ERIC Identifier: ED338897
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Ethical Practice in Adult Education. ERIC Digest No. 116.
Unlike other fields with a strong service orientation, adult education has
only recently begun to consider the role of ethics and its relationship to
practice. Adult educators continually make decisions and solve problems related
to practice, but discussions about ethics have been impeded because of the
field's diversity and the tendency to focus on its learner-centered nature
rather than its practices (Brockett 1988b, Cervero 1989, Sork 1988b). In
describing the importance of ethics to the field, Sork (1988b) suggests that "a
consideration of the ethics of practice is inescapable if anything approaching a
complete understanding of practice is ever to be achieved" (p. 393).
This ERIC DIGEST describes some of the ethical dilemmas that are inherent in
the education of adults and provides ideas that should be helpful in decision
making relative to ethical issues faced by adult educators. Following a
discussion of the ethical dimensions of adult education practice, selected
ethical dilemmas in teaching and program planning are described. The digest
concludes with some suggestions for promoting ethical practice in adult
ETHICAL DIMENSIONS OF ADULT EDUCATION PRACTICE
nature, the practice of adult education is an endeavor in which "ethical choices
are not some abstract ideal but are embedded in the very fabric of practice" (Cervero 1989, p. 110). Because ethics is the process of deciding what should be
done, the choices adult educators continually make such as what individuals are
to learn or how programs are to be developed reflect the ethical nature of their
practice (Brown 1990, Cervero 1989).
Many practice situations are characterized by ambiguity and conflicting
values, thereby preventing adult educators from applying standardized principles
as solutions. Instead, educators begin to make choices that are based on their
beliefs about the way things ought to be (Cervero 1989). However, these choices
are frequently made without reflecting on the value judgments and assumptions
that implicitly operate throughout the decision-making process (Brown 1990).
Brockett (1988a, 1990) has proposed a model for helping adult educators think
about their decision making relative to ethical issues. Consisting of three
interrelated dimensions or levels of ethical practice, the model describes a
process that allows adult educators to draw upon their basic values in making
practice decisions. Rather than providing prescriptive guidelines, the model
helps people discover the best course of action for themselves, which is better
than telling people what to do (Brown 1990).
The model's three dimensions are personal value system, consideration of
multiple responsibilities, and operationalization of values. The first
dimension--personal value system--helps adult educators answer the questions,
"What do I believe and how committed am I to those beliefs?" This dimension
reinforces the fact that ethical practice begins with an understanding of
personal values (Brockett 1988a, 1990).
Consideration of multiple responsibilities, the second dimension, revolves
around the question, "To whom am I responsible as an adult educator?" Because of
the nature of their work, adult educators are responsible to a number of
parties, including learners, employers and employing organizations, professional
colleagues, and society. This dimension helps them to consider the options or
choices available in meeting what are frequently conflicting needs (ibid.).
The third dimension, operationalization of values, asks "How do I put my
values into practice?" Although this dimension can involve the development of a
formal code of ethics, the translation of values into practice in adult
education has tended to be more informal. Brockett (1990, p. 9) says that a "way
of putting values into practice is to identify basic moral principles that lie
at the heart of one's practice," suggesting the following six principles to
I respect the learners with whom I work?
there equity in service to learners?
to clients--Are the rights and responsibilities of
all parties involved shared and considered?
harmful outcomes minimized and positive
I really care about the learners with whom I work?
I able and willing to reflect on my own
adult education practice?
ETHICAL DILEMMAS IN ADULT EDUCATION PRACTICE
acknowledge them or not, adult educators encounter ethical dilemmas in their
practice on a daily basis. Some common ethical dilemmas that occur in teaching
adults and in program planning are described and discussed in this section.
Ethical Dilemmas in Teaching.
Caffarella (1988), who suggests that ethical dilemmas are an inevitable part
of teaching adults, examines them in terms of Brockett's model. The first
dimension, personal value system, affects how individuals teach, what they
teach, and how they interact with their students. Teachers' personal value
systems will influence whether they emphasize learners' strengths or
inadequacies; whether they treat students equally regardless of race, gender,
ethnic origin, or creed; and whether they believe adults can learn regardless of
age, social class, and previous learning experiences.
A teacher may encounter an ethical dilemma when his/her personal value system
regarding the appropriate conduct of the learning situation conflicts with that
of students. For example, teachers who have a humanistic view of people usually
perceive their teaching role to be that of facilitator, tend to be more student
directed in their teaching, and think of themselves as catalysts in the learning
process. However, some students may resent this approach and expect the teacher
to use lectures and tests rather than develop their skills as self-directed
learners (Caffarella 1988). The teacher faced with this dilemma must decide
whether to abandon, modify, or stay on course with the approach that is
consistent with his/her personal view of human nature.
