Evaluation of Ethics Education Programmes

By Scherto R. Gill presented at International Symposium on Ethics Education (22-23 November 2021)

What is ethics education?

Throughout this symposium, global young people, leaders of international organisations, religious leaders, and educators have all highlighted the importance of values oriented education, including our shared and common values as the basis of our right attitudes, right relations and right actions. Dignity, respect, kindness, empathy, and generosity, are amongst the values mentioned, as fundamental for our learning to living together in harmony.  

Another aspect of ethics education emphasised in this symposium is the critical importance of appreciating human differences, for example, differences in our history, belief, cultural norm, and practice. Recognising our diversity can provide rich opportunities for children to learn from each other’s culture, religion and indigenous wisdom, enriching our common lives in inclusive and cohesive societies.

Relational imperative of ethics education

In terms of pedagogical practices, we have heard that ethics education tends to involve intercultural and interreligious education, values-based education, and citizenship education.

What is emergent from these two days’ dialogue is that at the core everyday teaching and learning, especially in formal education, is the imperative of generative relational processes and relational practices to underpin ethics education. It suggests that learning through congenial relationships and myriad ways of relating can deepen our awareness of human fraternity.

Through a relational approach, children learn to acquire intercultural and interreligious competences, and transcend identities, labels, categories and boundaries. In adopting a relational lens, they can be more open to embrace each other’s lived realities, and extend our unconditional hospitality and care to everyone, including care for all things in nature. By partaking in relational processes, they can practise the arts of listening and dialogue, and the arts of caring.

The imperative of relational ethic reminds us that ethics education must be integral to all aspects of our teaching and learning rather than as a mere curriculum subject. That is to say ethics education is not about studying values and virtues from outside of them, but instead, ethics education is about living the values, embodying virtues in the lives of our school community and beyond.

How we work out a maths puzzle with classmates, listening to a friend in distress, going about environment education, or even deciding on what to eat, and how we come to school … all these can be the fruit of ethics education. Having a values-based ethical compass is a key to our learning to live together, and here we stress the living together, actively and proactively living out human values and virtues in and through relational processes.

Relational process at the core of children’s holistic well-being

Relational processes are already constituted in our holistic well-being. Broadly, well-being can be conceived as being well, living well and becoming well. It is an active process rather than a mere emotional state.

This year, with Arigatou International and other partners of this Symposium, we launched a global listening initiative and invited young people to reflect on what is most important to build forward through educational transformation. They pointed out that education must contribute to children’s holistic well-being.

Our young people suggested they must be partners and co-creators of an ethical environment where their well-being can unfold. In fact, young people told us that for education to nurture their well-being, these relational processes, and their agency through these processes matter significantly to their well-being.

If ethics education is the foundation of all teaching and learning, if relational processes are featured in pedagogical approaches, if the arts of relating are to be practiced by everyone in the school, not just the children, then these must guide the way we re-conceptualise knowledge, and evaluation.  

Relational approach to evaluation of ethics education

Conventionally, knowledge belongs to those in authority, such as university scholars, scientists, and experts. When words such as data analysis, findings, measurements, are mentioned, how disempowered children, practitioners, and communities can feel? They can only rely on those in the position of authority and power to come and assess their experiences of ethics education.

Ethics education’s emphasis on relational process which is in turn an aspect of our well-being suggests that knowledge cannot be developed from outside the community. Instead, educational evaluation must be carried relationally in collaboration with children and young people, teachers and other people in the community. This might be regarded as a decolonial approach to evaluation.

What constitutes meaningfulness, what counts as impact, and what comprises progress must be developed in listening to and dialogue amongst all the stakeholders.

In this relational vision, evaluation of ethics education becomes a process of collective meaning-making. It

highlights that it is within the process of relating that the world comes to be what it is for us. We draw from this process our understandings of the world, of ourselves and our experiences within it, and of what is meaningful and good. Both learning and well-being are thus the fruits of the relational process, and hence evaluation of ethics education must spontaneously enrich our well-being.

A relational orientation to educational evaluation contains two primary features:

The first is a focus on valuing and co-inquiring, where all stakeholders in education engage in continuous deliberation on the meaningfulness and values in ethics education. So values of equality, inclusion, respect and dignity are already lived in this co-inquiry.

The second is an emphasis on adding values to ethics education, by fostering learning, enhancing student’s participation in learning, engendering sustained engagement, and enriching the relational process itself.

Such practices can be embedded within the ongoing learning processes, especially through listening, dialogue and collaboration among co-learners.

In addition, children learn the language, and the empathetic moves in the listening, dialogue and co-creating, they also learn to appreciate ethics education. Co-inquiry and co-creation of meaning can be a generative process in which mutual valuing is prominent.

