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Tough Choices

In this activity your students grapple with real problems faced by real people working together in small groups.  This type of activity can help them develop small group discussion and decision making skills.

  1. Before you start, make one copy for each student of the situation you plan to use.  If you feel it necessary, modify it to fit the reading abilities of your students.  At the bottom of each page are links to sites where you and your students will find additional relevant information.  Use these links to extend the activity or provide more background.

I based the first three situations on news accounts, the fourth on the film 12 ANGRY MEN.  Should you want additional ones, you can easily create your own.  Scan newspapers and newsmagazines (paper or digital) until you find a story that would appeal to your students.  Immerse yourself in its facts, then draft your own handout.  Click here for more suggestions and resources.

  1. Explain that
  1. during this class period students will focus on a real world problem
  2. there are multiple possible outcomes to the situation, any or all of which might be "right"
  3. the purpose of the activity is to
  1. Distribute copies of the situation you've prepared.  Explain that in a few minutes you will divide the class into small groups, each of which will act to resolve the problem posed by the situation. 
  2. Ask students to read the handout carefully, noting down any vocabulary or procedural questions.
  3. After allowing sufficient time for students to read the situation, call for and discuss any questions.
  4. Divide the class into groups small enough to enable free discussion by all members.  (The size of each will depend upon the requirements of the situation, your students' discussion abilities, and the size of your class.)  Allow them to rearrange their seats or move to areas where they can talk without disturbing each other.  If you choose not to appoint a chair for each group, ask the students to do so as their first task once they've assembled.
  5. Allow the groups at least 15 minutes to complete their tasks.  Move among them, observing their work, but not participating.
  6. Reconvene the class once all groups have finished, or have stalemated.
  7. Have one person from each group report its result.
  8. Discuss how the groups went about making their decisions.
  9. If the groups produced different results, lead a class discussion in an attempt to reach a consensus decision.

For those of you who use reading assignments to help students expand their vocabularies, I have two suggestions.

  1. Prior to a Tough Choice activity, give your students a vocabulary assignment using words from the reading you believe they'll find unfamiliar.  Here is one I created for a middle school group I was preparing for The Transplant Committee.
  2. If you have a class web site, put the reading online.  Select words from it that might be unfamiliar to your students.  Link them to their definitions in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.  To do so, create URLs beginning with http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?. Type the word for which you want the definition immediately following the question mark in each URL.  Here is an example using The Transplant Committee.

If you are looking for examples of Tough Choices faced by individuals, take a peek at the work of Rushworth Kidder.  His book How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living is incredible.  You can read the first chapter online.  If you like what you read, you'll probably want to see Kidder's commentaries on contemporary events.  You'll also find a dilemma of the month posted on his Institute for Global Ethics web site.  Their links to other ethics sites is also useful. 

In a middle school class I taught, I created a set of 3 assignments built around ideas Kidder presented in his book.  Here are links to them.

  1. Spotting ethical situations
  2. Writing values statements
  3. Resolving ethical dilemmas

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, prompted a tidal wave of analysis.  I found Kidder's thoughts among the most useful.

Dear Abby is an activity that allows students to explore ethical dilemmas from a different perspective.

Here are additional links to sites where you'll find discussion about ethical dilemmas facing contemporary culture.

Justice is one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history.  Nearly one thousand students pack Harvard’s historic Sanders Theatre to hear Professor Sandel talk about justice, equality, democracy, and citizenship. Now it’s your turn to take the same journey in moral reflection that has captivated more than 14,000 students, as Harvard opens its classroom to the world.

This course aims to help viewers become more critically minded thinkers about the moral decisions we all face in our everyday lives.

In this 12-part series, Sandel challenges us with difficult moral dilemmas and asks our opinion about the right thing to do.

He then asks us to examine our answers in the light of new scenarios.  The result is often surprising, revealing that important moral questions are never black and white.

Sorting out these contradictions sharpens our own moral convictions and gives us the moral clarity to better understand the opposing views we confront in a democracy.

This course also addresses the hot topics of our day—same sex marriage, affirmative action, patriotism and rights—and Sandel shows us that we can revisit familiar controversies with a fresh perspective. 

Professor Sandel believes the process of thinking our way through the difficult moral questions of our day—figuring out what we think, and why—helps make us better citizens.

And, for those who like their intellectual stimulation on paper, Professor Sandel's book, Justice: What Is the Right Thing to Do?, is available from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Justice-Whats-Right-Thing-Do/dp/0374180652/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1255397661&sr=1-1

This site is designed to help high school biology teachers wanting to prepare a standalone bioethics course, or to incorporate bioethics into their existing curriculum.

This is the University of Pennsylvania's award winning site that covers many aspects of bioethics at the dawn of the 21st century.

This site is MSNBC's archive of recent essays by Arthur Caplan and Glenn McGee.  They are short, to the point, and enticing.

This site is CNN's archive of essays by Jeffrey P. Kahn of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics.

Among other things, each fall the Josephson Institute publishes the results of its annual survey of American youth concerning violence and ethics.  Check in to see how we stack up.  You'll also find lesson plans geared to children of all ages.

The Indiana University School of Journalism says about its site, "This set of cases has been created for teachers, researchers, professional journalists and consumers of news to help them explore ethical issues in journalism. The cases raise a variety of ethical problems faced by journalists, including such issues as privacy, conflict of interest, reporter- source relationships, and the role of journalists in their communities."

As I type, the argument over the safety of food produced from genetically modified organisms rages.  Here are links to sites that allow you to explore it.


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original web posting: Wednesday, May 31, 2000
last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2009