High School Teacher Placed on Leave for Moral Problems Quiz (Update: Teacher Resigns)


A  high school teacher has been placed on administrative leave (with pay) after a parent complained about a lesson in which students were asked to morally reason about some provocative situations, according to The Columbus Dispatch last week.

Sarah Gillam, who teaches English at Hilliard Bradley High School in Hilliard, Ohio, had 10th grade students complete a test that posed various hypothetical morally-relevant situations for students to respond to by moving a slider along a spectrum of “ok” to “not ok”.

Some of the situations described might be considered offensive or too violent or sexual to administer in a high school. That at least appears to be the opinion of one parent, who shared news of the test on a Facebook page for the school’s parents. The result, reports the Dispatch, was “a public frenzy.”

The district is investigating the test while Ms. Gillam is on leave.

The “Moral Foundations Test,” is available online at IDRlabs. It is a collection of 36 scenarios. Some of them are on subjects perfectly appropriate for discussion in a high school, such as:

The head of a public department says that none of her employees are allowed to smoke at all, not even in their free time.

and

A new action figure becomes all the rage among the boys in Timmy’s class. When Timmy’s parents get to the store, they buy all of the action figures for Timmy, leaving none for the other children.

A surprisingly large number of scenarios having to do with sex, some of which might strike a typical parent as strange or inappropriate:

Using both a condom and the pill, a brother and a sister decide that they want to sleep with each other—just once, to see what it would be like.

and

A man orders a custom-built sex doll designed to look just like his niece.

A few are about the sexual behavior or attractiveness or women:

Sarah gets drunk in a bar and makes out with two strangers at once

When Kelly asks Steven out on a date, he sneers and says: “Like I’m gonna date a woman who looks like my overweight bulldog.”

In sex education class, the students are taught that since the sexes are equal, the girls should sleep with as many guys as they want without fear of being considered “sluts.”

And some concern violence, such as:

Sarah’s dog has four puppies. She can only find a home for two of them, so she kills the other two with a stone to the head.

While on a live on-air tv show, a man kills a baby rabbit with a knife.

It’s not a great test. I don’t think it’s job-losingly bad, but the set of situations is pointlessly bizarre, the descriptions are devoid of context and details, and as an educational instrument it’s not clear how much value it has.

It seems like good news that a teacher is including a little ethical reasoning in her lessons; it is too bad she didn’t make use of a better tool with which to do so.

Readers, if you know of better tests of this type, or good short lessons on ethical reasoning that a high school teacher could use, please share them in the comments.

Related: “Online Philosophy Materials for High School Students” and “Teaching Controversial Topics in High School Philosophy.”

(Thanks to Andrew Mills for bringing the story to my attention.)


UPDATE (9/12/18): The teacher, Sarah Gillam, has resigned, according to The Columbus Dispatch:

Gillam acknowledged that her resignation was connected to a quiz given to her sophomore Language Arts class, said Stacie Raterman, a spokeswoman for the district. 

“The circumstances that led to the resignation are disappointing, as she has recognized. While the district’s approved curriculum and educational materials encourage students to think critically, several items in this online quiz were simply inappropriate and inconsistent with established classroom resources,” the school board said in a written statement.

“This should never have been given. The district works hard to earn the respect and support of students, parents and the community at-large and we regret any mistrust this may have caused,” the board statement said.

photo by J. Weinberg

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Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

Being able to be reasonable under bizarre, high-pressure, stressful, or controversial situations is extremely important; perhaps one of the most important things education can teach, since all the philosophical training in the world will be useless if it’s easily negated by provoking you. There are perhaps better tools for evaluating moral stances, but as gauges of moral rationality this sort of thing is very useful.Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
2 years ago

I don’t see how these questions prompt moral reasoning rather than gut reactions.Report

Invisiblessed
Invisiblessed
Reply to  driftinCowboy
2 years ago

The point would be to not have a guy reaction snd instead reason about the morally relevant aspects of the cases. If you are so easily distrscted by provacativity, you’re never going yo be able to think critically about serious moral issues, for many actual moral problems are very provacative (I have in mind abortion, euthsnasia, ethics of war, genocide).

While the sbove test may not be the best way to get students to think critically about moral issues, the abilitu to see past the taboo, shocking, disgusting, and upsetting, and address what is morally relevant is an essential skill, for one will not be able to seriously addreds moral problems otherwise. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Invisiblessed
2 years ago

Of course, both of you are assuming there are objective moral facts in the world that hold independently of people’s reactions and that can be discovered through dispassionate reasoning.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Right, and it’s a big assumption. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Sure, you can be some form of relativist or even an error theorist and still allow that people can reason about the (relative/non-existent) moral facts as a descriptive matter of psychology. But it would still be pretty odd to object that reasoning is better than gut reactions if there are no objective moral facts to get at. Maybe reasoning would be more reliable if cultural relativism were true and you were a cultural relativist. Your gut reactions might not track the social norms as well as explicit reasoning if you had an odd upbringing. But it just seems so odd for a cultural relativist to object to the test on these grounds, as if it’s really important that people get their social norms right. Report

Ben Davies
Ben Davies
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

“It would still be pretty odd to object that reasoning is better than gut reactions if there are no objective moral facts to get at.”

