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Teaching Moral Leadership

posted Mar 14, 2010, 9:09 AM by John Pijanowski   [ updated Mar 14, 2010, 9:14 AM ]

John Pijanowski

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Principals, superintendents and other school leaders make decisions every day that require ethical judgments, and the University of Arkansas academic program charged with educating school leaders has strengthened its curriculum that teaches ethical decision-making.

Much of the recent research literature about schools that are effective in teaching students describes ethical leadership as a key factor, according to John Pijanowski, assistant professor of educational leadership.

"There's a need for moral leadership," he said. "Dilemmas come up every day with huge impacts on issues such as allocation of resources and placement and discipline of students. At the University of Arkansas, what we are offering is not surface-level content. It's a skill set for professionals."

Pijanowski began researching the teaching and assessment of moral behaviors before he joined the faculty of the university's College of Education and Health Professions in 2007. While teaching at North Carolina State University, he initiated a study of 75 higher education institutions, reviewing the courses of study for their educational leadership programs and interviewing faculty members at 43 of the major research institutions.

Pijanowski presented findings from his study in a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of College and Character and in a presentation at a convention last year of the University Council for Educational Administration. During the study, he found that educational leadership faculty members were eager to discuss the issue of ethics instruction, partly because the subject of ethics doesn't get much attention in most programs and partly because of the difficulty in assessing what students learn.

The study found that dominant approaches to teaching ethics education have changed little in the past 15 years and that an integrated approach across the curriculum that incorporates moral learning theory is uncommon. Pijanowski believes the University of Arkansas has taken the lead in developing a stronger ethics curriculum for educational leaders.

Pijanowski, a former teacher and principal, said the Arkansas faculty has designed a college ethics curriculum that emphasizes the development of moral reasoning skills and behaviors. Four of eight courses in the educational leadership program include an ethics component. An introductory ethics course teaches students a common language to serve as "cognitive hooks" to hang more complex ideas on later.

"When students have already learned the language, they can connect directly with the content in their other courses, such as legal and financial issues," he said. "We think incorporating ethics into several courses provides an effective way of learning about moral issues because of the content-specific nature of the curriculum. This method makes the issues easy to understand and motivates the students because they can immediately use what they learn in their schools."

Arkansas is also at the cutting edge of using developmental and moral psychology in the teaching of ethics, Pijanowski said. Most programs in the nation teach ethics using a classic foundation based in philosophy, he said.

“There’s some value in that, and I include a little of it, but the study of moral reasoning and moral action is largely absent," he said.

Pijanowski calls a second popular approach used in some programs the "war story perspective" in which the instructor describes personal experiences and actions he or she took to solve problems.

"These perspectives are OK, but neither one helps the student hone reasoning skills," he continued. "We want to train them, not only to know what they should do, but also how to take actions that are ethical. We haven't had a champion of bridging the fields of moral psychology and educational leadership, and I think we at the University of Arkansas would like to take on that role."

Educational leaders must constantly evaluate how school policies are working, Pijanowski went on.

"They can be caught between what is best for the individual child versus the established culture or policy for the entire school," he said. "They have to judge when it’s OK to go against policy. Not every policy fits every situation, and we want leaders who can serve the best interest of children even when external forces and their own emotions might be pulling them in different directions.

“If the school policy is not working well, how does that affect the rest of the school?” Pijanowski said educational leaders must ask themselves. “An educational leader often can create a better policy, adding flexibility so that the policy can work better.”

Students need skills to think through a situation effectively and act accordingly. Students are often told they must ignore emotional responses when making a decision, Pijanowski said, but he said that’s impossible and students must learn about the role emotions can play in decision-making.

“They need to deal with the emotions,” he said. “They learn to use affect as information.”

The program also emphasizes social learning by putting students into groups arranged with a specific purpose, Pijanowski explained.

"We're not just throwing the students together. We spend a lot of time on the process so that there's a better transfer of knowledge into a new context. That's a skill itself that transfers well to their leadership abilities," he said.

A reflection on moral failure serves as a capstone assignment in the primary ethics course.

"I ask the students to identify several of their own moral failures, and then we go through a structured process to explore why they failed, what obstacles they faced," he said. "The key is determining whether they are still susceptible to the external and internal pressures that led to the failure.”

"We expect at the end of this program that they will be able to more effectively identify once-hidden barriers or obstacles to making moral decisions," he said. "People are pretty good at knowing what they should do, and less good at actually doing it. It is in that gap between judgment and action that we can have the greatest impact. Teaching our students to take moral actions is what we're really trying to get at." 



John Pijanowski, assistant professor of educational leadership
College of Education and Health Professions

Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions