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Dilemma stories as a way of addressing ethical issues in the context of science education: An evaluation

Elisabeth Settelmaier
Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC)
Curtin University of Technology
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Traditionally, many science educators have taught science without addressing ethical questions. The inclusion of moral discourse in science teaching helps educators to bring to the fore problematic issues in relation to science, and offers an opportunity for students to practice their future engagement in the public discourse about science. This paper presents the results of a qualitative evaluative case study using an ethnographic lens. The focus of the study was on the appropriateness of dilemma stories as a standard tool to initiate moral discourse within the theoretical framework of constructivism, as well as on the multiple perspectives of the students, teachers, and the researcher. The context of the study was a project conducted in a public senior high school in Austria with one biology teacher and one mathematics/physics teacher and their classes. The results indicate that teaching using dilemmas can promote multiple intelligences and can lead to self-examination, to critical assessment of assumptions, and to perspective transformation, all of which form part of transformative learning. On the teachers' side, this type of teaching challenges a teacher's skills with regard to facilitation, moderation, and self-restraint in order not to impose one's opinion on the students.


This paper presents a qualitative, evaluative case study, using an ethnographic lens to inquire into the experiences of teachers and students during a month-long project called "Ethics in Science", conducted at a co-educational, public senior high-school in Graz, Austria. The research presented forms part of a doctoral thesis that investigated the multiple perspectives of teachers, students, and the researcher, in relation to the efficacy of teaching ethical issues using a dilemma approach within a constructivist framework. Teaching ethics and values - like teaching science in a constructivist mode - is not centred on teaching specific content but rather on engaging the students in a process (Allchin, 2001).

Background of the study

The changing global society has made necessary changes to the education system and thus changes to the national curriculum frameworks of many countries. When Austria joined the European Union on 1 January 1995, new challenges and requirements had to be met by the Austrian schooling system, such as multiculturality and European integration (Kirste, 2001; Pädagogisches Institut Tirol). The result was a completely revised curriculum framework, the "Lehrplanreform 99" (curriculum reform 99) for the lower level of secondary schools (Years 5-8) which is now at the stage of implementation. The new overarching curriculum statement is geared towards the development of self and social competencies, and focuses on the development of key qualifications, such as team-competency and empathy, communication skills, self-security, organisational talent, the development of persistence, the ability to include other people and to convince them of common goals (KU Eichstätt). This goal is mirrored by the new key features of the curriculum framework, such as an analysis of society and of values. This analysis is grounded in the rapid societal change in Europe, in European integration, in globalisation, in intercultural exchange, in democracy, in worldviews, and, last but not least, in an incorporation of moral and ethical values.

When the new curriculum framework was about to be implemented, many Austrian teachers voiced concerns about how they were facing the dilemma of teaching moral issues without appropriate methodologies and pedagogical competency. Given this background, the Austrian Youth Red Cross initiated a study addressing how to improve moral and value education in Austrian classrooms (Gschweitl, Mattner-Begusch, Neumayr, & Schwetz, 1998). As a member of the research team, I was directly involved in the initial planning, implementation and evaluation stage of the project. The result of the project was a teaching approach adapted to meet the requirements of a constructivist learning environment, using dilemma stories. The dilemma approach, using dilemma stories, was based on the works of Lawrence Kohlberg (1984, 1996). Drawing on my experiences during the Red Cross Project, and taking into account insights gained through the study of additional literature on moral education, I subsequently focused my doctoral thesis on the evaluation of dilemma approach based teaching within the context of science education. According to Allchin (2001; p.193), many science teachers shy away from addressing values because of fear that values are outside of the domain of science or, in the worst case, that values betray the very core of science. This is also mirrored in the rather small number of publications within science education addressing issues of moral and ethical education.


This study was designed to:


Traditionally, through the influence of scientism, science has been taught as if science could and should be value-free (Allchin, 1998, 2001). References with regard to ethical education within science education, apart from papers on bioethics (e.g., Iozzi, 1982; Macer, 1994b), are scarce (e.g., Degenhart, 1986; Frazer & Kornhauser, 1986; Johnston, 1995; Mattox, 1975; Michael, 1986; Patry, 2000; Poole, 1995; Witz, 1996; Zeidler, 1984). Addressing ethical issues in science education through dilemmas is a way of teaching about the nature of science by enabling students to practice participation in the public discourse about science in a critical informed manner and in a "safe" environment. It may contribute not only to scientific literacy but also to the development of social and emotional skills (Settelmaier, 2002).

Theoretical underpinnings

The use of dilemma stories in the study can be traced back to one of the pioneers of moral development research and moral education Kohlberg (1984, 1996), who developed a cognitive-developmental theory of moral development consisting of six stages, based on Piaget's work on moral development (Piaget, 1977)). However, Kohlberg's theory became the focus of feminist critique, primarily throug h the work of Carol Gilligan who criticised Kohlberg's the claim that women's "ethic of care" represented a lower stage of morality than men's "morality of justice" (Gilligan, 1982; Gilligan, Ward, Taylor, & Bardige, 1988). Contrary to Kohlberg's dilemmas, which were hypothetical in their nature, Gilligan preferred to draw from participants' lives (Tronto, 1994). Nevertheless, Gilligan's work has also become the target of criticisms by, for example, Tronto (1994) and Hoff Sommers (2000). In the research study, I chose to adopt a critical stance towards the (often uncritically adopted) tool of dilemma stories, thereby focusing on the evaluation of the efficacy of the dilemma approach. I deliberately did not engage in any type of measurement of moralities of the participants for two reasons: 1) my research within this interpretive study was on understanding, and 2) because I am convinced that "measuring" of others' moralities is judgmental and ultimately incommensurable with taking seriously an ethic of care.