I don’t really get why. Plenty of subjectivist (not just relativist) views say that reasoning can help us to get at the right versions of the relevant cognitive states (e.g. to find out what we ‘really’ value), to see what follows from things we value, to make coherent our set of values, etc. And even on a radical subjectivist view (where coherence, rational depth, etc aren’t objective requirements of a set of values), those are things that many people will want from their values. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Eh, you might think you want it until you realize that your principles don’t yield the correct result with regard to incest, in which case I would clearly just add an exception based on my gut reaction. To force the oneself to accept something that one finds fundamentally and viscerally unacceptable due to a desire for rational coherence sorta goes against the whole grain of subjectivism. That’s the beauty of it. You can always just put your foot down and say you aren’t okay with something and you don’t need a deeper reason why.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

“You can always just put your foot down and say you aren’t okay with something and you don’t need a deeper reason why.”

That seems to be a rather simplistic take on subjectivism.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

You can probably defend a form of subjectivism that is similar to moral realism in virtually every respect except for its letter. This is generally true of philosophical positions. For instance, you could combine subjectivism with a hard line version of motivational externalism and say that morality is based in people’s motivations but that everyone actually has the same motivations for things and aren’t always psychologically driven by those reasons or even aware of them. You might even argue that Kantianism is a form of subjectivism in that it attempts to ground morality in reasons. Of course, this would annihilate most of the things that make subjectivism interesting as a philosophical theory. You can finagle virtually any philosophical term of art so that it loses all of its normal implications, but then why care whether something falls under it?Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

My own position is that moral claims are true and that moral properties are merely classes of possible actions, character traits, and whathaveyou. There are infinitely many moral properties and concepts corresponding to any consistent morality-esque system of norms, none are more natural than the others, or if they are it isn’t in a morally relevant way. Different languages pick out the concepts that fit with their social norms. The terms are also rigid designators. Slavery was always wrong. This claim is true because I am speaking 2018 English. At some point in previous dialects it might have been the case that ‘wrong’ expressed a different concept. I believe this because it seems to be motivated by the most successful approaches to compositional semantics. From a practical perspective it is completely unmotivating. For instance, I know that eating meat isn’t wrong because most of the 2018 English speaking community permits it. This hardly convinces me that it’s okay to eat meat. But technically, my view is a form of moral realism by most definitions. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

I’m sympathetic to some of what you say about the potential slipperiness of philosophical terms. And I’m no longer in philosophy, so I don’t really have a dog in the fight anymore, and I won’t challenge you on whether the moves you have in mind for the ‘finagled’ subjectivists w.r.t. motivational externalism and Kant are theoretically plausible or whether the view you sketch is a well motivated one when taken as a form of realism. (The philosopher in me is tempted, though.) On some level, like Peter Unger, and perhaps yourself, I’ve come (a bit late, but that’s me all over) to find such debates pointless and superficial when the theory becomes the focus at the expense of the part of human life that the theory is supposed to capture. You seem to endorse subjectivism on the basis of some pretty closely held observations on human moral life. Good. I would encourage you now to try to understand the aspects of our moral lives that the ‘finagled’ subjectivists might be trying to capture under their theories. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Presumably these sophisticated subjectivism would be trying to capture the fact that we at least try to justify our moral beliefs and make them seem principled and not ad hoc. But it isn’t clear why only non ad hoc value systems would create moral properties. A lot of people are just fine with there not being any further unifying explanation for why some things are wrong while other similar things aren’t (e.g., a great many religious people are theological volunteerists of the ‘because God said so’ stripe). A subjectivist might say these people are wrong about the descriptive facts, but there’s nothing irrational about just putting your foot down and insisting and saying something like incest is fundamentally wrong even if it harms no one. It’s pretty bizarre to say that this view is illegitimate but that two fundamentally conflicting but internally coherent views such as hedonistic act utilitarianism and Nietzschean elitism are both equally legitimate. Report

Bruce Beck
Bruce Beck
2 years ago

DriftinCowboy: The whole point of these types of tests is to test whether ‘moral judgments’ are ‘emotional’ (“gut reactions”) or the product of ‘reasoning’. They can be used to create ‘moral confounding’ (where a person is certain something is wrong, but cannot provide a rational reason why). See, the ‘Social-Intutitionist Theories’ of Jonathan Haida, who argues we decide moral issues first based on emotion and then use our reason to ‘rationalize’ the decision.Report

Bruce Beck
Bruce Beck
2 years ago

“Haidt” not “Haida”. Spell check is too helpful.Report

B
B
2 years ago

As far as I’m aware, the test is purposefully designed to use those somewhat bizarre examples, as a means of eliciting reactions such as abhorrence or disgust, as a means of challenging you to evaluate your reaction in the light of arguments. E.g. the incest case could elicit disgust, and condemnation. But one might argue that the act might is permissible (or at least not blameworthy) based on certain sorts of ethical reasoning. In other words, a conflict between moral disgust and moral reasoning is set up.

