Tag Archives | good practice

The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

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✱ Flexing organisational muscle

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a debate recently when she announced telecommuting would no longer be an option for company employees — a move that seemed to fly in the face of trends towards telecommuting since the 1970s that had largely been pioneered by tech companies. To be blunt, Yahoo! as a company is so moribund that it is probably doomed at this point whatever it does, but the telecommuting debate is interesting nonetheless!

NPR’s Yuki Noguchi says it’s about flexibility vs serendipity:

Davis, a business professor, says what you miss in telecommuting is the “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you … ” conversations that turn into something more.

“It’s more efficient, but you lose that serendipity,” he says.

This is a common sentiment heard especially from those companies with modern office facilities that contrive to be a home away from home. Steve Jobs famously insisted that the Pixar headquarters have a large atrium and centralised bathrooms so people from all around the building would keep running into each other.

On the other hand, that does not mean there aren’t necessarily real benefits to be had to employees and to the company by practising telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements. The question doesn’t have to be answered one way or the other, or decided for all time. Of course, that the debate is happening about Yahoo! is interesting in itself, as Noguchi points out:

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas, says tech companies were early adopters of telecommuting, and they’re now finding that the practice sometimes goes too far. But he says it’s interesting that this edict is coming from an Internet company that offers email and instant messaging.

“There’s so much irony here,” Challenger says. “Not only is this high-tech company that’s been at the forefront of the technology that’s changed how we work now asking workers to come back in, but also it’s a 37-year-old mother who is seeing the advantages of being able to balance her work life and her personal life by telecommuting and yet saying, ‘For the good of the company, we can’t do this. We have to change.’ “

I recently worked on a research project with the Singapore government which is investigating telecommuting and flexible work arrangements (FWAs) as a way of solving transport congestion problems. In fact, transport planners around the world love FWAs and can be found constantly recommending them to public policymakers.

What I discovered is that while there is an abundance of research on which kinds of organisations tend to adopt FWAs, for what reasons they do so and what measures can be taken to help persuade them, there is a surprising lack of research evidence on how effective FWAs actually are in practice. Continue Reading →

Grade Me: The Trouble With Teacher Accountability

When it comes to education and what to do about our schools, everyone has an opinion. Melinda, a high school teacher, turns up the heat on the politicians, the teacher’s union and her teaching colleagues to ask the burning question — how can we improve the practice of teaching?

As a profession, teaching is one of the great political footballs. We teachers are often regarded, if not with actual contempt, then certainly with extreme suspicion. We have it easy, what with all those holidays we take and with the wage we earn, not to mention the accolades and praise we are occasionally given. Worse, we are constantly claiming some sort of special status, as if the work we do is somehow exempt from the performance measurements, standards measurements and efficiency criteria that everyone else has to work with. We’re forever going on strike and when we are at work it’s the taxpayer who’s footing the bill. The cheek!

I am not here to again have that fight, so let me clear up a few things right away. No-one wants students or teachers to fail or do badly. No-one. Not the administrators, not the public, nor any government, and certainly not the teachers themselves, or the students. The continuing decline in educational performance is of real concern for all of us. We should take no option off the table when it comes to addressing the problem. If performance pay for teachers helps, we shouldn’t resist it. If greater accountability gives us better teachers, then make me more accountable. The politics of education is distracting and so far only seems to be scoring us own goals.

This may be tired old territory, but I’m tired of other people trampling through it, speaking on my behalf. I want to tell you what I know about teaching as a teacher, explain some of the biggest obstacles to good practice and what might help clear some of them.

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