Author Interview: Dr. Helen Boon

March 24, 2016

This interview features Dr. Helen Boon, co-author of “A Five-Country Survey on Ethics Education in Pre-Service Teaching Programs”, recently published in JTE and available online here.

  1. What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

During my time as a teacher of Chemistry in secondary schools, I witnessed many unethical situations, both in relation to student teacher interactions but also in interactions between teachers who were supposed to be role models for their students. Those experiences made me acutely aware of the serious inequities in schools and the general decline in the moral fabric and ethos of schools, which I didn’t like. I had three children attending schools and I was most concerned for them as well as other students.

The initial idea for the actual research in ethics in preservice teacher programs was formulated through discussions with a colleague and friend, the Chair of Psychiatry at James Cook University.  We both felt that medicine and education were vocational professions that shared several parallel values. As a result, we conducted research interviewing medical students, instructors in the medical school and doctors as well as prospective teachers, teacher educators and practicing teachers to find out what they believed about ethics and what they understood in the context of ethics and their profession and how the two groups of professionals compared

The results of that research which had been funded through a Work Integrated Learning (WIL) grant were published in two papers, one in 2009 and one in 2011. Bruce Maxwell probably became aware of the paper published in 2011 and so he connected with me and invited me to participate in the research that gave rise to the paper in JTE. This has been a really enjoyable collaboration and one that I hope will lead to more fruitful research.

  1. Were there any specific external events (political, social, and economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

Yes, for me the recent international drive for greater quality in teaching is what led me to think of research in teacher ethics. I strongly believe that an ethic of care drives teachers to do the best that they can for their students and to maximize their skills so that the benefits flow on to their charges. Otherwise, if teaching is only a job, I do not believe that a teacher would have the level of care that transfers implicitly to students and shows them that their best interests are at the core of the teacher’s work. The work of a teacher is very difficult and becoming increasingly demanding; without an ethic of care for students, the daily grind of teaching drives most teachers—even the best intentioned—into a state of exhaustion and apathy.

  1. What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

In Australia, there were some academics who were not at all interested in pursuing the research because they perceived it to add to the already busy schedules of their work but also of the curricula that their pre-service teachers had to attend to. Also I believe there is some resistance to including ethics education in preservice teacher programs because of the abovementioned reasons.

  1. What current areas of research are you pursuing?

I would like to see a bottom-up infusion of ethics into professional programs that help us globally to consider our actions for the benefit of the longevity of our planet. There are tremendous pressures on Earth with a bourgeoning population but governments don’t seem to be able to reach agreements about the range of issues that plague the future of our world. I am hoping that through a focus on ethics, more individuals will be led to make more equitable decisions for the whole of humanity so that humanity can be resilient into the future.

  1. What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

My biggest concern is the lack of scientific understanding of many teachers who graduate and take up posts in schools at all levels. Specifically, I am quite worried about the infusion of neuroscience into professional development programs of teachers without due caution. Around the world, professional development of teachers seems to be looking for pedagogical fixes from neuroscience but at the moment the degree of specificity that neuroscience research offers is insufficient to apply to the classroom. As a result there are a host of neuromyths that are adopted by teachers whose scientific background is too weak to allow them to see the flaws in the application of broad stoke neuroscience findings. As a case in point, the latest fad is to believe that the frontal lobe is immature up to the age of 30 and that students are therefore likely to be impulsive, reckless and that they might not be able to make sensible decisions. This idea has implications for classroom management if teachers believe it. Of course, it is quite false since students are able to learn; despite the fact that some might be less mature than others (the average maturity of the frontal lobes is about fifteen years of age), neuroplasticity means that they can learn at any age and so be guided to make the right decisions.

  1. What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?      

My advice would be to pursue research that is of great interest to the scholar and of practical importance in the field. There are still many areas to be refined – mathematics education, best reading approaches, education for sustainability and science education to develop STEM professionals. In addition, I think that moral education is also an area that needs development in schools, so that it is not just left to the religious Right.