It’s supposed to be a sort of provocative but illuminating test and the beginning of a discussion, not a replacement for ethical discussion. Whether it was used appropriately here, or introduced in the right way (it had a very particular set up on the website where it has been hosted for some time). However, it is not appropriate for Grade 10, it is fair to say. If it has any use in a classroom, it would be in a university.Report

mrmister
mrmister
Reply to  B
2 years ago

I’m less sure it’s inappropriate for grade 10. I’m pretty sure in my own case that I knew about incest-based ‘counterexamples’ to harm principle style reasoning before I got to university. And I’ve taught gifted-youth type summer courses with high school students and they might surprise you. I mean, if anything these descriptions are actually pretty denatured–it’s not like you’re asking them to watch a graphic sex or torture scene. If just the words on a page to the effect that “a brother and sister have sex to see what it’s like” turns your hair white, let me tell you about the jokes they tell each other when teacher isn’t listening!

I’d be reluctant to make any judgments from afar; teens vary in development and maturity, and teachers vary in their skill in reading a room and making appropriate choices. I mean, sure, I can easily see this having been done in a bad way and some students being really grossed out or upset. Even if that were so, firing seems drastic–but whatever, I anyway have no way of knowing if that’s what actually happened, or if it’s much ado about nothing (parents also being more than capable of much ado about nothing!)Report

Dee
Dee
Reply to  B
2 years ago

But this presumes a level of maturity that 15-16 year olds can’t be expected to have. The “test” is utterly inappropriate in a high school setting.Report

John
John
2 years ago

Looks more like a means of sorting psychopaths from a group. Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  John
2 years ago

Or Replicants. 😉Report

Bruce Beck
Bruce Beck
Reply to  John
2 years ago

Actually, there are different tests to screen for psychopathy. See, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3962268/Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
2 years ago

The parents are a bunch of snowflakes.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Do you know something about the circumstances of the online test that isn’t available to others? Or do you think that any parent in any circumstances is a snowflake if the parent complains about 10th graders who are exposed to examples like these by their teacher without being notified?Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

Not in *any* circumstances, just in most actual circumstances.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

So you’re assuming that the relevant circumstances are among the majority of actual circumstances, or you’re using probabilistic reasoning. In the former case, to be clear, you should have said “Assuming the circumstances of the case are among the majority of actual circumstances, the parents are snowflakes.” In the latter case, to be clear, you should’ve said “It’s somewhat likely that the parents are snowflakes.” Either way, the claim you actually made was too strong.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

Thanks, Jen, that was helpful. Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Happy to help.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

No, the parents who complained reasonably resent paying taxes for low-effort, low-quality pseudo-instruction plausibly intended to undermine moral norms taught at home.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

But, Joshua, this is all based on the work of Jonathan Haidt, one of the leading psychologists in the world. We know that such questions reveal a great deal about what kinds of categories people apply in moral reasoning, which in turn is highly predictive of their political bents and a number of other factors. Haidt admits that his earlier work failed to trigger disgust reactions from leftists because he didn’t ask the right questions, but now has a better battery of questions. In addition, there is ample very interesting empirical work on how disgust functions in moral reasoning. And Haidt doesn’t use this to undermine all conservative moral norms, as *the Righteous Mind* should make clear.

10th graders can handle this stuff. If a few squeamish parents want to shelter their kids, fine, but don’t punish the teacher. Let the kids opt-out.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Squeamishness has nothing to do with it. In fact most of your response is totally irrelevant.

1. Whether “they can handle it” is irrelevant. Most students can handle watching 10 episodes of “Cops” in class. That doesn’t make it a good use of class time.

2. It being “based on good work in psychology” doesn’t make it a good use of class time. A better use of class time would involve teaching students truths, or methods of finding truths. This stuff doesn’t do that effectively, and there’s a ton of other material a teacher can talk about that is much, much better. (See my post below.)

3. Why should parents be happy to let schools undermine *any* moral norm taught at home? “Oh, they’re only undermining *some* of the things I taught, I guess that’s fine…”

Tough guy liberalism is probably a fascinating pose for your woke centrist friends, but it hardly constitutes an argument for using Haidt’s work to survey students. They aren’t experimental subjects. We owe them a good education and we’re already largely failing them (as a civilization).Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

I would think that part of a good education involves fostering the ability and the willingness to challenge one’s (uncritically arrived at) beliefs (including normative beliefs). I can see how parents wouldn’t be happy with that, especially those parents who believe that indoctrinating their children with certain precepts is both their purview and their duty. But this just suggests that the goals of some parents and that of a good education are at odds.

