Practical Ethics for Primary Schools

Four young students seated at school desksBackground

In 2006, the law governing Religious Instruction (RI) was amended. RI transformed into Special Religious Instruction (SRI). A new category of General Religious Education was also created that encompassed comparative religion. Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) member, Dr Harry Gardner, devised an ethics curriculum, based on Humanist material, that could be delivered by parents or other volunteers. He submitted it to the accrediting authority, Religions for Peace, who gave it qualified approval. His course on Practical Ethics for primary school children covered a wide range of topics, including the Art of Living, Philosophy, Rights and Responsibilities, the Environment, Behaviour and Science.

The Humanist Society of Victoria formally submitted our education materials to the Victorian Minister for Education for consideration under the statutory category of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) and defined in the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (§ 2.2.11). On 9 Aug 2009, the Minister for Education rejected the proposal on the grounds that “the Humanist Society is not registered as a religious organisation in Australia”.

However, HSV remained committed to work for change and was gratified to see SRI become an optional subject. This policy change opened up a range of alternative activities for the children who did not participate in SRI. After successful lobbying by the Teachers’ Union, volunteer SRI instructors were barred from the classroom and the Department reviewed the curriculum in this area.

In the meantime, as a result of lobbying by many freethought organisations and Greens parliamentarians, in 2010 the government in NSW began a trial of Ethics classes in 10 public schools. The trial was designed and conducted by the St James Ethics Centre, a professional body that has no political or religious affiliations. A range of teaching resources were used, including Thinking Stories. These classes were offered as an alternative for the students who did not participate in Special Religious Education (SRE) scripture classes. In some schools, up to 80 per cent of students did not elect SRE.

Independent evaluation of the trial was very positive and making it a permanent fixture was planned. However, members of Parliament were subsequently inundated with emails organized by the Australian Christian Lobby (via the Save Our Scripture Website) and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats (CD) party protesting against ethics classes. The Australian Christian Lobby also launched a petition against the trial. Humanist Society of Victoria and Humanist Society of NSW advocated strongly for the continuation of the trial. Offering alternative Ethics lessons was eventually legislated by the NSW parliament. To avoid offending religious institutions, Ethics was offered in NSW in 2011 as an alternative for the students who did not participate in Special Religious Education (SRE). To buy votes from Christian Democrats, Ethics was hidden from parents’ view on enrolment forms until 2018.

Back in Victoria, as a result of press publicity in February 2010, members of the public who were perturbed by SRI contacted Dr Harry Gardner with some harrowing stories. On 27 March 2011, HSV published a media release urging the government to eliminate this discrimination and allowing for the teaching of ethics.

Program Development and Trial

Practical Ethics program aims were devised by Dr Harry Gardner in consultation with the then President of the Humanist Society of Victoria, Rosslyn Ives, and the committee. Most of the of the lesson categories (Art of Living, Behaviour, Environment, Rights and Responsibilities, Science and World Citizenship) were suggested by Sophie Aitken. However, she graciously declined to be a co-author even though it was her contribution that made the compilation comprehensive. The inclusion of philosophy was prompted by the then HSV President, Stephen Stuart, who suggested that he and Dr Harry Gardner attend sessions of the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations Conference, 2007.

The course was designed particularly for delivery to children of parents who had opted out of Special Religious Instruction (SRI). Dr Harry Gardner had years of experience visiting schools to entertain and inform students with simple science experiments through the use of puppets and story-telling. The lessons are designed to be delivered weekly over the course of a number of weeks.

Several of the lessons were first delivered by Dr Harry Gardner to children of the Friends (Quaker) Eastern Suburbs Local Meeting, Melbourne, Victoria. These trial lessons were delivered from about 1966 onwards while Dr Harry Gardner was a member of Friends. The group provided much encouragement. The lessons had also been practised with children of Humanist parents, meeting in the Tresise Centre, Hawthorn, Victoria. In addition, Dr Gardner practised with his own young grandchildren, Andrew, James, Kartina and Oliver, together with their friends. Teaching hints were given by ex-schoolteachers, Gwen Brumhead, and Dr Gardner’s  daughter, Jenny Gardner, his teacher daughter, Gayle Gardner, and Marietta Elliot, Audrey Goldberg, Del Thompson, along with many others.

During the trial Practical Ethics, Dr Gardner practised a very effective technique for encouraging young children to express their opinion. This technique, named ‘Traffic Lights’, is described in Philosophy with Young Children – A Classroom Handbook [Philip Cam, Liz Fynes-Clinton, Kathlyn Harrison, Lynne Hinton, Rosie Scholl and Simon Vaseo, Australian Curriculum Studies Association, 2007]. Here, the teacher uses scissors to cut discs of green, red and yellow paper by tracing around a compact disc. Children as young as three and one half are then asked a philosophical question. Their answer is returned by holding up the green disc for ‘Yes’, the red disc for ‘No’ and the yellow disc for ‘Don’t Know’. For a class of lively boys, the yellow disc can signify ‘Don’t Care’. Once boys have held up the yellow disc a couple of times, they become so cooperative that the lesson flows easily. On two separate occasions, pairs of four-year-old twins held up a different disc compared with their sibling and justified their opinion splendidly.

Practical Ethics Curriculum and Content

The Practical Ethics teaching manual was prepared by Dr Gardner with the assistance of members of the Humanist Society of Victoria. The completed manual was offered to the Education Department of the Victorian Government, Australia, in 2008 and tentatively approved for the teaching of ethics during the Special Religious Instruction periods. The manual is separated into age appropriate sections.

Download the Practical Ethics teaching manual in PDF format.

Practical Ethics Curriculum (lesson indexes and preface)

Practical Ethics for Preschool to Preps (Ages 4 to 6)

Practical Ethics for Grade 1 (Age 7)

Practical Ethics for Grade 2 Age 8)

Practical Ethics for Grade 3 (Age 9)

Practical Ethics for Grade 4 (Age 10)

Practical Ethics for Grade 5 (Age 11)

Practical Ethics for Grade 6 (Age 12)

The teaching manual is also available in turning pages format.

Guide to answering student questions about Humanism