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How the World’s Top Schools Teach Students to Become Efficient Learners

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How the World’s Top Schools Teach Students to Become Efficient Learners

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by Kenneth Winston

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Professor Kenneth Winston, visiting scholar for the Harvard Kennedy School, and one of the world’s leading scholars on case teaching, professional ethics, and legal theory, will be main facilitator for Ethics, Power and Decision MakingEthics in Public Life; and Case Method Teaching. In this exclusive interview, he shares insights on why the case method is a profound educational innovation, and how it can help educators prepare students for the challenges of leadership. Professor Winston also challenges many of the preconceived perceptions on professional ethics and offers suggestions on how to act effectively and ethically in diverse public settings.

What is the Case Method?

In teaching ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School, which I began doing in 1986, I have had the following aims: (1) to examine models of exemplary ethical conduct, as well as anti-models to show that we can also learn from examples of moral failure; (2) to practice ethical reasoning together and demonstrate that we can be methodical in handling ethical conflict; (3) to relate ethical judgment to specific issues of public policy and thus dispel the idea that policy design is merely a technocratic enterprise; and (4) to explore the special challenges posed by governance in a globalized world, in which practitioners commonly encounter individuals from different cultural backgrounds—and thus need to engage in ethical deliberation across boundaries.

In working to achieve these aims, I have found case teaching to be the most effective pedagogical approach.  In case teaching, we use narratives of actual events to delve into the details of a difficult ethical conflict faced by an individual (or agency), and we try to decide, as a group, what the protagonist in the case ought to do—or, if we know the outcome, we assess whether the protagonist acted properly. The guiding questions are:  Did the protagonist demonstrate moral competence? What exactly does moral competence consist of? The idea is that, if we wish to think practically, as well as methodically, about moral competence, we need to base our discussion on the lived experience of practitioners. Academic detachment no doubt provides opportunities for systematic and dispassionate inquiry, but academics are not faced with the exigencies of acting effectively in specific circumstances. Beyond a grasp of the logic of arguments, to act effectively and well (at the same time) requires careful diagnosis of the political and moral environment, imagination in formulating possible forms of intervention in the world, and factually-grounded judgment in assessing the prospects of success. In other words, what matters are values in the world and the conditions under which they are fulfilled or frustrated. Case discussion enables us to engage in this kind of inquiry.

With cases, we deal with real-world problems in terms that make sense to the people whose problems they are. The idea is to be guided by life and practice, not academic theories or disciplinary methods.  The premise is that ethical reflection properly begins not with an abstract ideal or an intellectual puzzle but an existential situation, a problem in need of remedy, guided by the imperative to bring about a more desirable state of affairs. Thus, the ultimate test of ethical reflection is whether it is helpful to practitioners in their concrete existence. This requires adopting the practitioner’s point of view and attending to the full array of factors involved in decision making, including the necessity to act and the contingencies of effective action.  In large part, the art of ethical analysis consists in the ability to weigh how contextual factors, local knowledge, and tacit understandings make a difference in ethical diagnosis.

The resources that practitioners use to make ethical decisions are not general moral theories but common sense beliefs. We all carry around in our heads various maxims, authoritative voices, deep personal convictions, models of ethical (or unethical) conduct, and fragments of discourse about the moral history we were born into. Much of the reasoning in a case discussion consists in sorting through these materials, attempting to determine what we can still affirm after serious reflection and deliberation—especially deliberation with those who, at least initially, disagree with us. The more diverse the group, ethnically and culturally, the greater the initial disagreement is likely to be—and the greater the challenge in finding common ground and deciding how it is possible to live together in the same world.

If the teaching is successful, it demonstrates that some ethical judgments are more reliable than others, for example, those (1) that take better account of facts, (2) that are informed by cumulative experience in the relevant domain, and (3) that result from a greater capacity for impartial reflection, that is, seeing issues from different sides and identifying and discounting sources of bias.

What does it mean to practise professional ethics and why is this important?

Discussions of ethics often focus primarily on questions of personal integrity.  When a practitioner faces a difficult ethical problem, how well does she respond?  Does she stick with her deepest moral convictions, or does she compromise them in order to enhance her career prospects or for financial reward?  These are important issues, because we recognize that how a person should act is, in part, a function of who one is—or trying to become.  Personal ideals and commitments set yardsticks of rightful conduct and are a continuing source of moral demands. What is crucial is faithfulness to one’s own ideals.

But membership in a profession brings with it an additional layer of demands, often including a code of ethics and obligations to one’s colleagues and the institution or setting in which one works.  A key point about codes of ethics is that they are adopted by professional groups for many reasons, some of which are broadly political.  A specific code reflects a choice by members regarding how they wish to present themselves to the public.  But it often happens that members disagree among themselves as to which values and principles the profession should properly aim to uphold, and therefore which actions members should be publicly accountable for.  These disagreements can generate strong challenges to any individual’s attempt to hold on to her own personal ideals.

As if that weren’t sufficiently challenging, we also need to keep in mind that practitioners are citizens of particular countries and are human beings.  Thus, there is yet another layer of obligations, including those derived from laws and authoritative moral understandings, which are added to the mix.  These are ingredients of a (potentially) shared moral consciousness across societies, encompassing, at the broadest level, universal principles binding on every human being whatever their personal beliefs or professional associations.  The most obvious example would be the current discourse on human rights.

The point I want to stress is that reconciliation of these different sources of obligation cannot be presumed in the lived experience of practitioners.  While public life is characterized by degrees of consensus, at various levels and at various times, it is also replete with conflict and disputation.  What results are inevitable clashes of duties—even while practitioners may strive as best they can to make them harmonize. The practical question is not whether it is possible to construct theoretical resolutions of these conflicts. Rather, the question is whether it is possible to see the possibilities for good, and act effectively to realize them, in circumstances that are conflictual, fleeting, and partially out of control. The good practitioner, I would say, is someone with the requisite competence to act effectively and well in such circumstances.

What are the ingredients of a “good” case to help working professionals become effective and ethical leaders?

Many of the cases I have chosen for the workshop on ethics illustrate, to some degree, the struggle of developing countries to transition into what we call the modern world.  This struggle is not only economic and political; it is moral.  Simply put, it is a struggle to preserve what one believes to be of value in one’s own culture or tradition while adapting to new circumstances and participating in new relationships. The protagonists in the cases often find that their own traditions contain the crucial resources they need to address ethical challenges, even as they modify them to deal effectively with novel situations.  Preserving what is of value is not motivated simply by emotional attachment or nostalgia for an imaginary past; it is required by the need for moral grounding as one contemplates possible innovations.  One needs to be standing on something solid, as an individual or society, to consider fashioning life anew. Thus, many of the cases involve a hybrid of traditional beliefs and transplanted values, displaying the ongoing syncretism that makes Asian countries fascinating sites of political and ethical development.  It is this syncretism, these questions of evolving moral identity and self-understanding, that I find especially preoccupying.

I am especially interested in emerging democratic aspirations and increasing commitment to standards of professionalism, which are elements of the new moral environment in Asia.  I believe that countries in transition are often more aware of the kinds of moral competence that democratic societies require if they hope to succeed, and therefore are fertile sources of learning.  Thus, discussing ethics questions faced by practitioners in Asia helps us identify the kinds of moral competence that enable democratic societies to realize their core ideals.

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