Professional Inquiry

The Engaged Citizen Project

What is ethical thinking and how can it help us understand life’s biggest questions and solve its biggest challenges?


As I begin the initial years of my teaching practice, I am living one of my educational philosophies in the classroom: teaching students ethical decision making skills.

Currently, Ontario’s English curriculum promotes critical thinking skills, only offering ethics in optional philosophy courses in grades 11 and 12.

So, why do I believe that ethical thinking is so important to student development — and as early as possible? In critical thinking, students are presented a set of facts, and after making a comparison or analysis, they make a judgment about an issue or topic. But ethical thinking takes this process a step further. Ethical thinking requires students to consider their judgments and then determine whether it is right or wrong — and whether it is good or bad.

With critical thinking, it is far too easy for students to provide answers that they think others may want to hear. With ethical thinking, properly documented, students are forced to fully confront difficult and complex issues, and also evaluate their own beliefs at the same time.

Through the power of philosophical reasoning, students can develop open-mindedness and truly grow their empathy as they consider the ethical value of many of life’s big questions and problems, and assess solutions to major societal issues.

The Engaged Citizen Project

Level/GradeStart/EndDaysMinutes
Grade 7, GiftedSep. 11, 2019 to Jan. 24, 2020354,055

This 35-day interdisciplinary unit invites students to document and lead their own learning across five sub-units in an Engaged Citizen Portfolio. Centred around the novel study of Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, there is a focus on civil debate and the development of ethical thinking practices.

Throughout the project, students will be asked to track interdisciplinary terminology and concepts in a daily “Fact Tracker” and to ask “Big Questions” and reflect on one main idea at the end of the day, cataloging their inquiries in their summative portfolio.

Students receive a double-sided daily handout with a “Fact Tracker” and “Big Questions” task that forms part of their summative Engaged Citizen portfolio.

The classroom will be officially declared a “civic forum” for six weeks, and students are expected to adapt their learning styles. To reinforce the development of civic behaviour and civil discussions, in the first four weeks, students will be assessed three separate times on Civics and Ethics. The assessment will be reviewed with each student one-on-one, to discuss ways that they can excel in the areas of “understanding and empathy,” “work ethic,” “ethical behaviour” and “civic responsibility.”

Students are assessed for the first four weeks on their civics and ethics skills using this behavioral rubric.

In the final two weeks, students will demonstrate their growth within the civic forum by working together on a social justice-oriented group research project. Democratically, students will choose, research, and deliver a unit-related, engaged citizenship project that explores/exposes an issue and motivates others to make informed change.

At the end of the project, students reflect on the process and outcome, and are assessed individually on their unique contributions to the project, providing evidence of original research in their portfolio.

Instructor reflections

Students enjoyed many of the introductory lessons on ethical reasoning (a multiliteracy lesson on “The Trolley Problem” featuring clips from the sitcom The Good Place) and debate skills, but were challenged when having to apply an ethical lens to their lives and issues they cared about.

Supplementary lessons were necessary to create a classroom environment for intellectual risk-taking, debate skills, and to foster open-mindedness to others’ ideas and to be able to question their own ideas in turn. The latter could be a major issue for certain age groups, especially intermediate students who are at stages in their development where being right is a significant part of their still-forming identities.

Diagnostic assessment informed differentiated instruction and scaffolding, which are all very important when introducing philosophical reasoning to students. For some, it was natural to ask big questions, and for others, this kind of non-linear thinking proved to be very challenging. As a result, throughout the unit, some students always generated their own daily philosophical questions, others had access to a set of prompts, and a few others were given prepared questions to answer.

Closing thoughts

I believe it’s necessary to include philosophical thinking across language arts curriculum, to develop “Engaged Citizens” who consider what may be “right” or “wrong” in our society — rationally. And then, take action to make things right.

Anecdotally, I’ve found in my practicum experiences, that students don’t engage with material beyond remembering-understanding-applying, and especially with material they find difficult, challenging, or that may conflict with their beliefs or existing notions.

I believe if students are required to deeply think through difficult issues, and document their thought process, there is a higher likelihood of increased open-mindedness, moral thinking and the development of empathetic principles.

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