Preparing university students for the moral responsibility of early years education

February, 2022

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 48:1, 102-114

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Through this research the authors’ aim was to discover their student teachers’ perceptions of their own moral responsibility as early years teachers (EYTs), in order better to prepare them for their future role. Within this paper they aim to raise awareness of the ethical basis of the practice of education, and contribute, through their scholarship, to a better understanding of the lived experience of student teachers and their specific needs, as they prepare for a role of ethical and moral responsibility.

The university in which this research took place is medium-sized and serves a very mixed range of students; from those living locally with parents (in the wide range of urban, suburban and rural locales within a short distance of the university), to those who have moved from other areas of the UK or even from other countries, to live in university accommodation whilst studying.
Although gender is not a facet of this research discussion, it just so happens that all current students in this research sample (n=75), are female.
Because they wished to approach their topic through the lens of the student practitioner, their research took an interpretivist approach to accessing the ‘rich and contextually situated understandings’ (McChesney and Aldridge 2019, 227) of their student teachers in relation to their ethical responsibility as practitioners, through a case study approach.
They focused upon qualitative data as ‘there are areas of social reality which such statistics cannot measure’ (Silverman 2001, 32).
Their enquiry has a single, and they believe critical, purpose, to enable their student teachers to feel confident in pedagogical contexts that will inevitably present them with complex and challenging moral choices (Sanger and Osguthorpe 2011).
The authors’ original research was planned around gaining initial views through survey and then probing these further through focus groups.
The idea was to gain ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz 1973) of their students’ perception of their own moral responsibility within their own practice experience contexts.
However, due to COVID-19, it was not possible to proceed with the focus groups during a period of extreme anxiety and instability.
The authors acknowledge that this curtailed their access to fuller descriptions and has meant working with a ‘thinner’ range of data obtained only through survey.
The questions that they asked the student teachers were developed from their own teaching and wider professional experience, their own and others’ work on the ethical basis of learning, teaching and management, and from an interest in social justice.
Their aim was that through better understanding the student perspective they could better fulfil their responsibility to prepare them for the emotional demands of practice.
As such they designed a set of questions which they hoped would begin to probe this unexplored aspect to heighten student teachers’ critical self-awareness in relation to ethics and moral responsibility.
The questions were delivered through anonymous online survey.
The survey comprised a mixture of closed and open questions.
The closed questions required a simple yes/no response. More open-ended questions provided the richness of data necessary to tap into the ‘contextually situated understandings’ (McChesney and Aldridge 2019, 227) of the students.
These questions asked them to explain what elements of their previous education had prepared them for this responsibility, or to explain why they may have found the responsibility problematic.
Only 12 of the 75 student teachers responded.
There are several possible reasons for the relatively low response rate (in comparison with the usual module feedback), including the onset of the turmoil brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, but there may also have been apathy towards subject matter which they perceived as not being relevant to them.
If this were the case, then the absence of data becomes important data.
After a period of immersion and reflection the data collected were reduced into key themes (Wellington 2015) through a data reduction grid.
This grid identified all aspects emerging from the data which appeared to be significant, and then drew together all instances within the data which evidenced this.
This visual representation of data facilitated the illuminating of those themes that were most prevalent.
The themes benefitted from the verification of all three researchers to generate reliability (Geertz 1973).