Home-schooling can get around some of this, but this just means that such home-schooling provides an inherently deficient education (despite its other good-making features).Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  ajkreider
2 years ago

Let me ask you whether high school students have critically arrived at the following conclusions: (1) democracy is good, (2) racism is bad, (3) it is inappropriate for white students to use the ‘N’ word (hard ‘r’), (4) consent is a necessary feature of a morally acceptable sex act, (5) cheating on school assignments is wrong, (6) women ought to have the right to vote, (7) it’s bad to murder other people, (8) slavery is wrong, etc.

I’ll spare you the time mulling this over — the answer is “no”. All sane parents indoctrinate children. It’s only a question of which doctrines are taught. We can reflect somewhat on a few of the many moral doctrines we believe as we get older, but it’s not clear that anyone succeeds in finally grounding any of these beliefs ‘rationally’.Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  ajkreider
2 years ago

Joshua Reagan: I’m not sure I understand the point here. I agree that most high-school aged students haven’t critically studied or reflected on m/any of their moral beliefs. Why is this reason to reject critical reflection here?

(Also, in trying to reply to your comment, it seems I accidentally reported it. My apologies.)Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  ajkreider
2 years ago

Alex,

I was responding to this: “those parents who believe that indoctrinating their children with certain precepts is both their purview and their duty. But this just suggests that the goals of some parents and that of a good education are at odds.”

The truth is, all sane parents believe in indoctrinating their children, so there is no interesting distinction between conservatives, radicals, or anyone else on this point. Thus, parental indoctrination had better not be in tension with good educational practices or everyone is in trouble. Of course, there is no real tension here, and no good reason to think otherwise.

I support reflecting on one’s beliefs. As for so-called “critical” reflection, I don’t know what you mean by the term. In the mouths of malicious subversives (perhaps the majority of philosophy professors who teach ethics?), it means applying high degrees of scrutiny to conservative beliefs and applying a much lower level of scrutiny to left-leaning beliefs. For example, much is made of the fact that there is no successful argument against “gay marriage”, and this is used as a reason to exclude or otherwise minimize the conservative Christian point of view in classrooms. But neither are there arguments against rape, slavery, racism, etc that would survive the same degree of critical scrutiny. For some reason that doesn’t stop professors from taking seriously opposition to the latter activities.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

Josh, here’s your list again:

(1) working through the first few principles of Euclid’s geometry, (2) covering some of the basics of Attic Greek grammar, (3) reading selections of Pascal’s Provincial Letters, (4) introducing basic set theory, (5) giving an overview of the halting problem, even if only in a hand-wavy presentation, (6) having the class memorize the first 10 amendments of the US constitution, (7) explaining the liar paradox, (8) summarizing Kahneman’s distinction between system 1 and system 2 modes of cognition, and (9) reading William James’s essay “Great Men and Their Environment”.

I know you disagree, but I genuinely believe teaching students 10) the basics of empirical moral psychology, including how to use it to improve your own behavior and that of people you work with, is more valuable not only than any of 1 through 7 plus 9, but all of 1 to 7 + 9 combined. And I say that as an infovore who took classes in Latin grammar for fun. I’d include 8 along with 10.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Sorry, mean to write “Joshua” not “Josh”Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

Yikes. If I understand you correctly, you have a great excess of confidence in unsettled contemporary psychological research, and a really impoverished notion of what is important in education.

(“Josh” is fine.)Report

Salem
Salem
Reply to  Jason Brennan
2 years ago

But notice how quickly we’ve gone from “those parents are snowflakes” to “I think this teaching material is more useful than you do.”Report

Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
2 years ago

Re goodness: It’s not meant to be interesting philosophically so much as reveal which moral foundations the uninitiated rely upon. Each question has probably been selected from many meant to expose the same factor, and these scales are developed by notable psychologists in what has proven to to be a very fruitful theory. If the poor teacher was trying to discuss moral psychology (maybe inappropriate, maybe not), they are apt imo.

She may have simply been looking for ethics dilemma cases and thought, “Hey, surely no one will give me trouble if I used cases that top researchers are using!”

Finally, they are provocative questions, but young adult literature is pretty heavy also. For whatever reason you have to get IRB approval for surveys like this but not for assigning much more emotionally fraught novels in an English class. Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

Teachers have a finite amount of time to impart knowledge in the classroom. One sub-optimal way to spend that time involves giving out tests asking students whether it’s morally acceptable to sodomize your drunken uncle while singing Horst Wessel Lied and juggling chainsaws.

