramatically.  When classrooms become research laboratories, the relationship between faculty members and their students changes drastically, as do the ethical commitments and obligations of educators.

            Institutions such as The Carnegie Institute for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and the American Educational Research Association have done much to recognize the changing ethical landscape in the context of SOTL, and in bringing the awareness of these new challenges to light.  Yet much work remains to be done in this important field.  In an effort to further this scholarship into the ethics of pedagogic research, we will first analyze the ethical implications of turning classrooms into pedagogical laboratories.  Next, we will provide a brief overview of some of the contemporary approaches to the ethics of pedagogic research, and highlight some of the significant limitations of contemporary pedagogical research ethics.  Finally, the discussion will conclude with an analysis of the work to be done in pedagogical research ethics.  

Ethical Implications of Classrooms as Laboratories

            Ask any post-secondary educator if their teaching methods have changed, and they will say yes.  From the graduate assistant in his second year of running recitations to the tenured full professor with decades of classroom experience, college educators are constantly adapting their courses to the inevitable changes in the academic and social context.

            How do teaching methods change?  An instructor might simply modify examples used to illuminate a lecture from one semester to the next, or exhaustively rework the content of an entire course.  There might be significant advances in the discipline that must be woven into a classroom discussion or lab presentation.  An individual teacher might want to make better use of the technological tools available to educators.  Even new textbook editions or translations can have a significant effect on the delivery of course content.

            How are these changes made?  Educators often find suggestions to improve their teaching in professional journals and at conferences dedicated to pedagogical effectiveness.  They might seek out the advice of colleagues, using these informal discussions to test new ideas and methods.  Or they might simply build on their own personal experiences in the classroom, finding out what works and what doesn’t in the effort to help students understand the material. 

            Regardless of whether these changes are the result of literature reviews, discussions with colleagues, or personal experience in the classroom, all of them exhibit the desire of educators to increase the effectiveness of their teaching.  As John Dewey effectively points out in the above epigraph, effective teaching is much more than following a standard course design.  It involves imagination, observation, and experimentation.  Post-secondary educators as a group are constantly striving to “teach, teach well, and teach even better.”  And this commitment demands a willingness to try new things, to be creative, and to experiment with novel methods and approaches in the classroom.

            Introducing this change has profound impact on the nature of the classroom.  Anytime an instructor tries a new pedagogical method, from the smallest examples to a complete overhaul of content delivery, they are conducting an experiment.  Indeed, as we will eventually argue, post-secondary instructors have a professional obligation to experiment in the classroom in the effort to improve their teaching.

            All of this has profound implications for educators.  Post-secondary instructors are not simply “teachers;” they are, by virtue of the ethical obligations of their profession, pedagogic researchers as well.  A college class does not function solely as a “classroom;” it is by definition a research laboratory as well.  Pedagogic research is not a discipline confined to academic journals; it is a fundamental obligation of all college instructors.  An instructor who does not experiment with pedagogical methodology is not a teacher.  Teaching is not simply the transmission of ideas.  If it were, teachers can be easily replaced with CD-ROMs, DVDs, and self-paced instructional programs.

First among many of the issues arising from SOTL and the classroom/laboratory would be what exactly is the basis for an obligation to conduct research and experimentation in pedagogy?  In another work, we set out a complete argument supporting a variety of claims that a germane to any discussion of the obligations of educators and ethical issues arising for them.  Among those claims are that :

  1. Education is a profession
  2. Profession have sets of responsibilities for their members to fulfill both individually and collectively
  3. Among the responsibilities is that of furthering the profession and continually improving upon the efficacy of instruction

       Among the inexorable responsibilities of educators as professionals is the responsibility towards the profession itself.  Such responsibilities exist for engineers and medical professionals and it should be no surprise that such a concept attaches to professional educators no less than to any other professional group.  This responsibility towards the profession itself “devolves” onto individuals to assist in contributing to the collective responsibility of safeguarding the integrity of the profession.  Each bares the responsibility to the extent of their work within the profession.  Educators are responsible for:   

·         What is learned

·         How it is learned

·         How well it is learned

·         The value of that learning for the learners

·         The educators’ own learning as it relates to fostering learning in others   (Hutchings,2002, vii)

Scholarly research is a necessary condition of good pedagogy, and it is especially important in post-secondary education.  Good teaching, whether at a research university or a two-year college, demands academic inquiry by faculty.  And while this inquiry might take many different forms (artistic expression, scholarly specialization, or pedagogical analysis), it is the driving force of an effective college education. 

