Community of Ethical Inquiry Project Background

Human figures formed into a circleOn 15th September, 2015, The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, a statutory authority of the Government of Victoria responsible for the provision of curriculum and assessment programs for Victorian schools, released a ground breaking new curriculum to be delivered to all Victorian F–10 public school students from 2017. All students are to be assessed in the areas of both ethics and critical and creative thinking – two capabilities that needs must work hand in hand. As is the policy in Victoria, teachers are free to choose how they achieve this outcome.

The Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) had foreseen the need to support the preparation of the current generation of educators and parents to address this challenge. The fact is that educational providers in Victoria only occasionally offer courses in the teaching of ethics. It was therefore anticipated that schools might be ill prepared to deliver such a curriculum, given frequently voiced concerns about both the “crowded curriculum” and the unsettling and contestable nature of moral values.

Moral fundamentalism or behaviourist strategies may seem to some to be the easiest way forward, but such approaches are clearly at odds with the inclusive and democratic schooling required by current educational policies. Thus HSV committed to the development of resources and training in the teaching of ethics using inquiry based methods. The aspiration was to support the capacity for ethical inquiry, rather than offering an uncritical training in “good” behaviour. This would call upon the additional capability of critical and creative thinking.

Harry Gardner had constructed an earlier HSV Philosophy Curriculum in 2006, inspired by the Philosophy for Children movement. Building on Gardner’s initiative, HSV concluded that the desired capabilities are best developed in the safe environment of a ‘community of inquiry’. This thinking gave birth to the HSV Community of Ethical Inquiry project of 2014.

Dr Janette Poulton, Academic Coordinator and Lecturer at the School of Education and the Arts, Melbourne Institute of Technology, draws the link between this project and the objectives of the Education Department:

The Community of Ethical Inquiry (CEI) project initiated by the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) aligned well with ideals expressed in many of the Victorian educational policy documents. The Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians (2008) recognised that the development of ethical understanding assists students to become ‘confident and creative individuals’. The Declaration acknowledges that ‘the capacity to act with ethical integrity’, contributes to becoming ‘active and informed citizens … who work for the common good.’ Not all public school educators are comfortable with this commitment to ethical education, partly due to a misconception that ethical education can only be delivered through a religious framework – and, of course, the public school system in Victoria is governed by the 1872 Education Act which ensured the secular nature of government schools. Current legislation specifies that curriculum and teaching in government schools will ‘not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’. In response to such issues the HSV proposed that ethics be taught using a secular framework. This position is very much in accord with the latest development in the Victoria Education Department curriculum. HSV identified the most significant hurdle to realising this ideal, which is to find a tried and true way to teach ethics in a secular context.

If the project proved successful, it would then be up to individual school principals and school councils to request volunteer-led ethics lessons, with no need to refer the matter to the Education Department (DEECD). The school would decide whether to schedule the classes for all students in particular grades or for those excused from Special Religious Instruction (SRI). An office to administer the program would need to be created. Initially the supply of volunteers would be limited, so only schools in the Melbourne metro area would be likely to participate.

If demand grew, schools that ran SRI might apply in order to give parents a real choice. Schools could even request ethics classes outside school hours and might similarly consider moving SRI out of school hours. HSV’s interest in the program continuing would lapse when the ethics component of the new Australian Curriculum was operating with Departmental teachers to the schools’ satisfaction or when SRI had effectively vacated the schools.

The situation was different in NSW, where the law had to be amended to enable ethics classes, run by volunteers, to operate on the same basis as Special Religious Education (SRE) volunteer classes. Primary Ethics, a NSW organization, was looking to expand its existing program in about 200 schools to cover the whole State (approximately 3,000 schools). Using only volunteers, this may have been unrealistic. There was a pedagogical difference also. In NSW, the purpose is partly didactic, teaching the necessity of defending what a student thinks about ethics. In Victoria, however, the aim is more modest: to guide children so that they learn from one another how to think about ethics.

HSV knew of no organization in NSW advocating either the abolition of SRE or an expanded general religious education, with trained Departmental staff teaching ‘world-views’ (religions and conscientious beliefs). Both such moves were advocated in Victoria by HSV.

Radio interview with HSV President, Stephen Stuart, on teaching ethics in schools [SYN 90.7 24 Sep 2013]

Download a printable PDF version of Bringing Ethical Understanding to Primary Schools

  1. Project Background
  2. Philosophy and Methodology
  3. Training Community of Ethical Inquiry Volunteers
  4. Project Pilot and Evaluation