Here are some superior alternatives you might consider, if you have the time to kill: (1) working through the first few principles of Euclid’s geometry, (2) covering some of the basics of Attic Greek grammar, (3) reading selections of Pascal’s Provincial Letters, (4) introducing basic set theory, (5) giving an overview of the halting problem, even if only in a hand-wavy presentation, (6) having the class memorize the first 10 amendments of the US constitution, (7) explaining the liar paradox, (8) summarizing Kahneman’s distinction between system 1 and system 2 modes of cognition, and (9) reading William James’s essay “Great Men and Their Environment”.Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

This seems like somewhat of a false dichotomy…Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Professor Apricot
2 years ago

It has to be a dichotomy to be a false dichotomy.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

A false…..dechotomy?Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

It isn’t that either. Notice the word “some”.

I would also accept debates about how many angels are able to dance on the head of a pin as a superior way to spend time in the classroom. You can even connect it with the discussion on set theory and then ask about whether the number is a countable or uncountable infinity. (This may be a little much for 10th grade, but it’s still a better way to spend time.)Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

Shrug. I was just making a grammar joke.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

My apologies, it went over my head.Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

That’s trueReport

Unknown Philosopher
Unknown Philosopher
2 years ago

Almost a full day later, Justin, how frustrating do you find it that no one has responded to this prompt?

“Readers, if you know of better tests of this type, or good short lessons on ethical reasoning that a high school teacher could use, please share them in the comments.”Report

Answering the Prompt
Answering the Prompt
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago
Furry Boots
Furry Boots
2 years ago

Some of these might be of interest: https://www.philosophersmag.com/gamesReport

Tunisian Tourniquet
Tunisian Tourniquet
2 years ago

Socrates found guilty of corrupting the youth…

“Readers, if you know of better stuff Socrates could have said, please share it in the comments.”Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
2 years ago

This is in response to Reagan, above.

Of course you’re correct that high school students, and many (most) adults, haven’t arrived at such beliefs upon critical reflection. But I don’t understand your point. I do take it as a good feature of someone’s intellectual character that they can ask of the beliefs they have (whether indoctrinated or not), “Are these the beliefs I should have, and if not, what should I believe?” – and then attempt to give good answers (whether that counts a rationality, I don’t know).

Otherwise, we asking people (and students) to rely solely on luck – that they just so happened to be indoctrinated by their parents in the right way. And since no two students will have the same set of beliefs, it is a near certainty the some of those beliefs are mistaken (this is true of teachers as well).

At one point, many parents indoctrinated their children with beliefs like, “Women shouldn’t vote”, or “Slavery is God’s plan”. Shouldn’t we at least attempt to give students the ability to move themselves off of such positions? And further, to move themselves on to positions that neither they nor their parents have yet considered.

But again, I’m not sure of your point. Is it that parents are somehow in an epistemically privileged position with regard to what their kids should know? Is it that no one has real control over their beliefs, so one causal path is as good as any other?Report

K. Aho
2 years ago

The IDRlabs website seems strange to me. The Privacy page Terms of Service (https://www.idrlabs.com/privacy.php#Terms) state that: “This website provides educational information on Jungian typology and associated topics.” This seems like an unusual description given the range of topics on the website (e.g. tests based on the ideas of Haidt and others–as was mentioned upthread–as well as tests that are “one of a kind, not found anywhere else, and based on peer-reviewed scientific research.”) (https://www.idrlabs.com/). The research in question is rarely cited, and when it is, is cited in puzzling ways. For example, the test related to climate change emphasizes a lack of scholarly consensus about climate change and cites a paper from the journal “Organization Studies” in defense of this claim: https://www.idrlabs.com/climate-change/test.php

The tests themselves are also strange to me. Some of their tests claim to be agenda-free, e.g. https://www.idrlabs.com/morality/6/test.php This seems impossible. The same test purports to be “Made with the aid of professionals.” Who are they? The content on the IDR youtube channel is varied–videos on star wars are interspersed with topics like “Nietzsche, SJWs, and Political Correctness” and “The Contradiction in Modern Feminism.”

So who even is IDRlabs.com? As far as I can tell, their website, patreon, and youtube all link to each other. Is this just someone monetizing Haidt’s work and that of others? If I’m reading the WhoIs record for the website correctly (http://whois.domaintools.com/idrlabs.com), the website is administered from Nassau, in the Bahamas. What’s that about? If it’s a normal thing for websites because the web is worldwide, that’s fine, but it seems unusual to me.

