Social Ethics · Teaching

When Discussing a Hot Topic…

In my Social Ethics class, we are discussing utilitarian ethics, the idea that the right thing to do generates the greatest good for the greatest number. Another way to put it is the decision you make for a particular moral problem or dilemma is based on what produces the most happiness (or pleasure) and minimizes harm (or pain). We examined various cases, including the famous “Trolley Car” case and the “Lifeboat Case,” which gave us opportunities to examine how utilitarian theory would work in these cases, including some objections that may arise.

To continue our discussion, we read “A Utilitarian Approach to Poverty” in Dr. Anthony Weston’s A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox (a great resource/textbook for ethics courses!), and in conjunction with that case, watched Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s TED talk entitled “Effective Altruism.” Because a passionate discussion about how we give to those in need was brewing among the students right before we watched the video, I decided we would do a “Chalk Talk,” a visible thinking routine that allows all students to have a voice in a “discussion” by having the students conduct a silent discussion on paper after we watched the video.

So instead of the respectful banter that would go back and forth, students engaged themselves in the topic using the archaic means of paper and pencil.


Not only did they make their initial comment about the topic of effective altruism, but they commented on their peers’ comments as well, so they had to move around the table. Getting the students moving instead of sitting in one spot! So our discussion looked like this:


With Chalk Talk, every student got an opportunity to contribute and respond to the viewpoint of another student without interruption. I was able to participate as a learner, making comments myself. But what I really love is that there is a record of the discussion to which we can refer later. And it gives the students an opportunity to see the fruits of their conversational labor.

Chalk Talk is an awesome routine to use to get students reflecting before they actually open their mouths to talk!

What routines do you use to encourage discussion of “hot topics”?


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