Meeting Seventeen (19th March) The use of ethical frameworks by students following a new science course for 16-18 year-olds

Reiss, Michael (2008) The use of ethical frameworks by students following a new science
course for 16-18 year-olds. Science & Education, 17 (8-9). pp. 889-902. ISSN 0926 7220 [PDF]


There has been a move in recent years towards the greater inclusion of social and ethical issues within science courses. This paper examines a new context-based course for 16-18 year-olds (Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology) who are studying biology in England and Wales. The course is taught through contexts and has an emphasis on social issues and the development of ethical reasoning. Examination of a sample of reports written by students in 2005 as part of the course‟s summative assessment shows that utilitarian ethical reasoning is used widely and that the other ethical frameworks to which students are introduced in the course – rights and duties, autonomy and virtue ethics – are used substantially less often. In addition, students mostly argue anthropocentrically though many of them argue ecocentrically and/or biocentrically too.

In this paper I discuss the development, implementation and assessment of a way of teaching about social and ethical issues within a context-based course for 16-18 year-olds studying biology in England and Wales, focusing on the ethical frameworks used by a sample of the students on the course in some of their externally assessed examination material. The course in question (Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology) was piloted from September 2002 and launched nationally in September 2005 as a result of approval from the national body charged with making such decisions (the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority). The course is taught through contexts and has a strong emphasis on social aspects of biology and the ethical analysis of biological issues.

Discussion Points

Science does not exist in a vacuum, we cannot teach it as a set of facts, figures, processes and ideas without brining in some context of where it fits in to the real world. Real-life applications are used in lessons to help explain what is being learned as well as to provide stimulus material as to the reason why we are learning about this. As scientific ideas become more involved in how we lead out everyday lives the area of ethics becomes more relevant. Is what science can do right?

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should. – Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jurassic Park)

The ethical implications of science is part of the KeyStage4 Curriculum and A Level specifications, but do we teach it well in all aspects of science. The area of Bioethics is great for Biology topics but are there opportunities in Physics and Chemistry lessons. In Michael Riess’ paper he outlines the Ethical Framework that is used in the Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology (SNAB) course which is now integrated into the Edexcel A Level post 2009.

To construct an ethical argument one of four possible areas could be used to justify your position

  • Rights and Duties
  • Maximising the amount of good in the world
  • Making decisions for yourself
  • Leading a virtuous life

Could this framework be extended to be used in all the science disciplines?

The questions SciTeachJC will focus on for this chat are:

  • What topics outside of biology do you use to discuss ethics in science?
  • Do you think the SNAB Ethical Framework is good enough to be used in all science/ethics lessons?
  • How do you get students to think about other people’s opinions and viewpoints in class?

@Bio_Joe will be moderating the discussion.

Useful Links

Bioethics Education Project

Physics & Ethics Education Project

The Simpletons, a KS4 Science Upd8 activity introducing the ethical framework

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3 Responses to Meeting Seventeen (19th March) The use of ethical frameworks by students following a new science course for 16-18 year-olds

  1. Deborah Cowell says:

    As a teacher who took part in the pilot years of the SNAB syllabus, I was interested to see that Michael Riess was pushing this topic. SNAB was interesting, but we abandoned after two years, mainly due to problems with examining students. We found that results were very unpredictable, and depended not so much on scientific knowledge and evaluation, but on guessing what was in the examiner’s head. I am sure that these problems (which were echoed by every teacher I met on training courses) have been well and truly ironed out by now, but this is my worry about teaching ethics within the framework of A level science. I very much enjoy teaching topics that involve ethics in Biology, but it must be done through critical thinking not emotions, and examined accordingly. Personally, I get students to look at Amazon reviews of controversial books on vaccinations or alternative medical treatments, and to critically evaluate the views given according to scientific principles and available evidence. For me it works better than sounding like I’m giving them my views.

    • Bio_Joe says:

      Thanks for the comment Deborah. I started teaching SNAB post pilot and really liked the set up of the course which dramatically improved student results and retention. When the Edexcel specifications merged for September 2008, I attempted to employ a mixed methods approach to delivery. The ethical frameworks are limited but I think it’s a good starting point for teachers who may not have the confidence or experience to teach ethics to students. I have taught the other specifications too and feel that the ethics part of those courses aren’t as well thought out as SNAB/Edexcel. As for guessing what’s in the examiner’s head, I think all exams are like that!

      • Deborah Cowell says:

        True, although it seemed exacerbated with the set up of the SNAB course. What I really liked about the course was the requirement for the students to research and write a scientific article, and this is where I think ethics could be effectively tested rather than answering exam questions through an ethics framework. As I said, my students are currently debating the ethical issues of the controversial “children’s” book; Melanie’s Marvellous Measles, which encourages children to catch measles to make their immune systems stronger rather than getting vaccinations. So many ethical issues of free speech versus irresponsible risks, coupled with scientific protocols of safe testing. I recommend it (not the book, obviously) as a starting point for them to write for a non scientific audience.

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