So instead of relinquishing meaning-making and knowledge to outside authority, relational approach to evaluating ethics education invites scholars and researchers into the school communities, and join in the process of co-inquiry, and participatory and collaborative meaning-making.

For instance, questioning and critical competence is a key to evaluative inquiry. Children and teachers can work with scholars and researchers in crafting good questions that invite everyone into the dialogue, and encourage multiple voices and reinforce the sense of we-ness.

Similarly, evaluative co-inquiry involves deep listening, which is a form of respect, mutual affection and care. Listening recognises multiple values and perspectives. It invites humility and openness to the diversity of experiences and realities within the classroom, and beyond. Listening can nurture children’s voices, and encourage their active agency.

Appreciative co-inquiry seeks the values in our experiences of ethics education, and is therefore an integral part of strengths-based and values-based practices, where caring critique, constructive feedback, and meaningful comment serve as a reminder that all ideas, thoughts and opinions are mere by-products of cultural practices and social traditions. Only in dialogue, can we relate better.

So evaluation of ethics education must be rooted in ethics as embracing our communities lived realities.

Ethics education: a pathway to a shared global future

Recently, at the end of COP26 in Glasgow, we came to realise that for the first time in our history, humanity is coming ever so close to the possibility of collective peril.

At the same time, owing to the strengths of our collective intention, and our audacity to love and to care, for the first time in human history, we are coming ever so close to the possibility of being well, living well and becoming well together as global humanity, including all beings in nature.

So ethics education is an important pathway this global future. This is because through ethics education, we can better appreciate common values as the promise of mutual belonging, recognise community as the commitment to our deep relatedness, perceive our being human together as an experience of transcendence through immanence, regard our hospitality as expanding unconditional good will to all persons, and to all other beings on the planet.

So long as there is such an ethical foundation in the society, there will be peace.

Further reading: Beyond the Tyranny of Testing: Relational Evaluation in Education

Spirituality and Children’s Wellbeing

Understanding Spirituality: Spirituality has been a very fluid notion. There are multiple, shifting, open, and contested definitions of the term.[i] Take two contrasting definitions as an illustration: the first is from a non-religious perspective, and the second is a religious approach. From a non-religious perspective, spirituality is concerned with the awareness a person has of those elements in existence and experience which may be characterised as inner feelings and beliefs.[ii] By contrast, from within a religious or faith tradition, spirituality is concerned with everything in human knowledge or experience that is connected with or derives from a sense of God or of gods.[iii] The non-religious definition is too broad, which makes spirituality roughly equivalent to anything important for the moral and value characteristics of a person’s life. This would mean that any view about the meaning of life and about the nature of morality would be regarded as spiritual. In comparison, the religious definition appears to be too narrow as it rules out any conception of spirituality that is not theistic. There are many variations in the ways we understand the spiritual in between these two conceptions, but none alone is sufficient to address the depths of human spirituality.

At the same time, there has been a shared recognition that spirituality constitutes the dimension of human experience through which we are connected to something that is beyond ourselves, for some, it is God, or the gods, for others, it is the divine, sacred. Here we simply use the term the transcendent to capture the spiritual. In this light, we may argue that spirituality signifies a special kind of connection with the transcendent. We stress the word ‘special’ here because not all connections need to be characterised as spiritual, an example of which is some ritualisitic connections that are more likely to be cultural rather than spiritual. To distinguish, the spiritual is best conceived as a particular kind of connection that makes the transcendent a part of human life in an especially intimate way. For example, if that connection became part of one’s self-identity, then this would count as spiritual. If the nature of one’s consciousness were altered through contact with the transcendent, then this would be characterised as a spiritual connection. If the way that one loves and cares for one’s self and other people were transformed by such a connection, then it would be considered a spiritual connection. If it were to change fundamentally how one does one’s work, and serves the community, then this would also be described as a spiritual connection.

Understanding spirituality in this way, we can see that it is through spirituality that we not only connect to the transcendent, we are also connected more deeply to ourselves, to each other, to all living beings in nature, and to the universe. In living out these connections, each person can become more acutely and self-consciously aware of one’s self as an ‘I’, or a ‘soul’. Equally, in appreciating, taking delight in, and valuing our spiritual essence, the wonder and mystery of life, we can express and experience love, joy, goodness, and peace in the world. Thus spirituality is an indispensable aspect of human flourishing, or well-being.

Understanding Well-Being: As already discussed, human life consists in a recognition of the existence of the transcendent, and one of the characteristics of the good life is a special connection with the transcendent. Human flourishing is enabled and further enriched by such spiritual connection, which in turn nourishes ethical values as the pillars of our communities and societies. This spiritual dimension of human’s being presupposes that humans are bearers of values whose dignity and intrinsic worth should be respected and appreciated equally regardless our ethnic, social, cultural, religious, gender, sexual, and other differences. Viewing human’s being and our life as non-instrumentally valuable is paramount to understanding our well-being.

