Thursday 8 December 2016

Ethical education helps pupils to live in an open, diverse society

In my opinion... by Sandra Irwin-Gowran

Published 24/11/2016 | 02:30

Sandra Irwin-Gowran
Sandra Irwin-Gowran

The recent race for the presidency of the United States depicted a contest that was divisive, unforgiving and intolerant. Slurs, innuendo and insults were more commonplace than discussion on important social, economic, national and global issues. Media saturation meant children without the tools to understand the issues were exposed to a discourse that, at times, seemed almost comic in its vulgarity. Many parents and teachers may have been at a loss at how to explain the election to the children in their care.

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Never has there been greater need for young minds to be allowed to develop the necessary skills to live in an open, diverse and multicultural society. Ethical Education provides exactly that opportunity.

Ethical Education is a subject in which an ever growing number of students are participating in Irish schools. Despite the fact it's been around for almost four decades, it's still considered relatively new in Irish education.

Ethical Education essentially invites students and teachers to engage in debate about the issues of the day. It prepares students to act on their learning, ensuring that the response to issues is not merely passive. Through its aim to create critical thinkers, Ethical Education instils in students the knowledge, empathy and ability to participate in society in a meaningful way. Thousands of parents choose to send their children to Educate Together schools, where they are assured of such a compelling curriculum.

In practice, what does that look like? A snapshot of any given day might look something like this: in junior infants, a child is proudly sharing her family's Hanukkah (Jewish) traditions; in second class, the children earnestly wait the next session on the timetable devoted to stillness and meditation; third class are embroiled in a discussion around the rights of LGBT people; fifth class students write to a local representative about their concerns in relation to homelessness. At second-level, first years debate the level of gender equality in Irish society, while second years are creating awareness campaigns on topics such as water consumption and Fairtrade.

Ethical Education provides a meaningful space in the timetable for these worthwhile conversations to occur. Olivia is a second-level Educate Together student and this is what she thinks about her Ethical Education classes: "They're a lot more involved, there's a lot more group work, a lot more talking, which is nice because in other classes it's books and sentences and learning and paragraphs and reading - but this is a lot more talking and getting your voice heard. It's about teaching you how to speak about what you believe in."

For years, moral education and issues of social justice were deemed to exist only in the realm of religious instruction, situated firmly within a Christian framework. The teaching of moral issues outside of a religious context first came about in 1978 with the opening of the Dalkey School Project, Ireland's first multi-denominational school.

In the intervening 38 years, Educate Together's Ethical Education curriculum has evolved to encompass not only moral, but also spiritual development (not limited to a religious context), issues related to equality and justice, the affirmation of difference and diversity, the nurturing of active and democratically-aware citizens, an ethical approach towards the environment and an exploration of different belief systems. Today, Ethical Education provides young people with a space to reflect upon the issues facing society and encourages them to claim their space and have their voices heard, while respecting the voices of others.

Sandra Irwin-Gowran is Education & Support Programme Manager with Educate Together. Educate Together's annual Ethical Education conference takes place this Friday and Saturday in Dublin.

Irish Independent

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