Ethics and SoTL

You are always on my mind

This blog draft is only from about a month ago, when ethics has been on my mind more than usual. I began writing this post because my colleague and I ran an ethics in SoTL CPD session, but I also had a writing group meeting–a group which emerged from an ethics working group. And to top this all up ethics made sure I truly would not forget about it and showed up in a fancy frock and tiara in several more conversations this week. So I had no chance but to take a hint. After hitting some papers I wanted to share one particular ethics guidance:

Is not Evidencing Teaching Practice Unethical?

This week I was reading the ethics statement by the German Society for Erziehungswissenschaften (Education Sciences) and became intrigued by some aspects of their guidance. One of the aims of this ethics statement is to raise awareness about ethical issues in theory and practice in education sciences within the membership of the society–and further to encourage members to critically reflect their professional practice. So they are framing ethics as the vehicle through which to engage critically and reflectively with our teaching. Which is a significant shift in perception of ethics away from a hurdle towards an affordance of good academic practice. Maybe herein lies the differentiation: matter versus process. Some institutions implement accessible processes. Others maintain ethics processes as a hurdle to overcome. And maybe reframing our understanding of ethics as a tool to engage in reflective (reflexive?) practice, and thus move ethics into the realm of engaging with CPD, might help to revise some of the more cumbersome processes? What I mean by this is, that over the last year or so the more I was working with our SoTL network, the clearer it became to me that ethics should not just be a form to fill in, ethics should be an integral part of our practice. Ethics should be approached from the perspective of continuous professional development. Where thinking about designing SoTL projects is inevitably linked with thinking about ethics. This can only lead to more confident outputs and stronger projects.

I think these thoughts were reflected when I read the ethics guidance and came across the following sentences. Mind you scientific in German does not only mean STEM subjects. Wissenschaftlich = scientific, is used in a more traditional form of the word as: ‘any area of knowledge obtained using, or arranged according to, formal principles’* this is the meaning of the word science in the translation below. Also note that in Germany any higher education degree is considered a wissenschaftliche Ausbildung–scientific education (training).

DGfE-Mitglieder, die Lehraufgaben wahrnehmen, verpflichten sich, dies in gleichbleibend hoher Qualität zu tun und für eine gute Ausbildung der Studierenden Sorge zu tragen. Dabei sollen die Regeln guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis fester Bestandteil der Lehre bzw. wissenschaftlichen Ausbildung sein.

DGfE members who take on teaching duties, undertake to do this with a consistently high quality and to ensure that the students receive a good education. The rules of good scientific practice should be an integral part of teaching and scientific education.

The strong focus of this ethics guidance is high quality and evidence based practice. The quote above as several other statements of this ethics guidance seem to imply that not basing teaching practice on evidence is poor academic practice and thus unethical. Equally they state in their opening sentence that there is no scientific insight or problem solving that does not necessitate ethical considerations, as the members of this society carry social responsibility, in that their recommendations, decisions and statements can influence the life of fellow human beings. Another aspect that is interesting is the viewpoint that the ethics guidance is also there to protect the members of the society who adhere to its guidelines. As the framework provides them with rules covering equality, coercion up to bribery. An aspect that can become neglected in some ethics processes, but should not in the matter.

This image shows a jigsaw puzzle without image on it just white one piece is missing which makes it look like there is a black piece in a completely white puzzle
Photo by Pixabay on

Ethics isn’t an Add-On

Ultimately ethics is an integral part of SoTL. An ethical approach to reflective practice and educational inquiries can support the design of sound projects. This links with my previous post: for instance if the research design is not done well, we might collect unnecessary data–which constitutes an ethical risk. Or the data collected does not actually answer our research questions, which in turn can raise ethical concerns. And it is not always about having to apply for ethics itself either, as often reflective practice pieces do not necessitate ethics approval. But it is about considering the purpose of this type of scholarship and the voice we use in our writing. I know that I am humming and hawing sometimes too much with this blog before sharing, until, eventually, kind colleagues on Twitter said to just go for it. The five principles of the Working out Loud movement have reconciled me with imperfections and the value of sharing.

*Chambers – Search Chambers. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2020, from

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