Teaching about bioethics: A facilitation approach
- Lindsey N. Conner, Ph.D. .
Christchurch College of Education, Private Bag, Christchurch, New Zealand
Why a facilitation approach is important in teaching about bioethics
Bioethical issues are relevant to individuals and societies as a whole (Cheek, 1992). As future citizens, students will need to make decisions not only about their own directions but also about those that society should take. Through an increase in knowledge about the issues, students may be enabled to make more informed social and political decisions in the future (Fien & Williamson-Fien, 1996; Kolstø, 2001).
Essentially, the overarching goal of teaching about bioethical issues is to get students to critically evaluate the issues (Conner, 2003). It is very important to question the direction and principles that underlie future scientific endeavours and what impact these decisions will have on individuals and societies. The skills required to do this involve the ability to identify existing ideas and beliefs, listen to others, be aware of multiple perspectives, find out relevant information and communicate the findings to others. These skills cannot be “given” to students through a didactic approach to teaching, where the teacher imparts the knowledge. Instead, students need to experience situations that will allow them to develop these skills through interacting with the teacher and with each other.
The content surrounding bioethical issues is complex because it is made up of personal, social and emotive aspects as well as specific biological information. This means there are “grey areas” (shades of meaning) or holistic interpretations. Teaching bioethics cannot adhere to the western tradition of science education that highly values reason, knowledge, and cognitive aspects of knowing. Although the western, positivistic views of science have their place, bioethical contexts, because of the associated uncertainties, require more holistic teaching approaches that take into account feelings, aesthetics and affective dimensions. Feelings are individualistic and should be explored through activities designed to clarify and analyse the issues (Conner, 2000).
Critical thinking or evaluating knowledge claims and ideas is a strong component of values analysis. Heath (1992) suggests that the skills required for a critical awareness are: developing “independence of mind” by evaluating one’s own opinions and beliefs, weighing up researched evidence (synthesising/analysing), detecting bias in information, questioning the validity of sources and making reasoned decisions. These can only be developed through experiential and interactive approaches to teaching and learning. One of the best ways to enculture students into this way of thinking is for teachers to model critical thinking (Lipman, 1987). Teachers can use talk aloud procedures to let students “in” on their thinking, give examples of critical questioning processes or back up knowledge claims with reasons (Geddis, 1991).
Through critical discussion, students may reject dogmatism. They may become more aware of the multiple social aspects of an issue through an increased sensitivity to human rights and differing beliefs. This can foster empathy and tolerance for others. The ethics of care, individual and social responsibility can be discussed. When verbal interaction is used to help students develop an understanding, the idea is to promote reciprocal recognition of claims. If students claim truth and rightness, discussion may allow these ideas to be challenged. Teachers need to instigate and keep these discussions open and non-judgemental (Dawson and Taylor, 1998). Discussions where students are given opportunities to “voice” their opinions are vital for exploring bioethical issues (Geddis, 1991).
Clarification activities help students reflect on their own individual values, and to make values choices based on implications, in a non-judgemental environment. An example of a clarification activity is when students choose a position on a continuum which best fits their value judgement on alternatives (Mertens and Hendrix, 1982). Other activities include agree/disagree
. pp. 533-544 in Macer, DRJ., ed., "Challenges for Bioethics from Asia" (Eubios Ethics Institute, 2004).