What I’d Like My Students to Learn

I’m just past the end of Fall term, refining my plans for Spring.

I have, for the past few years, been teaching ethics through an approach called problem-based learning (PBL): students work in groups to sort through complex, concrete problem situations, in response to which I ask them to develop and consider the ethical implications of several distinct options.

I am in the throes of revising the design of my courses, moving toward what I can’t help but call PBL 2.0.

One of the things that turned me away from more conventional ways of teaching was the realization that, although I’ve long recognized that I am not training students for careers in academic philosophy, my course materials, lectures, and written assignments still bore the vestiges of such a training program.

The first thing I had to do, then, was to throw out my old list of learning outcomes for the course, and to develop a new list focused on the development of particular cognitive skills related to moral imagination.

I’ve been refining the list ever since. Here’s the draft of what will appear in the syllabus of the engineering ethics course I’ll be offering in the Spring:

The learning outcomes of the course all involve developing your capacity to notice, respond to and think about ethical values in particular, concrete and messy problem situations. A messy problem situation is one in which there may not be just one correct option or even just one way of understanding the problem.

Contextual Awareness
By the end of the term, you should be better able to

  • choose an appropriate scale for framing a problem situation and its implications;
  • identify plausible opportunities for and constraints on choice and action within the situation; and
  • connect opportunities and constraints to wider systems and institutions on which they are conditioned.

Critical Consideration
By the end of the term, you should be better able to

  • identify concrete instances of basic ethical values that are in play in a problem situation; and
  • identify concrete instances of basic ethical values implicated in particular options for action within a problem situation, including values that tell for and against each option.

Theoretical Understanding
By the end of the term, you should be better able to

  • organize and connect concrete instances of basic values by appropriate use of theoretical frameworks;
  • use appropriate terminology for each theoretical framework;
  • draw appropriate connections among concepts within theoretical frameworks; and
  • manage the connections among concepts between frameworks.

There are also three auxiliary outcomes.
By the end of the term, you should be better able to:

  • generate a variety of distinct, practicable options for responding to a problem situation, which includes reframing the situation (Creativity);
  • organize written work for ease of understanding, using clear and precise language that is accessible to a general audience (Communication);
  • collaborate effectively with others (Collaboration).

I’ll post other elements of the new design over the next few days and weeks, and provide updates from time to time through the coming term.

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