I’ve become a huge fan of the BBC R4 programme, ‘The Moral Maze’. The beauty of technology means that, thanks to the gift of the podcast, I can listen to it as I’m driving from one training session to another (not mine, my boys). It’s a brilliant chance to hear highly intelligent people debate, probe and tear apart an issue in great depth.
Last week’s podcast was all about Artificial Intelligence, and I asked my teenage sons, as they listened studiously along (no, not ‘The Moral Maze’ – they had their ears blocked up with white plastic), whether they had discussed this at school. Both of the returning grunts suggested a ‘no’.
Now they could be wrong; the teachers may have been valiantly recreating the programme in the classroom whilst my sons were rolling up balls of tissue to flick at the window. However, my experience as an inspector suggests that crucial issues such as A.I. have yet to infiltrate the standardised curriculum habitually.
And so, in this age of cynicism and relativity, where liars are lionised and the humble are humiliated, I call on all headteachers to consider a new subject to teach.
It could have strands of philosophy, geography, history and science, but it is really asking one simple question for the smartphone generation: how do we decide what is right, and what is wrong?
Here are some major issues that do not typically feature within current school curricula.
- Artificial Intelligence. Today’s schoolchildren may grow up to be increasingly dependent adults. That is, they will be dependent on robots. Is this right? Should we all possess drones in the future? And why? For what benefit?
- Social media. What is ‘good’ social media, and what is ‘bad’. This is covered well in child protection terms, but the wider ethical issues, especially around addiction and exclusion, are largely ignored. Is it ethical to ‘swipe’ a person as ugly?
- Sustainability. Movements such as the ‘World’s Largest Lesson’ are brilliant, but are often tagged on to curricula by school leaders who just want to tick the box that says ‘environmentalism’. But do we routinely discuss the ethics of consumerism? Is it OK to say that Black Friday is awful, or wonderful? Is it acceptable that we sit ordering ‘stuff’ over the internet so that white vans can propagate the UK’s fetish for traffic jams?
- The Value of Money. Is it enough to look after oneself and our families, or do we have a wider responsibility to others? Is acquisition defendable? Is to complete a ‘bucket list’ really a worthy ambition for life on earth?
- Truth and trust. If our leaders lie to us, or manipulate information, should we just copy, or resist? How can we recognise the signs of mendacity in adults, or, alternatively, know that they are trustworthy?
Incidentally, many of the issues above are covered in astonishingly subtle and beautiful ways in the 2008 Pixar film, ‘Wall-E’. Maybe the Secretary of State for Education could gift a copy to every school in the land, as one of her predecessors did with the King James Bible, now gathering dust in many a headteacher office.
Of course, there are many more ethical debates that are increasingly relevant to children. But no matter how many, we are scared stiff to confront them in the classroom, for fear of being controversial or political. I agree with the government’s focus on so-called British Values and the content of the Prevent Duty, but schools typically treat these issues as top-down content to be processed, not core parts of the curriculum. As a result, they are largely superficial additions – a display here, an assembly there.
Ironically, business is leading the way in calling for greater ethics. The only ethical leadership content I could find on the internet tended to be related to greater ethical leadership in business, perhaps because their standards had fallen so low.
‘Our schools teach reading, writing and math, but they fail to teach ethics. It seems like a missed opportunity that will continue to haunt society,’ says Linda Biek, Director of the Compliance at Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants. And she’s spot on.
Quite apart from the glaringly important content, lessons in ethics could provide a wonderful vehicle for developing those key skills of debate, enquiry, communication and reasoning, so valued by employers today. They can teach Generation Z (or is it A, or Pi?) how to respect other people’s views and beliefs.
And here’s the uncomfortable bit. Our historic prep and public schools have been doing this for years. Our top universities are the envy of the world because of it. But for your average Joe, it gets overlooked due to a ‘back to basics’ mentality for the ‘disadvantaged.’ We can’t waste our time on this, lament headteachers, because they need to reach the expected standard.
Therefore, I advance a new curricular force for change. A Moral Maze for everyone, not just the privileged.
Let’s all get lost together.