Findings and discussion
Because only 17% of the students responded to this survey, with at least two of those sharing that they still didn’t really ‘get’ the idea of moral responsibility, it does raise the question of how many more students may have opted not to complete the survey because they did not fully understand the focus; or how many felt that this was a topic that did not entirely apply to them.
The word ‘moral’ was purposefully used in the survey, so that it did not become conflated with the ethical aspects of research, but in hindsight the authors may have made presumptions about the students’ understanding of this term.
This may be an example of the generational divide.
Perhaps this was why some students were not able to recognise that they are actually engaging with it on their course; it is an example of the ‘mystery’, or the ‘intangibles’ that Campbell (2008) referred to.
Or it may be that moral decisions and ethical thinking are simply something that is ‘done’ within ‘the practical life in a classroom’ (Koc and Buzzelli 2014, 28) and because we do not carve out sufficient space within our modules to properly unpack those practice experiences, that is where they stay.
A small number of students in the course find it particularly difficult to make cognitive links between the practical and the theoretical, and the data would suggest that such is the case with ethical and moral issues.
This highlights a gap in the teaching, where, as tutors, the authors should use more contextually experienced examples to fully explore the phrases that they are using through their multiple manifestations in practice.
Key data to emerge were those that indicated that students sometimes felt ‘pressures’ not to fulfil moral responsibility.
Difficulties which may prevent students from acting in a morally responsible way certainly require further investigation.
The concept of taking on so many responsibilities that they lose meaning, or being hampered by changes in the sector are ambiguous.
How would these factors stop students from making the ‘right’ decisions? What did the students mean, exactly, by the phrases that they used?
Although the authors were not able to explore these aspects more thoroughly through the planned focus group interviews, they do give starting points for discussion with the students, and for further research.
The data collected for this study, although limited, does suggest that the researchers’ fears were founded.
There is a tendency to thread a lexicon of morality, or ethicality throughout the pedagogy, without stopping to consider the student perception of this.
Tutors sometimes make assumptions, for example that by including the word ‘ethical’ in a set of learning outcomes students will osmotically absorb the vast complexity that the term represents (Sanger and Osguthorpe 2011, 385).
They can assume that the links between ethicality and moral responsibility are as obvious to students as they are to us as tutors.
The data reinforces that this is not the case.
Reflecting on the literature, and the glimpse that the authors gained of student perception, it is clear that tutors, need to do two key things.
First, they need to spend more time exploring the students’ practical experiences; helping students to understand what an ethical or moral issue can ‘look like’ in practice and the emotions related to that.
They need to model making the cognitive links between the students’ experiences in practice and the language of the ethicality literature.
They need to develop a shared understanding of lexicon as a basis for meaningful discussion and reflection.
Then, by ‘openly discussing and analysing the factors that contribute to the emergence of ethical dilemmas’ the students can ‘develop greater confidence in being efficacious ethical decision-makers’ (Sanger and Osguthorpe 2011, 385).
In this way, when they graduate as independent professionals, they will be more prepared with ‘effective ways of resolving the moral dilemmas they face’ (Koc and Buzzelli 2014, 29).
The second thing that tutors need to do is to listen more and talk less.
They need better to understand that whilst they may be able to cite a range of theory, if this does not resonate with the students’ lived reality, then it is meaningless.
Rather than ‘delivering’ what they believe to be important lessons about ethicality, they should encourage understanding by building upon the students’ ‘personal beliefs about the moral nature of teaching’ (Stenberg et al. 2014, 215), making opportunities to listen to their experiences.
By doing this, they model for their students that in order to make the best decisions about how we treat people, we need to understand how things look from where they are standing.
They also model that regardless of context, all deserve a voice when deciding what is ‘right or wrong’, not just those with the privilege of power (Freire 1994).

Campbell, E. 2008. “The Ethics of Teaching as a Moral Profession.” Curriculum Inquiry 38 (4): 357–385
Freire, P. 1994. Reprinted 2014. Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Bloomsbury Revelations.
Geertz, C. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Handkerchief 3: 143–168.
Koc, K., and C. Buzzelli. 2014. “Turkish Teachers’ Accounts of Moral Dilemmas in Early Childhood Settings.” Journal of Early Childhood Research 14 (1): 28–42.
McChesney, K., and J. Aldridge. 2019. “Weaving an Interpretivist Stance Throughout Mixed Methods Research.” International Journal of Research and Method in Education 42 (3): 225–238.
Sanger, M., and R. Osguthorpe. 2011. “Teacher Education, Preservice Teacher Beliefs, and the Moral Work of Teaching.” Teaching and Teacher Education 27 (3): 569–578.
Silverman, D. 2001. Interpreting Qualitative Data. London: SAGE Publications
Stenberg, K., L. Karlsson, H. Pitkaniemi, and K. Maaranen. 2014. “Beginning Student Teachers’ Teacher Identities Based on Their Practical Theories.” European Journal of Teacher Education 37 (2): 204–219.
Wellington, J.J. 2015. Educational Research: Contemporary Issues and Practical Approaches. 2nd ed. ed. Bloomsbury: London.

Updated: Aug. 11, 2022