            Given this, there are several duties that together fulfill the obligation to forward the progress of the profession of education:

·         Duty to Research Pedagogy-to avoid harm and increase efficacy of instruction

·         Duty to Experiment to explore more effective pedagogies

·         Duty to Communicate results of Research

·         Duty to Reconsider the Results of Research

Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1997-) speaks of the “pedagogic imperative”  (Hutchings, vii)  that includes the obligation to inquire into the consequences of the educators work with learners.   For Shulman “teaching is an intentional, designed act undertaken to influence the minds of others, and change the world in an intensely intimate, socially responsible manner.”  (Hutchings, v)  Education for Shulman brings with it “inexorable responsibilities”.  He maintains that educators can teach with integrity only if they make efforts to examine their efficacy as educators.  Each educator is responsible for the efficacy of what they do as educators.  While Shulman does not ground the responsibilities he maintains professional educators have them.  In this work the source of those obligations has been argued to be the basic responsibilities all humans have, the basic values of society which creates and sustains the institution of education and in particular the basic value of preventing harm which is instanced in the special obligation of those in a fiduciary relationship  to look after the best interests of those whom they serve.  For Schulman it is unimaginable that educators would have no concern for the impact and results of what they do.  For others that lack of concern may simply be irresponsible of even heinous but, unfortunately, well within the realm of imagination and within the realm of actual unfortunate experiences with educators of the callous sort.  Be that as it may, it remains that educators are, as are most humans, responsible for what they do.

       So the teacher has become a professional and with that the responsibility to further the profession and to continually perfect the craft and art of teaching for this research is not only indispensable but essential.  So teachers have become researchers and with that they carry responsibility for the human subjects of that research. There are other issues as well with educators assuming multiple roles.

        Teachers as educators and researchers have dual roles and with them the dual sets of responsibilities.  As educator there is the fiduciary responsibility to protect their learners from harm and to bring benefit to them.  These are basic responsibilities of the fiduciary relation of educator to learner.  As professionals there is the responsibility for conducting research that furthers the profession, assisting other professionals and themselves to improve on the efficacy of instruction for the benefit of learners.  This is also one way in which the profession of education fulfills its obligations to the society that recognizes the profession itself and accords it rather large amounts of autonomy over its activities and members.

          The concept of teacher-as-researcher raises several important issues.  Foremost among these are the questions concerning the relationships between research and practice, and in relation to the duty of all researchers to protect human subjects from harm there arises concern for the role of Institutional Review Boards in pedagogical experimentation.  If teachers are obligated to research effective pedagogical methodologies in the classroom, to what degree is their research subject to review by IRBs? 

           It is oddly the case that there has been little attention given in SOTL to either the range or the seriousness of the harms that can result to students from pedagogic research.  It is most disturbing that in practice there appears to be the deferment of nearly all such ethical concerns to the process and outcomes to a review of proposal for formal research to an Institutional Review Board.  There is virtually no mention of the need to review informal research conducted nearly on a daily basis by educators in their classrooms.  This is most likely due to the failure of the community to have been introduced to the language of professional responsibilities as well as the language of those conducting human subject research.

             The majority of American colleges and universities employ Institutional Review Boards to monitor clinical, medical, and psychological experiments to ensure the well-being and safety of human subjects.  Indeed, federal law demands IRB evaluation of all federally-funded research. 

            These concerns for human subjects find their roots in events like the Tuskeegee Syphilis Study, research studies in Nazi Germany, and even the psychological studies of researchers like B.F. Skinner and Stanley Milgram.  To address these issues, legislators passed the 1974 National Research Act.  This law created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical Behavioral Research, which was responsible for detailing the ethical obligations of researchers.  The product of this commission, the 1979 Belmont Report, continues to serve as the foundation for IRB decision making.

