'I'm a primary ethics teacher. Here are the 5 biggest things it teaches kids.'

When our eldest child started kindergarten at the local public school, we were given the option of her attending weekly lessons in religion, ethics, or neither.

Not being religious, my husband and I liked the idea of her attending ethics classes, which are described on the NSW Department of Education’s website as: "A program in ethical decision making, action and reflection within a secular framework." So, we ticked that box and didn’t think much of it until later in the term when our daughter mentioned she’d been colouring in while the other kids were at scripture. 

Curious to understand why she wasn’t attending ethics classes, we spoke to her teacher who explained there weren’t any ethics classes running in her year level because they needed someone to volunteer to teach them. It was at that point that I thought, well, I’m someone. 

Watch: Teachers, translated. Story continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Back to school.

To be honest though, I was quite nervous about the prospect of teaching. Until I had my own kids, I had very little experience with children and heading into a classroom to be the actual teacher all seemed a bit daunting. What if I couldn't control the children and they revolted against me like some kind of chaotic scene from Matilda

These worries were quickly dispelled through the four-week online teacher training course I was required to complete with Primary Ethics – the not-for-profit organisation that runs the ethics program across 500-plus schools in NSW. As part of this process, I was also required to get a Working with Children Check and National Police Check, which were both fairly straightforward to obtain. 


I taught my first ethics class in 2021, at some point when we weren't in lockdown, and had a bit of a stop/start year of teaching due to the restrictions. Last year, however, I taught my first full year of ethics and I’m pleased to report that the children haven’t staged a coup against me, yet.

What does an ethics teacher do?

Primary Ethics provides all lesson materials to teachers and teachers are to stick very closely to the script provided to them. This means we don’t impart any of our own thoughts or opinions on discussion topics. Rather, we present age-appropriate stories and questions that encourage children to consider what they would do – or ought to do – in various scenarios. Essentially, ethics teachers facilitate respectful discussions between children. 

What are the biggest things children learn from ethics classes?

From my experience in the classroom, ethics classes give children a chance to practise and develop the following lifelong skills:

1. Critical thinking and ethical reasoning.

"Okay and can you tell us why you think that?"

This is one of the questions I find myself most regularly asking the kids in class. Students learn early on that in ethics, they need to provide reasons for their answers. They are taught to do this by thinking critically about an issue and carefully considering it from lots of different angles. They are then encouraged to make their own decisions or judgements about an issue based on logic, evidence and empathy rather than out of habit or because of peer pressure or group mentality, etc. 


2. How to take turns speaking and listening to others.

Primary Ethics uses a set of discussion rules that are adhered to closely. The first of these rules is, "Only one person speaks at a time", the second is, "Pay attention to the person who is speaking". 

Though these may sound quite simple, obvious even, it’s amazing how many times I have to refer back to these rules in class. It makes more sense however when you think about it in the context of everyday life. How many times have you been in a conversation where someone swoops in and starts talking over the top of you? Doesn’t feel great, does it? Or maybe you’re in a group situation and a side conversation starts up, taking all the attention with it. Either way, every time this happens to me, or I see it happen to someone else, I think back to these rules and realise how important it is to teach children these social skills. 

Image: Supplied.


3. How to disagree with others respectfully.

Another one of the ethics discussion rules is, "No put downs". This means we teach children not to tease or make fun of another person or their ideas. Children are taught that when you laugh at someone’s ideas or even roll your eyes at them – that’s a put down. When you call someone’s idea "silly" or "stupid", that’s also a put down.

Children are encouraged to examine topics and scenarios robustly and often this means there’s lots of varying opinions. These differences are welcomed in ethics and are discussed thoughtfully and respectfully in a supportive environment without criticising one another for holding conflicting points of view. Something that I’m sure a lot of adults could also benefit from learning how to do. 

4. Confidence to express their opinions with others.

In a group environment there’s always going to be some children who want to answer every question and others that don’t want to say anything at all. However, as the term progresses, I find that even the shyest of children will eventually gain the confidence to express their thoughts. I put this down to a couple of things. The first being that children are taught that all answers in ethics are valid so long as there is a reason to support it. This means children don’t have to fear "getting it wrong" the way they may have to in other subjects at school. 

The second comes down to another discussion rule: "Speak to other student’s, not just the teacher". The more experience the children have with talking to the group, the more confidence they gain and the more likely they are to continue doing so. 


5. Carefully consider alternate points of view.

"Build on other people’s ideas" is the remainder of the discussion rules in ethics. This could mean children add to someone else’s idea by giving another reason why they think it’s right. Alternatively, it could also be disagreeing with someone and explaining why. 

From my perspective, I see this not only teaching children, once again, to listen to others when they’re speaking, it also provides them with an opportunity to reflect on opinions and reasons that differ from their own. Sometimes this contemplation will result in opinions being changed, other times it won’t. Whatever the outcome though, it almost always results in more considered decision making, which in our increasingly complicated world can only be a good thing. 

Outside of the classroom.

According to Jarrah Aubourg, Director of Education for Primary Ethics, ethics classes teach children skills that extend outside of the classroom, as he says: "Children who attend ethics classes have reported increased self-confidence, improved friendship skills and better ability to empathise with others."

"Studies show that regular discussions about ethics positively impact children's reasoning and communication skills, critical and creative thinking abilities and collaborative inquiry skills. Participating in a community of inquiry, as children do in ethics classes, has been linked to improved self-esteem, willingness to discuss challenging topics and empathy towards others."

Listen to This Glorious Mess, On this episode, We thought we’d ask our friend Genevieve Muir from Connected Parenting about what to expect and how to prepare your little one for their new school journey. Story continues below.


According to the kids.

Whilst I could continue telling you what I see children get out of ethics lessons till the cows come home, don’t just take my word for it. Primary Ethics has provided the below feedback from children who have gone through the ethics program.

"In ethics I have learnt to share meaningful ideas with my friends."

"If you listen to others talking about their ideas, your own idea will probably get better."

"What I like about ethics is that you have an opinion, but when someone else speaks it might change your opinion, so it gets your brain working."

"We get to say our ideas and not get interrupted!"

"Ethics has made me feel more confident and happier to share my opinion."

"Ethics has helped me to be more thoughtful and to give more thought to reasons and actions."

"I learned about the spaces between the words."

"It is good to see how we can be so different and yet so the same."

Has your child attended an ethics class? What did they learn from it? Share in the comments below. 

Emily McGrorey is a full-time reader, part-time procrastinator, freelance writer, casual Pilates student, voluntary ethics teacher and aspiring author. You can follow her on Instagram here.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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