Design and procedures

This qualitative, evaluative case study was conducted using an ethnographic research design (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2001; Denzin, 1989; Erickson, 1986, 1998). The research was performed at a co-educational, public senior high-school in Austria. The participants included a female biology teacher and her Year 9 students, and a female mathematics/physics teacher and her Year 10 students. Both teachers were subject- as well as form teachers. The dilemma approach was based on the approach developed by (Gschweitl et al., 1998) during the Red Cross Project. Within the "Ethics in Science Project" in 2000, the dilemma stories were co-created by the researcher and the teachers to fit the curriculum in order to reduce potential imposition of "artificial" topics. Three dilemma stories were evaluated. During the fieldwork inquiry, I took on the role of a participant-observer. Semi-structured single and group interviews, feedback sessions with the teachers, and video- and audio-recordings enabled me to explore the participants' experiences with the dilemma approach. Students' submitted a portfolio that included notes about their own reflections on the dilemma situations. Analysis of the interview data and portfolio notes was performed using QSR NVivo and was supported by video-analysis.


The results reflect the multiple perspectives of the teachers, the students, and the researcher. There were some concerns during the preparation phase about what might constitute a moral dilemma for the students and "which morality" we were actually passing on to the students. Both teachers admitted to choosing to participate because they felt that science teachers needed to address controversial issues, they wanted to convey a sense of respect for life to the students, and they were curious how it could be achieved. Both teachers reported their surprise about how well the dilemma units turned out, although, being science teachers, they were unused to "telling" stories so freely at first. One of the teachers found it difficult at times to stand back and "facilitate" the discussion process rather than "teach" in the traditional sense. This teacher also found it difficult not to voice her own opinion and to let the discussion unfold without guiding the "contents" side, whilst the other teacher was sometimes unsure about when to intervene in students' discussions. Given the "short" duration of the project, one teacher voiced concerns about the viability of the effects on students' learning.

Many students reported that they enjoyed the dilemma approach because it gave them an opportunity to hear other people's opinions, as well as to learn more about their colleagues. All interviewees except for one indicated that they regarded this type of teaching as very useful for the purpose of exploring controversial issues, and expressed the wish to experience similar learning also in other subjects. Asked, how often they would like to be offered a dilemma unit, all students except for one, suggested a fortnightly to once-a-month schedule. However, because values are usually a "private issue", some students felt intimidated about being required to report their opinions publicly. Others expressed concerns about the authenticity of the comments of some of their colleagues during the discussion. Problems with regard to the dilemma approach included: finding it hard to identify with the character in the story, or with the dilemma itself, and maintaining a voice during the discussion phases. Some students found it very difficult to accept others' opinions. Students much preferred the dilemma stories to be told freely rather than being required to read the text, handouts or overhead transparencies. Students reported that the dilemma situations caused them to reflect critically on their own values. The exchange of opinions led to the practice of interpersonal communication skills and to "getting to know new qualities" of their colleagues . Some students experienced strong emotional reactions to the dilemma situations as well as to some interactions with others.

For me, as the researcher, several issues emerged. The limiting factor with regard to implementing dilemma units was time. How long students took for a task varied from class to class - often much longer than I had anticipated. I have learned that the most difficult issue for consideration is to find a dilemma that can potentially be experienced as a dilemma by everyone (or most students) in the class. I have also found that, despite enthusiasm and willingness, not every teacher makes a good moderator/facilitator and storyteller. Last but not least, with this type of teaching, perhaps even more than with content based teaching, some students, for various reasons, can refuse to engage in the reflection process. But I have also learned that some students who appear to be quite unengaged during the reflection phase can become some of the best discussants in plenary discussions.


The results indicate that the use of dilemmas as a tool for addressing controversial issues challenges students' rational, social, and emotional skills, and may lead to critical self-reflexivity about themselves and about the nature of science. Teachers, on the other hand, need to able to step back and guide rather than impose their opinions on students. One theory that helps to make good sense of the results is the Theory of Transformative Learning which was developed primarily by (Cranton, 1994; Mezirow, 1991). The theory draws on constructivist and critical theory, and was later expanded by Boyd (Imel, 1998) who included an emotional perspective. In my view, the potential benefit of dilemmas is that they can lead to transformative learning as a result of self-examination and critical assessment of assumptions, thereby contributing to a perspective transformation. Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world. It promises to help us develop a more inclusive and integrating perspective, to make different choices and to act upon these new understandings.


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Author: Elisabeth Settelmaier, Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC), Curtin University, Perth WA, Australia. Email: E.Settelmaier@cc.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Settelmaier, E. (2002). Dilemma stories as a way of addressing ethical issues in the context of science education: An evaluation. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2002. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2002/settelmaier.html

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