Perhaps more important than this particular website is the broader question of what makes websites like this appealing? How might we encourage the public (or busy high school teachers who may just be using the most search-engine-optimized free resources available) to study philosophical authors by way of sources of known provenance? The articles section of IDRlabs page has articles on the Presocratics, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Marx, and Wittgenstein, so it is at least attempting to appeal to those with an interest in philosophy.Report

EB
EB
2 years ago

Ethicists who spend their time wrestling with real life ethical challenges tend to think that exercises like this one miss the point. They depict scenarios that are extreme, or lurid, or very unlikely to occur in anyone’s actual life. Ethicists prefer exercises that point to the difficulty of living a moral life in everyday situations: how do we become generous? how do we resist the temptation to be angry when things don’t go our way? how do we choose between two (moderately) unfair outcomes?Report

Manny
Manny
Reply to  EB
2 years ago

Err….. trollies, transplant surgeons, teletransporters, world cup engineers trapped in wiring, medieval bandits, kidnapped violinists, utility monsters, saving children from burning buildings, etc etc etc etc…Report

E
E
2 years ago

As a high school English teacher (who also teaches philosophy to high school and college students), I can appreciate what the teacher was trying to do, but you have to know your audience. Regardless of the philosophical merits of the test, parents and administrators in high schools (public or private) are quick to be offended.

It sucks that she had to resign, but she should have vetted that lesson before giving it to 10th graders.Report

Grad
Grad
2 years ago

Justin says: “I don’t think it’s job-losingly bad…” I’m not sure I agree. Using examples like “A man orders a custom-built sex doll designed to look just like his niece” or “Using both a condom and the pill, a brother and a sister decide that they want to sleep with each other—just once, to see what it would be like” strikes me as a sort of grooming behavior. Such examples test the waters to see how certain students might react and show who is vulnerable to further moves. The fact that there exists a plausible defense (“It was just part of an innocent quiz!”) is a hallmark of so much initial grooming behavior. Maybe it’s useful to provide controversial examples in an approved psych study, but these examples have no place in a secondary school. While it’s reasonably clear that Ms. Gillam was not intentionally grooming the students, especially since this was part of an independently created test, she still should have known better. A reasonable person would expect parents to be sensitive to a teacher asking such extremely inappropriate questions. Minimally, her use of the quiz reveals an severe lack of judgment, something which in and of itself probably merits dismissal.Report

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
2 years ago

Two things to add. First, here’s the letter of mine that was published in the Columbus Dispatch: (reprinted below the link in case you can’t access through the link)

http://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20180911/letter-hilliard-should-return-teacher-to-her-job

The Hillard City Schools should return Sarah Gillam to the classroom immediately and should be ashamed of itself for shutting down critically important classroom conversations (“Bizarre morality test gets Hilliard teacher suspended,” Dispatch article, Friday).

There are many valid reasons Gillam might use a morality test in her high-school class. In my college philosophy courses, I would use them to help students reflect on the foundation of their ethical intuitions. We all think that incest is wrong, but what is the basis of that belief? Is killing animals wrong? Hundreds of thousands of central Ohioans don’t think so, given what is on their dinner tables every night, so why are we upset by people killing bunnies and dogs? These questions and others were likely on Gillam’s lesson plan, and I would love to hear what her students had to say in response.

Far from being “bizarre,” the survey questions help us consider the reasonableness, consistency and foundation of some of our most deeply held moral beliefs. Conversations about difficult issues make a classroom come alive. Such lessons might uncover inconsistencies in our beliefs and gaps in our understanding of other people and the world around us.

Some parents of Hilliard City School students are outraged that Gilam undertook the project of guiding their children through difficult conversations. I, on the other hand, would jump at the chance to have my children think through important moral issues with their classmates under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Andrew Mills, BexleyReport

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
2 years ago

Second,, the Dispatch Editorial Board published this (quite good, imho) editorial today.

http://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20180914/editorial-contentious-quiz-aside-good-to-challenge-students-thinking

Just how mature are high-school students, and how much do we want their public-school education to challenge them?

Most communities have no consensus on those questions, and that leads to controversies like the one that blew up recently at Hilliard Bradley High School, where a teacher resigned after a parent and administrators blasted her for giving an envelope-pushing “quiz” to her students.

School districts have a tough job navigating such situations; they want to respect community standards and avoid angering parents and voters, but they also should be striving to engage students in thinking and talking about important issues.

A knee-jerk reaction runs the risk of stifling interesting teaching and driving away good teachers.

At issue in Hilliard was a survey-type quiz given to 10th-grade language arts students. It was drawn from a website that offers a variety of free “personality tests,” many of them purportedly based on peer-reviewed research by top universities. It presented students with scenarios and directed them to rate them on a sliding scale from “OK” to “not OK.” The results were supposed to predict the student’s political orientation.

It included bizarre and disturbing scenarios, such as “a brother and sister decide they want to sleep together — just once, to see what it would be like, but use a condom and the pill” and ones in which someone kills a baby rabbit with a knife on live TV and someone else kills unwanted puppies “with a stone to the head.”