            The Belmont Report defines the role of IRBs, the risk-benefit considerations of human subject research, the guidelines for selection of human subjects, and the criteria of informed consent.[2] Perhaps most significantly, it identifies the basic ethical principles of human subject research: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.  It also delineates the distinction between practice and research, and identifies the types of research subject to IRB review. This distinction is especially important in the context of pedagogic research.  Recognizing the need to distinguish between formal research and variations in standard clinical practice, the authors of The Belmont Report argue that while both formal research and clinical practice were “experimental,” only formal research demands IRB review: 

“The fact that a procedure is ‘experimental’ in the sense of new, untested or different, does not automatically place it in the category of research.  Radically new procedures of this description should, however, be made the object of formal research at an early stage in order to determine whether they are safe and effective.  Thus, it is the responsibility of medical practice committees, for example, to insist that a major innovation be incorporated into a formal research project.”[3]  

            On these grounds, any “experiment,” be it a research project (and subject to IRB review), or a novel teaching method, is subject to certain, very specific ethical obligations.  And while we discuss these obligations at length elsewhere,[4] it is important to note that among these obligations is the duty of beneficence (generated out of the fiduciary obligations of the profession of teaching) and the basic human obligation to “do no harm.”  Yet also important in this constellation of duties is the prima facie obligation of educators to communicate our “experiments” to others in our profession.  In formal research, this communication takes place primarily in professional journals.  Yet the ethical obligations of all experimenters necessarily include communication, whether it is in professional journals or in correspondence and dialogue with other professionals. 

            At this point, it becomes important to understand the distinction between formal research (which requires IRB review), and experimental practice (informal research not requiring IRB review, but carrying with it certain ethical obligations).  The Belmont Report defines “research” and “practice” as follows: 

…[T]he term ‘practice’ refers to interventions that are designed solely to enhance the well-being of and individual patient or client and that have a reasonable expectation of success….

…[T] term ‘research’ designates an activity designed to test an hypothesis, permit conclusions to be drawn, and thereby to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge…Research is usually described in a formal protocol that sets forth an objective and a set of procedure designed to reach that objective.”[5]   

             On these grounds, informal research in the classroom regarding methodologies and curricula is exempt from federally mandated IRB review.  Indeed, as the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45, Part 46, 2001 states that “[r]esearch conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices…” is not required to submit to IRB review.  This type of exempted research includes evaluation of instructional strategies, instructional techniques, educational testing, and even the collection of existing data (provided that subject confidentiality is maintained). 

             Yet the lack of Institutional Review Board supervision over informal educational research does not absolve researchers from proceeding ethically.  In fact, the lack of IRB review makes the awareness of the ethical issues inherent in classroom research even more important.  As the rapidly growing literature on action/practitioner research and pedagogical ethics clearly shows, pedagogic ethics has become a central element in the debates over effective teaching.  Yet most discussion of the ethical issues arising in the classroom and in particular with research conducted on learners leads to unsatisfactory conclusions as to what guidelines are available to direct practice.  In the SOTL there appears to be a confusion of talking about ethics for doing ethics.  This equation is manifestly not the case and when examined this current state of affairs is revealed to be in part the result of failure to incorporate both philosophical method and philosophical discourse into the conversations about ethics and education as a review of the literature reveals a virtual lack of participation by philosophers and of references to the contributions of philosophers to discourse about ethics and about professional ethics.[6] 

Contemporary Approaches to Ethics of Pedagogic Research :

 Practitioner Research, Action Research, and the “Case-Study” Approach 

Most discourse concerning the ethical aspect of pedagogic research is neither illuminating nor convincing nor compelling of the adoption of guides for practice.  The methodologies themselves have not been those of philosophers or ethicians but of practitioners of education.  Such discourse and methodology has lacked conceptual frameworks and commonly accepted moral principles.

            At least since the 1989 publication of The Ethics of Pedagogical Research,[7] one of the most persistent trends in discussions of the ethics of pedagogic research is the emphasis on a “case-study” approach.  This approach to ethics rightly attempts to move beyond the abstract generalizations of traditional ethics, and to help provide insight into the nature and nuance of ethical issues by offering case-studies (or “narratives”) in the effort to illuminate the complex moral landscapes of ethical decision-making. 

            The case study approach to ethics has an important role in moral deliberation, and it not our intention to dismiss the many important contributions made to the field using this approach.  The case study approach is uniquely effective in raising people’s awareness of ethical issues, and to “get them thinking” about the complexities of ethical deliberation.  Indeed, this approach is useful in many areas and disciplines.[8]  Yet this approach, while generally effective in introducing issues and starting conversations, has its limits, particularly in the context of normative ethical theory.  In other words, while it is important to raise awareness of the ethical issues inherent in pedagogic research, it is just as important to generate principles and guidelines to assist teacher/researchers in their practice.