Well-being involves 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. Additionally, 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 comprises the following four dimensions:[iv] (1) All the relevant aspects of human life, including our experiences, activities and processes; (2) Meaningful relationships and connections with oneself, others, world, and with the transcendent; (3) Our appreciation of these as non-instrumentally valuable; (4) Our self-conscious awareness that our life as a whole is meaningful and worthwhile (including our past, present and future). Indeed, it is the synergy amongst all these facets of human life that constitutes our well-being.

Through the lenses of this four-fold framework, we can see that spirituality is an indispensable aspect of our well-being. First, spiritual activities, processes and experiences are clearly among those that are integral human life, such as worship, meditation, as well as contemplation of the transcendent. Second, the spiritual connection we have with ourselves, others, the world, and the transcendent is paramount to a rich relational experience. Third, spirituality pertains directly to our capacity to appreciate the valuable aspects of the experiences, activities, processes, and connections that comprise our lives. For instance, some traditions claim that spiritual awareness is much wider and much more alive than normal waking consciousness. Fourth, spirituality enables our conscious self-identification as beings of dignity who are embedded in both the transcendent and the immanent dimensions of life. Clearly, our spiritual state of being also enables us to radiate love to others and in the world.

The Importance of Childhood Spiritual Development and Well-Being: Bringing our understandings of spirituality and well-being together, we can see that both accounts underscore spiritual development as a key to human flourishing along these well-being domains. Education and schooling should thus be sites where children, caregivers, teachers and others in the community nurture each other’s well-being, and co-create the good life together.

In addition, children’s spiritual well-being be key to their human flourishing. To highlight what we have already discussed, a child’s well-being involves a sense of living well and being well in an all-round way as a human being. It happens when she experiences fulfilment of her human potential as a whole child, including engaging in full and meaningful activities and enriching experiences, being aware of her own dignity and intrinsic value as a spiritual being; taking delight and feeling joy in being herself;  having a sense of direction in life; appreciating similar qualities in others and respecting and relating lovingly and caringly to them; and feeling peacefulness, belonging, and at home in the world around her. In other words, spirituality is that aspect of human existence that gives it its humanness. Spiritual development is hence extremely important to a child human becoming through nurturing her self- and other- awareness, and self-consciousness, and enriching her spiritual connection with the transcendent.

Early childhood is a critical time to nurture children’s spiritual growth because spirituality is both an inherent human inner quality, and an unfolding quality through intentional cultivation, relational enrichment, and education, formal, informal and non-formal. A fuller and richer nourishment of a child’s spiritual core depends on the proactive recognition of the child as a spiritual being by parents, other caregivers, community members and wider society. This awareness is the basis for the child’s spiritual qualities and connection with the transcendent to blossom, and is the foundation for adults around the child to foster, encourage, and guide the child’s spiritual well-being and human flourishing.  

Spirituality has long been identified among the most important factors that structure human experience, beliefs, values, attitudes and actions. Thus, all religious and faith actors have an ethical responsibility to recognise and respond to spirituality as it is presented within all human beings and they can be educated to be equipped to understand and engage with this dimension in children’s development. Likewise, educators and caregivers must take spirituality seriously, and must prioritise the child’s spiritual development from early childhood on, and take all opportunities to nourish their own spiritual growth.

[i] See Bone, J. & Fenton, A. (2015). “Spirituality and child protection in early childhood education: a strengths approach”, International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 20(2), 86–99

[ii] See, for instance, UK Department of Education and Social Service’s account 1977

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] This account of well-being is developed in Thomson, G. & Gill, S. (2020). Happiness, Flourishing and the Good Life: A Transformative Vision for Human Well-Being, London: Routledge

Relational Orientation to Educational Evaluation

Recently, Scherto had a conversation with Robyn Stratton-Berkessel on shifting from traditional measurement-based assessment in schools from a relational orientation. They touched upon how relational evaluation of the entire school ecosystem can enhance learning processes, students’ engagement and vitality of relationships in primary and secondary classrooms. It flows into the evaluation of teaching and the school as a whole.

In this Podcast, Scherto highlighted collaborative learning, dialogic pedagogy, and flexible curricula as viable alternatives to testing. She concludes that educational evaluation from a relational perspective can truly speak to the demands of a rapidly changing world.

This is connected to Scherto’s other work such as caring in education, as in Gill, S. (2019). “Caring in public education, FORUM: For 3-19 Comprehensive Education, 61:2, 201-208.