When a parent complained about the test on Facebook, triggering a community outcry, the school district imposed a paid suspension on teacher Sarah Gillam on Sept. 6. On Monday, the Board of Education accepted her resignation.

It isn’t surprising that some parents considered the quiz out of line, but it’s fair to question whether this outcome is for the best.

Gillam’s personnel file includes a stellar evaluation and no indication of previous problems in 11 years with the district. She is credited with creating “opportunities for students to make connections with their own lives to make the content more meaningful” and displaying “the highest example of professionalism with students, parents and fellow staff.”

It’s fair to wonder how many similar episodes have ended the careers of bright, talented teachers who were helping develop young minds to think and probe.

The quiz Gillam gave her students crossed a line from thought-provoking into needlessly lurid. But should one misstep be unforgivable?

Some discussion of ethics and morality is as important for teenagers today as it ever has been. Today’s young people are bombarded continually by media of all sorts — unfiltered messages and images aimed at selling them products and ideas.

Try as they might, short of a complete media blackout or constant supervision, parents can’t shield kids from all of the challenging or disturbing ideas in the world. Sexuality and violence permeate popular culture; the world is complex, and the most moral or ethical choice isn’t always obvious. Open and honest discussion about puzzling questions can better prepare kids to navigate them.

Parents are right to expect public schools to avoid presenting any particular moral code as superior. But talking about concepts of right and wrong — and the fact that not everyone sees them the same way — is a valuable exercise for young minds discovering the world.Report

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
2 years ago

Finally (I know, I only said two things…) I think this is a great opportunity for those of us who teach philosophy at the college level to stand up for our colleagues who are working to bring philosophy into the high school classroom. Maybe this was an imperfect tool to do so (we’re pretty good at finding flaws, after all), but we shouldn’t let that stand in the way of our support for teachers, like Sarah Gillam, who are working to do philosophy with their high school students.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Andrew Mills
2 years ago

Well said, Andrew.

We all have our differences as philosophers: it’s part of who we are. But what we need much more of right now is solidarity. It’s appalling to see how desensitized so many seem to have become at the sight of a member of the philosophical community being not only criticized for something but actually being drummed out of a position and, as quite often goes along with that, drummed out of the profession outright.

The job market is brutal, and the supply of qualified instructors far outstrips demand. But it would be very inhumane for people to allow that fact to tempt them into the attitude that their fellow seekers who make up this community are simply expendable. Everyone who has loved the discipline enough to make the commitment to earn a graduate degree in the field is valuable not just as a human being but as part of a project of social enlightenment that we have all chosen to make the focus of our lives. The public reputation and career of each of us should be destroyed, or allowed to be destroyed, only when very serious problems have clearly arisen (as seen objectively and not through one or another ideological faction) and all reasonable gentler remedies have been attempted unsuccessfully.

The thought that one slip as comparatively trivial and debatable as this should be enough to extinguish yet another light in our firmament should distress us all, whatever we think of giving the survey to those students. Were there really no other available responses? More generally, are we so lacking in creativity and compassion that we can’t be bothered to think of a different way to deal with problems like this other than for someone to be fired?Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

We don’t know whether this “slip” is the only one that Sarah Gillam made. Nor do we know that her resignation is due to only this “slip”. This one may have been the last of a series of problems she caused.

It’s perfectly reasonable for anyone with children to be a bit disturbed by the use of these examples on a quiz given to 10th graders, to wonder why she chose these examples instead of many other equally useful (and less provocative) ones, to question her judgment, to wonder what else she may be teaching children, and to question her suitability to teach children. This, of course, is not to say that she should have lost her job. It is to say that it is no trivial issue. People with children are in the best position to understand how impressionable, easily manipulated, and confused children can be, and so understand why the quiz raises serious concerns about Gillam’s teaching children. No parent who has such concerns should automatically be regarded as a snowflake (contrary to Jason Brennan’s comment above).
Report

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

One of the articles regarding the case in the Columbus Dispatch did mention that there were no other problems in her personnel file. Which isn’t to say that there were no other problems, of course, but I think we should give this teacher the benefit of the doubt.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Andrew Mills
2 years ago

It may be that we should give her the benefit of the doubt. But this is not enough to actively support her, since we know almost nothing about her or her character. If we had enough information that supports thinking she had been doing a job recently in her capacity as a teacher, then that may be enough to actively support her. We don’t have that. We do however have enough to fail to support her punishment.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

Correction: “…doing a good job recently in her capacity…”Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

So, Jen, if one of our colleagues has done something you think is wrong but faces a consequence that really seems excessive, your reaction is to say “she probably just got what she deserved because she must have done other things we don’t know about”? Is that how you would ask to be treated by the rest of us if it were you?

Or do you actually believe that this, in itself, constitutes a termination-worthy offence because of the harm you think was done to the teenage students?

