The ethics of learning

July 2018

Workplace learningAny practitioner of education, in all its forms, has a responsibility to behave in a professional manner. Indeed, who would not claim that they act professionally and are, therefore, a professional? With that in mind, Paul Jagger FBCS considers what those responsibilities might be and what ethical standards practitioners should follow.

A special trust and responsibility is placed in the teacher, trainer, tutor, coach or mentor that differs from other professional relationships, even within the same profession. The nature of the relationship between the person facilitating learning and the learner is different to the relationship between peers or between manager and employees.

For example, the facilitator may also be an examiner or assessor, or the gateway to career development, formal certification or even a license to practice in regulated professions.

Teachers in whatever walk of life have a duty of care, and a responsibility to encourage, enable and support learning. However, it is not sufficient to rely on laudable assertions of trust and responsibility, what is needed is a code of ethics.

Ethics are a common set of rules or behaviour that apply to a particular profession. They are insular to the profession and usually codified in some way that formally states what is expected.They should be clear, specific and widely communicated.

Codes of ethics can differ

In established professions such as law and medicine, adopting a code of ethical practice is part and parcel of the right to practice in those fields. Similarly, in the armed forces and police, officers all make a declaration that binds them to certain principles, but what is ethical in one profession may not apply elsewhere.

To illustrate that a code of ethics is insular, the principle of ‘first do no harm’, adopted by medical doctors and expressed in the General Medical Council’s guidance on good medical practice, isn’t particularly helpful for members of the armed forces when given a lawful order to use lethal force against an enemy. In point of fact, even military medics have a right to carry arms for self-defence.

Members of the armed forces are explicitly forbidden from disclosing information or expressing views on official matters to any media organisation, without prior approval through their chain of command. Clearly no such ethical provision could apply to investigative journalism, although they should verify and protect their sources!

What is ethical in one profession may not apply in another, indeed it may be entirely inappropriate, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ code of ethics for all professions.

Codes of ethics for learning?

Surprisingly, the Learning and Performance Institute, which is the leading professional body for workplace L&D practitioners in the UK and was formerly the Institute for IT Training, has no code of conduct for practitioners. It does, however, have one for suppliers of learning.

The Society for Education and Training in the UK (the successor to the Institute for Learning) has a code of practice which is heavily skewed toward operation of the profession and less so to the needs of the learner.

An example of a code of ethics for learning practitioners may be found in the US National Education Association (NEA). The NEA was founded in 1857 and is the largest professional body for educators in the public sector in the USA, so its code of ethics is a good place to start.

The code sets out two principles, each with eight commitments. The first principle is that of commitment to the student, and is described thus:

The educator strives to help each student realise his or her potential as a worthy and effective member of society. The educator, therefore, works to stimulate the spirit of inquiry, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, and the thoughtful formulation of worthy goals.

In fulfilment of the obligation to the student, the educator shall not:

  1. Unreasonably restrain the student from independent action in the pursuit of learning.
  2. Unreasonably deny the student’s access to varying points of view.
  3. Deliberately suppress or distort subject matter relevant to the student’s progress.
  4. Intentionally expose the student to embarrassment or disparagement.
  5. On the basis of race, colour, creed, sex, national origin, marital status, political or religious beliefs, family, social or cultural background, or sexual orientation, act unfairly. This includes: excluding any student from participation in any programme; denying benefits to any student; and granting any advantage to any student.
  6. Use professional relationships with students for private advantage.
  7. Disclose information about students obtained in the course of professional service unless disclosure serves a compelling professional purpose or is required by law.

Offering advantage to students seems like a bad idea, but what about in sports where the physique of one student may offer a natural advantage over others?

Do we hold back access to resources to aspiring athletes in order to ensure a level playing field with other students who have no interest, talent or aspiration to be an athlete?

Finally, the educator shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning or to health and safety.

While these commitments are for the most part uncontroversial, they are all expressed in negative terms and furthermore the master/pupil relationship is clear from the language. For the needs of workplace learning, these commitments should be written in a positive manner that views the learner as an adult and peer; for example, the first commitment might be rewritten thus:

  1. ‘Shall enable the learner to engage in independent, self-directed learning appropriate to the development of their professional competence.’
    The NEA is also a lobbying body that seeks increases in public sector education funding in the USA. It also fights for a minimum starting salary for educators in the public sector and excludes those it considers unqualified to practice in teaching. As such, the second principle of that commitment to the profession is not a code of ethics, but rather a binding obligation to uphold the closed shop to the other members of the profession; for example, one of the commitments is:
  2. ‘Shall not assist a non-educator in the unauthorised practice of teaching.’
    Clearly this is not an ethical behaviour that could apply in the workplace, since all employees may at some time need to impart knowledge and skills, and demonstrate desirable behaviours to their colleagues. The concept of a ‘non-educator’ is a non-sequitur, and who defines what is authorised teaching?

Can there be a single code of conduct?

Because the field of learning touches on every profession, indeed any field of human endeavour where knowledge, skills and desirable behaviours are transferred from one person to others, it is difficult to define and apply a consistent set of ethical practices for all aspects of learning.

Take, for example, the context of nursery school education. Ethical practices will include reporting any injury to a child, no matter how minor, including details of why, how and where they occurred, what action was taken, and by whom, and reporting that to a supervisor and disclosing the same to parents of the child. There is no similar expectation, or requirement, to report injuries to the parents of a nineteen-year old injured on the hockey field at university.

However, there are some ethical practices that can and should apply no matter the specific learning context, whether it be in compulsory education, further or higher education, vocational or occupational learning, such as an apprenticeship or other workplace learning.

Rather than explore them here, this article sets the scene for a wider discussion - that will follow on LinkedIn. please come and join us there to shape the ethics of learning.

Image: Getty/A.J.Watt