            As Robert Burgess rightly points out, inquiry into the ethics of educational research demands that “…philosophers, sociologists and psychologists involved in the study of education [should] bring together their expertise to focus on ethical questions in educational research.”[9]  Burgess lamented the lack of any investigation into the ethics of educational research in 1989.  But since then, there has been a rapid (and much needed ) growth of academic inquiry into this importance facet of pedagogy.  Yet still largely absent from these important debates are philosophers; those professionals trained in the historical and technical features of ethical inquiry.

            Why?  Part of the problem stems from philosophers themselves.  Professional philosophy has, over the course of the last 50 years, tended to focus on logico-linguistic issues, as well as the epistemological questions concerning the philosophy of science.  All of this has taken place at the expense of more “practical” philosophical approaches, and while the discipline itself is now experiencing a resurgence of applied philosophical inquiry, the tendency toward analysis remains strong.

            Yet the absence of philosophers in the discussions of pedagogic research can also be explained partly by the hesitance of educational practitioners and researchers to make strong normative claims.  There is a pronounced (and somewhat) justified hesitation on the part of academicians to tell people what they “ought to do,” especially given the increasing societal emphasis on cross-cultural recognition and respect. 

            This growing commitment to epistemic pluralism  in the academy has had a profound influence on the nature and function of higher education. This commitment entails the claim that knowledge and truth are not the product of one “privileged” perspective (i.e. science, the church, etc.), but that “truth” can be generated from many different perspectives (art, literature, cultural, etc.).  It is also important to note that the commitment to epistemic pluralism does NOT entail a commitment to relativism – individualistic or cultural. Above and beyond the challenges to the “canons” of history, literature, art, and culture, there have also been significant challenges to the methods and epistemological status of academic research.

            Research in general is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the “systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” (quoted in Gray 1992; p. 341)  

            Classic scientific research is quantitative; that is, it produces numerical data, and it has long been considered the epistemological “holy grail” of the academy.  The methodologies and numerical analysis of quantitative research lends it a high level of generalizability in its findings.  Quantitative research provides analytically sound, repeatable observations, and extends from these observations our ability to anticipate or predict future events.  In the social sciences, such research involves randomly selected subjects, control groups, the collection of numerical data, and the statistical analysis of that data, as well as the probability calculations which determine the generalizability of a finding.

            Yet as the academy has shifted from epistemological monism to epistemological pluralism, the privileged epistemic status of quantitative research has been called into question.  This does not mean that quantitative research no longer enjoys epistemological benefits.  The rigor, repeatability, and statistical analysis of its method do indeed provide its practitioners with a level of certainty and generalizability typically unmatched in other forms of research.    

            Over the course of the last 100 years, the exclusive focus on quantitative research in the academy has been questioned.  Most significantly, there has been a growing emphasis on “qualitative” research, or research that focuses on the collection of narrative data which are then analyzed both linguistically and logically. 

            Qualitative research (also called “ethnographic,” “case study,” or “naturalistic” research) is not without its critics.  As Eisner and Peshkin point out:

            …[T]he tradition has denigrators who remain uncomfortable with a        nonquantitative approach to research.  At best, they are uneasy with what they      view as a rival paradigm:  They are reacting to the fact of competition.  At worst             they dismiss it as unworthy of the name of scholarship.”[10] Perhaps the most significant critique of qualitative research involves the issue of generalizability.  Qualitative research studies are generally viewed by their detractors as lacking in objective methodological criteria, and are therefore too subjective to provide justifiable generalizable claims. 

              Defenders of qualitative research often argue that its generalizability lies not in its observations but in its logical method.[11]  In this sense, qualitative research is best understood as a specific method of inquiry, focusing not solely on data and statistical analysis, but on the “narrative,” personal experiences, and specific situations studied by sociologists, ethnologists, and educators.  In other words, the generalizability of qualitative research lies in the logic of its method.