If it’s the latter, then I wonder what you would think about things I was exposed to as a young student. In third grade, I was taught in some depth about the Nazi holocaust. I was shown pictures, and even films, of piles of emaciated corpses. In that same grade, a science teacher told us in class that the Earth would not support us forever and that a population crisis, nuclear war, pandemic or environmental collapse through pollution would probably kill off everyone at some point. All this was before my age was in the double digits.

Later teachers taught me, quote vividly, about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cruel history of slavery, and about a conqueror whose soldiers brought back the nose of each person in the territories they had subdued (for a cruel census, apparently). I learned about the bubonic plague, the Milgram experiments, the callousness shown to the original Americans as they were killed or displaced, the fact that we are no more than animals (sparking deep religious doubts), and the depressing fact that we are apparently alone in a vast, seemingly pointless universe. We discussed the dark issues of drug abuse, exploited sex workers, and suicide in our community, and even took a field trip to the most desperate, impoverished part of the city to see the problems more vividly. And all this was in high school.

Aren’t these things at least as shocking as the material under discussion here? Do you think all my teachers should have been forced to resign for inflicting their harm upon me and my classmates?Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

That’s not my reaction. My reaction is this: “Well she may have gotten what she deserves, but she may not have. We don’t have enough information to say.” And yes, I’d want those who don’t know me well to treat me this way. I’d want people who know me well to actively support me.

People here are suggesting something similar to what some people did in the recent Ronnell case: actively supporting someone before having enough information. They made a mistake, and we’d all to well to avoid making a similar one.
Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

Your reaction can be characterized like this: “one of our colleagues has lost her job in connection to something she did and that I think is OK. Without any further information, I can be confident that this is an injustice, and that I should actively rally support online.” This reaction deserves criticism.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

Fair enough about the Ronnell case, Jen.

Still, I think we on the outside are at least warranted in insisting that _this_ one action that we do know about is certainly not sufficient grounds for being driven out of one’s job. Report

Will Heusser
Will Heusser
2 years ago

Sad to see that someone who tried (and apparently failed) to introduce ethical concerns into their classroom would be forced to resign their position as a teacher. However, I am surprised no one mentioned The Ethicist column in the New York Times as a good place to start for resources on moral dilemma. The column is sort of like a Dear Abby column for moral rather than etiquette issues. Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah currently is the ethicist who posts replies and as many here know is certainly a philosopher. However, I have a special like for Randy Cohen’s initial foray as the first ethicist columnist who got it started from 1999 through 2011 without a background in philosophy but instead in comedy (as a writer for the David Letterman show and elsewhere). I’ve used his book with many of his favorite columns (The Good, The Bad, & The Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations) in my own ethics course. What it lacks of Aristotle, Kant or Mill, it more than makes up in carefully thought out answers (IMHO better than the average ethics professor), an understanding of the types of questions most often asked (turns out whether to tattle on a friend who is cheating on another friend was one of the more common questions), relevant contemporary topics (unlike perhaps some historical philosophers), and of course a healthy and necessary (but never crude) dollop of humor. Cohen’s style was refreshing in that his comedy was spot on but never crude and his reflections were always sincere. That is rare to see in comedy today. I encourage philosophy teachers to use examples from the column, the book, or the podcasts in their own classes (I generally ask my freshmen level college students how Aristotle, Kant, or Mill might reply to those moral dilemmas). However, I have not gauged how appropriate each example might be in a high school classroom. One moral scenario, for example, of whether a roommate in college should come out as homosexual to their roommate (or keep this information private) might likely risk one’s employment at a private religious high school. Regardless of how apt Sarah Gillams examples in a high school classroom were (and certainly some were not appropriate), we all put our employment at risk when we choose to cover controversial topics. But at the same time, I wouldn’t feel like we are doing our jobs as teachers of ethics if we didn’t cover controversial topics. That is sort of the point. We wouldn’t have moral dilemmas if we all agreed about the appropriate sort of responses to those dilemmas.Report

Will Heusser
Will Heusser
2 years ago
Daniel O'Connell
Daniel O'Connell
2 years ago

Here are some ethical judgements:

1.) Todd Sandberg, the parent of the 10th-grader who posted about the test on Facebook saying, “I knew it would cause a firestorm” is the worst. Why not ask for a meeting with the principal or the teacher or both?

2.) Also, the school’s failure to impose a less drastic penalty and stand up to the parents (e.g., “We’ve talked to the teacher and she realizes it was a bit much, and won’t do it again.”) displays moral cowardice, and sets a horrible example.

Even if a parent decided to sue, would the school district actually lose such a ridiculous case?

3.) The forced resignation is unjust.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Daniel O'Connell
2 years ago

It’s not at all clear why 2 and 3 are acceptable. Do you know something about the situation that others don’t? If not, you seem to be making some implausible assumptions.Report