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Topic 1: Being Selfish

What is it to be selfish?

Almost without exception, we believe that it is wrong to be selfish. We’re quick to voice this belief and to teach it to children. This topic encourages children to dig down into this idea in order to build a deeper understanding of self-interest. What is the effect on others if we act predominantly with self-interest? Can acting out of self-interest sometimes result in good to others? Are there circumstances in which acting predominantly with self-interest may not be considered selfish?

In the first lesson, we start our discussion by reading the students an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Selfish Giant’ (although we don’t tell the students the title straight away as we ask them to consider the Giant’s actions and come up with their own word to describe him).

In lessons 2 and 3, we look at scenarios in which characters act in different ways, their motivations and the effects of their different actions. We hear how Milena kept Sarah company when her broken foot was in a cast, and then how Sarah took her iPad to the hospital to play games with Milena when her tonsils were taken out. But why does Jake stop playing with Tom? Is it to do with the fact that Tom’s dad is no longer giving Jake free movie tickets, now that he doesn’t work at the movie theatre?

Students work in small groups and as a class to build an understanding of opportunities to balance our own self-interest with the consideration of others and to think for themselves about:

  • The idea that being selfish involves ignoring the interests of others and acting only (or predominantly) in our own self-interest
  • Whether acting out of self-interest can sometimes result in good to others
  • Whether it is sometimes in our self-interest to take the interests of others into account (for example, you want your friend to keep helping you with your maths homework, so it’s in your self-interest to help her with her big history project when she asks you to)
  • What motivates us in our relationships with others: self-interest, others’ interests, or a combination of the two
  • What, if anything, is wrong with acting predominantly in our own self-interest and paying attention to the interests of others only in so far as doing so is in our own self-interest
  • Whether there are circumstances in which acting predominantly in our own self-interest doesn’t amount to being selfish.

ACTIVITY: You might like to read our adaptation of The Selfish Giant as a bedtime story to your child.

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Topic 2: Staring, excuses and reasons

‘I was sitting at the table with Miranda. (She’s my sister. She’s two years older than me.) Anyway, my mother was making a second helping of pancakes and she had her back turned to us. I had a forkful of pancake halfway to my mouth, and I just stopped and watched Miranda eat.”

At first Miranda tried not to pay any attention to me. But then she yelled out, ‘Mum, she’s looking at me again! Make her stop looking at me!’

Without turning around, my mother said, ‘Stop annoying your sister, Pixie.’

I just kept on looking. I figured I really wasn’t doing anything – just looking.

This topic is an exploration of a scenario, created by educator and philosopher Matthew Lipman, in which the character Pixie gets in trouble for staring at her sister Miranda.

The topic tackles the story’s themes in a couple of parts.

Firstly, we look at staring. We ask, is it ok to stare at something, like the moon? At emu chicks at the zoo?  Why?

What about staring at a person? When might it be ok to stare at someone – and when is it not ok?

In Part 2 of the topic, the aim is to support students to distinguish between good and bad reasons – or the kind of ‘excuses’ a child might offer when accused of misbehaving.

Students are helped to discover:

  • that in one sense of the term ‘excuse’, an excuse is a reason we offer in an attempt to justify an action that might be thought to be wrong, and
  • that a good reason is one that is strong enough to justify the doing of an act or the holding of a belief.

Because giving and evaluating reasons for our point of view are central to helping us form opinions and make sound decisions, the notion of ‘reasons’ is revisited across a number of Primary Ethics topics.

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Topic 3: Disagreeing Respectfully

Disagreeing respectfully – what an important skill that is! We are not always going to entirely agree with our friends or partners, our children, our colleagues, on every issue. It’s an important skill to be able to put forward a point of view, and the reasons behind it, and to take part in the give and take of reasoned argument in a respectful and considered way.

The Primary Ethics curriculum is designed to encourage students to evaluate one another’s views. We encourage students to engage in the process of reason giving, not just in support of their own beliefs, but also in voicing arguments that run counter to the views expressed by others. Students are encouraged to engage in critical dialogue, to voice disagreement – but not with the aim of one-upmanship or, as in a formal debate, to win a contest. Rather, the disagreement is to be seen as part of a genuinely collaborative process directed at understanding and progress towards truth.

It goes without saying that shouting matches and ‘put downs’ are at odds with the process just described, and that is why one of the ground rules of ethics class is ‘No put downs’.

This topic invites students to think for themselves about disagreement and, more particularly, about the distinction between what we will call ‘respectful’ and ‘disrespectful’ disagreement. Students are encouraged to think for themselves about:

  • What it means to disagree with another person’s ideas
  • Whether voicing disagreement is always disrespectful
  • (If not) what respectful disagreement looks like. More particularly, whether it involves
    • Refraining from put downs, and
    • The giving of reasons
  • Whether there are times when it’s disrespectful not to voice disagreement, and
  • Whether disagreeing with someone helps you work out what you think.

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Topic 4: Should we keep animals in captivity? Reasons for and against

This topic aims to engage students in the evaluation of arguments for and against keeping animals in captivity and, in doing so, to extend their intuitive understanding of what makes a reason a good reason.

Children often have beliefs and state them quite forthrightly, and this topic encourages them to understand the need for reasons to be given to support a belief and that reasons need to be true. Further, it supports them to understand different degrees of logical strength that hold between reasons and the claims in support of which they are offered.

To what extent should humans be treated differently from other animals? This is one of the ethical questions that is central to this topic.

To explore it, students in ethics class act out a storyline where they play the roles of alien scientists who have visited Earth. As the scientists observe the curious humans, they discuss whether they should catch some and take them back to their home planet to show their leaders.

Is it ok to kidnap humans and keep them in captivity because they will be entertaining to watch? Because it would help their leaders learn about the species? Because it would safeguard the human population from extinction if something catastrophic were to happen on Earth?

It’s over to our ethical explorers to investigate!

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Topic 7: Understanding diversity

This topic helps students develop an understanding of the common features of humanity that underlie observed cultural differences.

The lessons begin with a light-hearted fictional tale in which Mika, a boy from the planet Eljo arrives unexpectedly on Earth, landing in Joe’s back garden (from Jostein Gaarder’s children’s book Hello? Is anybody there?). Although there were lots of similarities between the two boys, there were lots of differences, too.

‘Where I come from, we always bow when someone asks an interesting question,’ Mika explained. ‘And the deeper the question, the deeper we bow.’

I thought that was very strange. But it was just one of the strange things Mika did.

Students move onto learning some background knowledge of Inuit society. In order to build children’s high order thinking about tolerance and diversity, we first build their knowledge of diverse beliefs, cultures, values and circumstances, and of the complex relationships between these factors. We must also build their understanding of the fundamental similarities beneath.

lesson 3 image 5 Inuit.jpgIn the icy environment in which the traditional Inuit lived, family groups came together in winter, when food was scarce. They had strict rules about sharing, lying, stealing, being lazy and making fun of people, as well as other rules. Penalties were laid down for breaking these rules, and the most serious penalty was expulsion from the group.

Using traditional Inuit practices on law and punishment, students consider how circumstances influence moral rules and practices which are adopted, such as the implications of stealing fish and fishing equipment.



VIDEO: Watch lesson 2 of Understanding diversity in progress.


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