            In pedagogic research, qualitative analysis has taken several forms.  First, there are teacher/researchers who generate collaborative inquiry into their own methods and practices in the classroom and the community.  Second, and stemming from the British pedagogic tradition, there is “action research.”  Action research focuses on the reciprocity between theory and practice, and it emphasizes the attempts by educators to improve their teaching while developing a deeper understanding of their practice by contributing to the pedagogical developments in their respective fields.[12]   

What has been needed to introduce generalizability into the discourse concerning this research is a consideration of the broader context of the nature of education as a social institution and as a profession each of which bears with it a set of basic responsibilities in relation ot the general society and to individual learners and fellow professionals.  What has been left out is a clear reference to the conceptual framework that would provide not only context but the basis for more productive conversations about ethics because a consideration of education as a profession would include principles that are located in the profession of education itself: principles that can provide a foundation for moral discourse.  Such discussion is found in the work of philosophers dealing with matters of professional ethics.   While not many philosophers have specifically dealt with education as a profession there are some and from that more general set of reflections on the nature of professions and their relation to society and their various sets of responsibilities can come the principles and language offering more productive outcomes for discourse on ethical issues in education and in pedagogic research. 

Work to be done on the Ethics of Pedagogic Research 

            What is the most popular form of discourse at present concerning pedagogic research and ethical issues?  It is the language of “practioner research”. Both action research and teacher research are subsumed under the larger qualitative heading of “practitioner research.”  As Jane Zeni points out, “Practitioner research, whatever its tradition, relies on qualitative or descriptive methods (e.g. participant observation, interviewing, journaling) rather than quantitative, statistical, or experimental methods.  It typically results in a classroom ethnography or case study.”[13] 

            Here is where the lack of philosophical methodology (logical rigor, argumentative analysis, and technical ethical inquiry) becomes most problematic in the continuing conversations regarding the ethics of pedagogic research.  Philosophical analysis is best able to extend the findings of pedagogic research beyond the individual classroom and into public discussion, experimentation, and application.  It can also play an important role in surpassing the normative limitations of the case study approach. 

            As Burgess points out, philosophers tend to examine abstract issues, whereas social scientists are more likely to focus on specific circumstances.[14] The normative limitations of the case study approach are most apparent when attempting to frame general principles and guidelines that should be used to guide ethical conduct in classroom research.   As a century of applied ethics has demonstrated, to deal with ethical concerns we must take seriously the role of principles and generalizability, all of which goes well beyond the analysis and discussion of empirical data and case studies.  An ethics of pedagogic research demands we pay attention to the underlying ethical principles of professional obligations of faculty members (as both teachers and researchers).  And in that sense, it is the construction of a context-sensitive yet normatively significant framework of ethical guidelines that becomes the crucial next step in the growing emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning. Normative discourse is possible once educators reflect and accept that they voluntarily assumed a dual set of responsibilities when they entered the profession and decided to perform research: they have both the fiduciary responsibilities towards their learners to benefit them and the basic responsibility of a human subject researcher to cause no harm.  With these basic positive and negative responsibilities moral problems and dilemmas arising from pedagogic research, and particularly from the dual role of researcher/educator, can be productively considered and more satisfactory resolutions reached than through ungrounded discourse.  It is here where philosophy can make an important contribution to an understanding of the ethics of pedagogic experimentation..[15]

Doing ethics involves careful and critical thinking about basic principles of the moral good in a manner that leads to or defends a position taken on some moral problem or dilemma.  It involves using the tools of philosophical thinking (logic, epistemology, etc.) to better understand and resolve moral conflict.  On these grounds, ethical thinking and the attempt to provide a resolution to moral dilemmas involves normative claims.  

As a professional educator, ethical discourse must be conducted in order to bring about resolutions of moral dilemmas and to provide guidance for others in similar situations.  In this manner the profession moves forward and establishes criteria and expectations by which its members can be evaluated as to their performance.   It does not serve the profession of education to accept as being sufficient for an ethical resolution simply to discourse concerning moral decisions without some grounding in basic values and principles that are shared by the members of the profession and that help to define the group.   Different people enter the discourse over the same issue and may arrive at different conclusions as to the morally correct decision and course of action to take.  Differing discourses can produce not only different but inconsistent and contradictory conclusions about what is the most morally proper behavior.  The profession can ill-afford to maintain inconsistent and contradictory conclusions about what is ethically acceptable behavior.  Ethical inquiry can serve to provide the guidelines and paradigms for members of the profession.   Accepting ungrounded discourse is to issue the directive that “anything goes” in resolving moral quandaries as long as one agonizes or at least deliberates over the matter.  To expect that moral discourse be grounded in common principles and values of the profession is not to indicate that there is not a consideration of the particular details of each situation that might figure in a significant way in the critical analysis and reasoning as to the morally correct course of action.  Such considerations will lead to a variation in conclusions reached, but any and all conclusions reached would be consonant with the basic values, and thus not inconsistent with or contradictory to other conclusions using the same values.  They can vary from the specifics but not from the basics and the common values.

