The Virtues of Learning through the Ethics Bowl

By Matt Ferguson

Kent Place Middle School Ethics Bowl Team discusses a real-world ethics case


In an essay on the state of modern education, Guy Claxton sets out what he views as the eight virtues of learning: curiosity, courage, exploration, experimentation, imagination, discipline, sociability, and mindfulness.  He says that these are virtues and skills not frequently cultivated in students; the Standardized Test reigns supreme in many a classroom and there is an emphasis on students being able to learn what is on the test rather than exploring questions that interest them or developing their own ideas.  Claxton offers some broad strategies for encouraging these virtues of learning in school children: allowing students latitude to research topics and questions that excite them; having them keep a journal to encourage reflection and mindfulness; having them ask questions as often (or more often!) as parroting answers. 

These are tactics and tools that can be implemented in all sorts of classes without requiring a significant restructuring of curricula. And for those looking for a way to teach all of these virtues at once? There is the Ethics Bowl.

Overview of the Ethics Bowl Structure

Since 2012, the National High School Ethics Bowl has provided the opportunity for thousands of high school students across the country to engage in ethical thinking and discussion.  The Ethics Bowl is like a highly structured class discussion.

Teams take turns presenting a case, proposing their understanding of and answer (even if just a tentative one)to the particular ethical quandary. The other team has the chance to respond by offering their analysis of the issue and asking questions to help advance the discussion of the case. The point isn’t for one team to “out-argue” the other; it’s about how well teams can articulate and support their argument while also considering different perspectives. It is also about how well they engage (rather than discount) each others’ questions and critiques. 

The goal of the Ethics Bowl structure is to explore and expand our understanding of the ethical issues at hand within a case.

Ethics Bowls and the Eight Virtues

It is possible that the preparation for the competition and participation in an ethics bowl can help foster the eight virtues that Claxton mentions in his essay “Virtues of Uncertainty.”

Curiosity, Exploration, and Imagination: In advance of the Ethics Bowl, teams receive the set of cases that will be featured in the event.  The students – as a team – develop their position for each case. They need to approach each case from different perspectives, being curious about how someone else might think about the issue, explore how else they might be able to present their analysis, and what critiques they might face.  Working together as a team, they can experiment with different ethical frameworks, imagine different possibilities, tap into the curious aspects of a case and broaden their perspectives together by thinking creatively. 

Experimentation: The ethics bowl creates the space for intellectual experimentation that is grounded in real-world scenarios and current events. The ethical discussions that are central to preparing for competition, as well as the participation in the event itself, teaches students to take risks, reflect on their positions, and demonstrate their critical thinking. Often students are asked to test their ideas through hypothetical “what if” scenarios and to explore the implications of their argument.

Courage: During the Bowl itself, students present their ideas in front of other schools and adults, who are there to engage and evaluate these ideas.  Students must remember what they want to say in response to a case question while also remembering to listen attentively and generously to the other team when they speak. Tackling tough questions together as a team requires courage, and being able to have such discussions in a public space helps students to practice having courage in speaking up. It is in this way that the virtues of curiosity and experimentation are exercised.

Discipline: While perhaps not as obvious, the Ethics Bowl also teaches discipline.A round in the Bowl is structured and teams only have so much time to lay out their position and to respond to the other team.  Students learn to be disciplined in keeping to the time limit and judicious in putting forth their strongest ideas. Working with time constraints can certainly be stressful, but also teaches students to refine their thoughts; if there isn’t time to say everything, what are the most important points to make? How can we make a concise and compelling case in the allotted time? There is also the discipline of commiting to a team, of putting in the effort to do the necessary research and engage fully in discussions.  Not unlike a sports practice, there is a difference between physically being at practice and going through the motions, and fully showing up and giving it your best effort.

Sociability: The Ethics Bowl teaches sociability on several levels. While preparing the cases with their teammates, students learn to think together with their peers, building on each others’ questions and ideas to develop a collective position on the cases.  Whereas typical classroom settings value independent thought and individual work, the Ethics Bowl fosters intellectual collaboration and through that, strong social bonds. During the Bowl itself, students engage in similar sociable, collaborative thinking as they listen and respond to the other team’s questions.  Students discover how to learn with and from each other throughout their ethical dialogues. On a broader level, the Ethics Bowl is an opportunity for students to meet people from other schools, sometimes hearing the perspectives of people with very different backgrounds than their own. This sort of social connection is an invaluable opportunity and can help to foster empathy and a greater sense of community. 

Mindfulness: The Ethics Bowl also teaches students mindfulness through listening to others’ opinions and considering the impact one’s words may have on others.  It is not sufficient for a team to come up with the best rationale for their position. Rather, they must also consider – and address – the implications of their position and how it might play out in real life.  Students practice mindfulness in listening as well as speaking – they learn to have an awareness of the perspective from which they are speaking and being open to hearing others’ opinions, even ones that might conflict with their own. 

Final Thoughts

From the weeks preparing cases before the bowl to the final rounds, the Ethics Bowl ticks all the boxes of the virtues of learning.  Ethics Bowl ‘practice’ often takes place outside of regular classes, but the skills – the virtues, even – that students learn from it carry over not only into the classroom but into the rest of their lives.