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The problem with Definitions

One of the hardest parts about teaching (and learning) ethics is getting comfortable with the idea that definitions are hard. For most of the things you talk about in an applied ethics course, the definitions are up for debate. For example: Is teaching a profession?

In the last class I had students free-write about this question. Here are some excerpts from the answers:

  • Preschool teachers do not require advanced training, so teaching is not a profession.
  • I was a tutor, and I don't consider myself a professional, so teaching is not a profession.
  • College professors do not have an organization with a code of ethics, so teaching is not a profession.
  • High school teachers participate in the NEA, have a code of ethics, have advanced training, and are licensed by the state ... so yes, teaching is a profession.

All of these students are working from different definitions of "teacher." In at least one case, the tutor, they seemed to be working from a definition of "teacher" that few other students would have accepted.

Before the student can answer the question, they need to work a bit and come up with a more acceptable definition of "teacher." The method I teach my students for clarifying definitions is "line drawing," which I learned from Don Gotterbarn at last year's ACM COPE/SIGCAS/SIGCSE workshop on teaching ethics. (Disclosure: I was a co-presenter.) (And we are doing it again at SIGCSE 2012.)

Don's paper on the topic is available through the ACM digital library, here. (From SIGCAS Computers and Society, 37(2))

Here is the main idea: In order to develop a rubric for deciding whether or not something is X (where X is the concept under consideration), make a table that lists the main features that distinguish X from not-X. For example:

Feature Teacher not-Teacher
Goal Increased knowledge and abilities for student Something else
Autonomy Creates own lesson plans, finds solutions appropriate for the student or class Follows pre-designed steps
Knowledge about how people learn Extensive training No training
Authority Evaluates student performance Does not evaluate

Now this definition of "teacher" is highly debatable, but it is at least beginning to capture my personal definition of teaching. By this definition, the tutor is probably not a teacher because he lacks authority, does not have extensive training in how people learn, and does not create lesson plans. He does serve the goal of increased student abilities, but this is not enough.

College professors are a harder case. They have the right goal (usually), and autonomy and authority, but most of the time we have no formal training in how students learn (which is a shame). Probably college professors are teachers, but it is not perfectly clear.

In the end, neither you (nor your students), should expect perfectly consistent definitions. But line-drawing can help students to explore their own definitions, and clarify their thinking.

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