In terms of the second dimension, consideration of multiple responsibilities,
Caffarella points out that teaching adults is seldom a full-time occupation.
Ethical dilemmas may occur when other responsibilities conflict with teaching or
are given a higher priority than the teaching role. Individuals whose teaching
role is secondary to other responsibilities may need to examine their motives
for teaching adults as well as whether they can take time from their major roles
to prepare adequately for teaching.
In discussing how teachers operationalize their values in the practice of
their craft, Caffarella addresses the third dimension of Brockett's model. In
addition to discussing dilemmas that arise from personal value systems and
multiple responsibilities, she suggests that teachers also need to model ethical
behavior in teaching. According to Caffarella, this practice "requires all
participants in the learning activity, teachers and students alike, to be
willing to question what is being taught and how the subject matter is being
addressed" (p. 114). An important part of this process is considering the
ethical questions affiliated with the subject matter under discussion.
Ethical Dilemmas in Program Planning.
Program planning in adult education is a complicated, multistep process
requiring numerous decisions at many points. Like that of teachers, decision
making by program planners is influenced not only by their own value systems but
also by their responsibilities to multiple audiences who may have differing
expectations for program development processes and outcomes. Sork (1988a) points
out that "ethical issues arise in program planning when any of the alternatives
under consideration are associated with value positions that may be viewed as
unacceptable by society, other practitioners, clients, sponsors, or planners
themselves" (p. 34).
Two areas of ethical dilemmas encountered in program planning described by
Sork (ibid.) are the following:
affiliated with needs. Two areas of dilemmas associated
with needs include (1) responding to "felt" or "expressed"
needs and (2) basing a program on needs unacknowledged by the
adult learner. In the first, the autonomy of the learner is
taken into consideration, but the planner may have to make a
decision about which of many needs it is feasible to address or
may be confronted with expressed needs that are potentially
harmful. In the second, the planner may be faced with violating
the autonomy of the learner while addressing the needs of some
other entity such as employers or society.
related to fee structures. Because decisions about
pricing and fees have a bearing on a learner's ability and
willingness to pay for educational programs, they are ethically
significant. For example, a programmer may be faced with making
a price decision that will eliminate many who might benefit most
from programs because they are often those who can afford it the
least. Yet, if a programmer employs the "Robin Hood principle,"
in which he/she charges more for programs designed for those who
can afford it in order to subsidize programs for those less able
to pay, is that ethically defensible?
PROMOTING ETHICAL PRACTICE IN ADULT EDUCATION
ethics are an integral part of adult education practice, but adult educators
need to develop a greater awareness and sensitivity to ethical issues. Brockett
(1990) suggests the following ideas for promoting ethical practice in adult
The starting point for understanding the
ethics of practice is found in personal value systems but these
must be articulated. Writing down and reflecting on one's
personal philosophy of adult education is a helpful process for
helping clarify personal beliefs.
on ethics in practice. Finding time for personal and
group reflection on ethical issues is important because it helps
uncover ethical dilemmas and resolve conflicts before they arise.
the practices of other professions. Learning how other
professions deal with ethical dilemmas can lead to more insights
about the ethics of adult education practice. Although this
approach may be helpful, Brockett warns against uncritical
adoption of practices that are incompatible with adult
education's philosophical approaches.
and support a research agenda on ethics. Research
can lead to greater understanding of ethical issues in adult education
and provide information that will help adult educators respond to them.
Brockett, R. G. "Ethics and the Adult
Educators." In ETHICAL ISSUES IN ADULT EDUCATION, edited by R. G. Brockett. New
York: Teachers College Press, 1988a.
Brockett, R. G. "Preface." In ETHICAL ISSUES IN ADULT EDUCATION, edited by R.
G. Brockett. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988b.
Brockett, R. G. "Adult Education: Are We Doing It Ethically?" JOURNAL OF
ADULT EDUCATION 19, no. 1 (Fall 1990): 5-12. (EJ 420 855).
Brown, M. T. WORKING ETHICS. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.
Caffarella, R. S. "Ethical Dilemmas in the Teaching of Adults." In ETHICAL
ISSUES IN ADULT EDUCATION, edited by R. G. Brockett. New York: Teachers College
Cervero, R. M. "Becoming More Effective in Everyday Practice." In FULFILLING
THE PROMISE OF ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR CONTINUING
EDUCATION, no. 44, edited by B. A. Quigley. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Winter
Sork, T. J. "Ethical Issues in Program Planning." In ETHICAL ISSUES IN ADULT
EDUCATION, edited by R. G. Brockett. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988a.
Sork, T. J. "Exploring the Ethics of Professional Practice." In PAPERS FROM
THE TRANSATLANTIC DIALOGUE, edited by M. Zukas. Leeds, England: Standing
Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults,
School of Continuing Education, University of Leeds, 1988b. (ED 298 248).