The ethical approach we are defending is a sort of “principlistic contextualism,” one that recognizes the important differences posed by specific individuals operating within specific contexts while at the same time asserting that some basic ethical principles can be seen to apply across a wide variety of situations.  On these grounds, the conversations of ethical discourse are rooted in a recognition of some very fundamental ethical principles, ones which have been developed as “points of navigation” for the promotion of effective ethical deliberation and decision-making.

There are norms governing the behavior of professionals and those norms are reflective of the values held by the society served by the profession. As expressed by Michael Bayles,

The chief values relevant to professional ethics are: governance by law, freedom, protection from injury, equality of opportunity, privacy and welfare. Norms for professional roles are to be justified by their promoting and preserving the values of liberal society.[16] --

What are the common values of professional educators as humans and as educators that help to define them as a group and serve as the basis for making moral decisions and resolving moral dilemmas?  In a pluralistic society there are undoubtedly a wide variety of values, but one of the most important, and often-neglected in discussions of the principles of educational ethics, is most certainly that education should not harm people.   Educators, often hiding behind a veil of beneficence, often do things that bring harm to their students, whether the educator or the student is aware of it.  These harms range from the academic and intellectual to the psychological and social.  The special obligation to cause no harm in the case of a professional educator issues from two sources: the fiduciary relationship of the educator to the learner and from the relationship of an experimenter to the subjects of the experiment.

Within every educational context, there are three fundamental “layers” of human interaction, each of which generates its own unique sets of moral obligation.  First, there are the duties and obligations generated by the fundamental human equality of each and every person involved in the situation.  Echoing Kant’s practical imperative, the fundamental equality of all human beings demands that we treat others with respect and dignity, and refrain from harming others, regardless of our “status” in the relationship.

Yet the emphasis on non-malfeasance is but one point in the constellation of pedagogical ethics.  Educators qua educators (as members of the profession) are also bound by duties of beneficence.   As we have argued elsewhere, educators as professionals with fiduciary responsibilities are bound to act in the best interests of their students, to promote effective learning, and to fulfill the requirements of educational institutions regarding democratic citizenship.

Finally, the third “layer” of interaction in educational contexts is the relationship between experimenter and subject.  Here, besides the obligations of beneficence and non-malfeasance, there is an obligation on the part of the educator/experimenter to maintain a commitment to responsible inquiry, and to the advancement of the profession of education itself.        

The introduction into the discourse concerning the ethical aspects of pedagogy of the language of professionalism and professional responsibilities along with the basic normative concept of avoiding unnecessary harm is a small contribution that philosophy can make to a consideration of the moral implications of pedagogic research.


[i] Marti, E., Kutnowski, M., and Gray, P.  2004.  “Toward a Community of Practice.”  Community College Journal.  April/May, 2004.  pp. 21-26.

[iii] ibid, p. 3

[v] ibid.

[vi] Burgess, R. G (ed.).  1989.  The Ethics of Educational Research. London:  Falmer Press

[vii] Hutchings, Pat. Using Cases to Improve College Teaching: A Guide to More Reflective  Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Higher Education, 1993.

[viii] Burgess, ibid, p. 1

[ix] “Epistemic pluralism” entails the claim that knowledge and truth are not the product of one “privileged” perspective (i.e. science, the church, etc.), but that “truth” can be generated from many different perspectives (art, literature, cultural, etc.).  It is also important to not the a commitment to epistemic pluralism does NOT entail a commitment to relativism – individualistic or cultural.

[x] (Eisner and Peshkin  1990:  p. 2)

[xi] (cf. Donmeyer 1990; pp. 175-201)

[xii] This distinction between “teacher/researcher” and “action researcher” is found in (Zeni 2001; p. xiv).  

[xiii] (Zeni 2001; p. 1).

[xiv] (Burgess, 1989 – p. 1)

[xv] It interesting to note that philosophers and ethicists have made important and widely-recognized contributions to the fields of medical ethics, business ethics, and professional ethics in general (to name but a few).  Yet few professional philosophers are surgeons or engineers.  Yet most professional philosophers ARE teachers, and it would seem there expertise in both the classroom and in technical philosophy might contribute to significant advances in both the profession of teaching and in ethical theory.


@copyright 2004 by S. Kincaid and P. Pecorino                                last revised 4-9-06