Learning to Be Caring: Students’ Well-Being Through Ethical Education by Scherto Gill

In this lecture, I explore two questions:

  • How might we understand well-being, especially spiritual well-being, given its importance in post-Covid recovery and as a collective global focus?
  • How might we understand ethics and ethical education?

Conceptual reflection around these questions is important because it can help us consider a meaningful framework for ethical education in schools because without placing values in the right place – we will not be able to address the current global situations in a systemic way.


Covid-19 pandemic presents a great challenge to all educators, that is, to develop a common vision of well-being. Indeed, well-being has been notoriously difficult to define, and depending on the disciplines, cultures, and traditions, there can be different concerns to address when conceptualising well-being.

There are however some aspects to well-being that seem to help anchor all discussions without falling into one camp or another. For instance, we can all agree that well-being presupposes that humans are bearers of values whose dignity and intrinsic worth should be respected and appreciated equally regardless our differences. Viewing human’s being and our life as non-instrumentally valuable is a paramount to our understanding of well-being.

We also share a view that well-being is holistic, involving our being well and living well physically, emotionally, cognitively, relationally, identity-wise, and spiritually. This means that there shouldn’t be some aspects of human life omitted from an account of well-being. As a person must be perceived as a whole-person, these facets ought to be considered in an integral way. Also well-being concerns the person whose life it is and should be understood from the perspective of the person who is living it as such.

Hence well-being involves:

  • All the relevant aspects of human life, such as our experiences, activities and processes;
  • Meaningful relationships and connections with oneself, others, world, and with all that is sacred;
  • Our awareness of these as non-instrumentally valuable, that is living for living’s sake;
  • Our self-consciousness of our life as meaningful, including past, present and future.

Indeed, it is the synergy amongst all these facets of human life constitutes our well-being.

Within this conceptual framework, spiritual well-being might refer to our self-conscious awareness of ourselves as beings of dignity who are embedded in both the transcendent and the immanent dimensions of life. In other words, it is an awareness of oneself as a spiritual ‘I’, or a soul. This consciousness might be the fruit of religious practice, faith, or a deeply felt connection to nature or a passion for others, community, and society.

Clearly, our understanding of well-being underscores that education is a key to students’ human flourishing along these well-being domains. Students’ life in schools must comprise of rich activities and experiences, meaningful relationships and opportunities to nurture self- and other- awareness and self-consciousness. As Dewey once says: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Education and schooling should be site where students, teachers and others in the community nurture each other’s well-being, and co-create the good life for its own sake, i.e. living well together.

Ethical Education: Learning to become caring

Seeing from this vision of well-being, it is clear that ethical education is to be directed at learning to become more caring. Indeed, Covid-19 pandemic has shown that we can be profoundly ignorant of people’s differences, including their perspectives, beliefs, traditions and practices. These are often presented as fear. It also illustrates how unconcerned we can be about the suffering and plight of others. There is little love, no care. Therefore ethical education is very important. Without it, we may be contributing to a culture of apathy and uncaring. 

Traditionally, the field of moral education dominated by three approaches.

  1. Some schools focus on teaching moral values and virtues as a subject matter;
  2. Some schools emphasise the training of students’ moral reasoning, e.g. critical thinking;
  3. Others schools stress the cultivation of students’ character traits, e.g. social emotional learning.

Given the kinds of challenge confronting us, let’s review it from the perspectives of ethics.

  • Ethics is more than propositional knowledge and cannot be taught only as a subject. Ethics requires cultivating our sensitivities that constitute caring.
  • Ethics is rooted more deeply in the socio-emotional aspects of human relationships than in the moral principles and in reasoning from these principles. Ethics requires awakening and enlivening our appreciation of others;
  • Ethics cannot be expressed fully as characters to be worn by an individual. Ethics requires living out our loving and caring feelings towards others in relations with others.

From the view of ethics, relationship, relational process, and relational flow is always a primary consideration of human well-being and flourishing.

When education is based on a moral theory, it would be more concerned with teaching students to do the right thing, complying with a set of externally imposed duties, and schooling might involve enforcement of morally right actions and prohibition of wrong doings, or a system of praise, blame, guilt, and punishment.

When education is influenced by ethics, it is concerned with the quality of a life for the person living it, and for the community. Our peers, friends, families and other people are in part already constituted in our well-being. It is in the interest of the ethical life that we love, care, and relate to others with respect. Ethical considerations are therefore not an external imposition.

In this sense, the kind of ethics we are advancing through education is in effect Relational Ethics, concerning learning to become more caring, including caring for oneself, others around us, and people who are more distant. Caring is respect the intrinsic values of persons.

Relational ethics can avoid the false dichotomy between reason and passion, or rather cognition and emotion. For instance, ethical education can bring students attention to a particular situation that invites their feelings and emotions, and help them understand why it is important to care, and care deeply. Reason and passion together can deepen students’ sensibility and sensitivity to the relational nature of our well-being.

A relational approach to ethical education suggests a whole-school process, encourages these qualities in the students through safe and open learning environment, dialogue, encounters and other relational processes collaborative learning, project-based learning, lived citizenship, service learning.

It looks upon relationships as co-construction by two or more people together, and takes seriously the claim that meaning arises out of social practices and is itself relational. Relational process presupposes a collective trans-personal WE, rather than an interpersonal ‘me’ and ‘you’. The more we experience ourselves as part of a WE, the more we become caring.

Bringing our conceptual framework of well-being, and the relational orientation to ethical education together, there can be significant implications of ethical education in schools. Take the wide spread mental ill-being amongst students and teachers as an example. An understanding of well-being suggests that students’ and teachers’ mental ill health not only owes to social economic situations, ignorance, embedded discrimination, but within the school, these can be symptomatic of our educational system’s failure. It is a result of the dehumanising factory-model of schooling that prioritises students’ test scores over their holistic well-being, competitiveness over collaboration, fear over caring, and treating students as manufactured goods rather than respecting them as human beings of intrinsic dignity.

In many parts of the world, these tendencies are exacerbated by the false dichotomy between traditional moral views based on religion, which tend to be insular and dogmatic, and secular conceptions, which tend towards relativism. Globally, education is yet to resolve this tension.

Ethical education is therefore more important than ever. Respecting students’ human dignity requires that education must care for their interests and needs, and support them to have a sense of who they are, to understand their well-being, and to enable them to assume responsibility for their learning and well-being, and that of others.

As highlighted, ethical education must take a whole school approach, including:

1. aligning aims with well-being of all 

2. advocating an ethos of caring

3. encouraging a relational approach to enriching the lives within a learning community

In the classrooms: practices include collaborative work, dialogue, critical thinking (not just cognitive exercise but also addressing practical issues and real-life moral dilemmas), pedagogy of caring, questioning, listening, storytelling but also deep dialogue,  listening, prayers, and friendship across the differences

Within school environment: how do we express care, and spaces of inclusion, respect, curiosity, and responsibility 

In the community: community engagement, nature visit, respect and care across the difference within our community,

Clearly, when ethical education in schools takes a relational approach, it can truly encourage, support, and nurture students to become more caring – for oneself, each other, and the distant other, and caring for the environment, and other good causes in the world.