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Some Classroom "Dilemmas" Are Beneficial

Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience essay, Max Fischer shares his experiences using moral dilemmas to bring classroom lessons to life. Discussions of dilemmas tied to his curriculum challenge students to think critically and teach many other skills. Included: Join the discussion -- share your favorite role-play or simulation activity.


Max W. Fischer


Doctor Smith was odd by anyone's definition of the word. He wandered about the various wards of the hospital in which he performed his duties, and he "performed." He did magic tricks for his younger patients, told jokes to his older patients, and even went to the extreme measure of dressing like a clown for one crusty invalid who was known as a chronic complainer. His fellow physicians often scoffed at his "bedside manner." They said worthwhile medicine involved good science, not good comedy. In fact, it was well known that Doctor Smith didn't necessarily work well with the other doctors in his field. It was true that Doctor Smith's patients didn't heal any faster than the similarly afflicted cases of other doctors. Nor did his terminally ill patients live much, if any, longer than others in the same tragic situation. Yet, Doctor Smith's patients did seem to take their lot in life with a greater degree of happiness than other patients. Now, his hospital was seriously considering firing him.

That scenario, with all due respect to the movie Patch Adams, is one of several modern medical problems I pose to students as part of our social studies unit on ancient Greece. I pose that "dilemma" after students have been introduced to the ancient origins of the Hippocratic Oath.


The moral dilemma, a teaching tool used to incorporate the affective domain of learning within the classroom, prompts students' intrapersonal intelligences (according to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences). Students wrestle with their inner selves as they contemplate moral issues. Sometimes dilemmas are posed as simple questions -- What would you do? Other times, as in the case of Dr. Smith's predicament, students are placed in a role playing drama.

In the quandary presented above, I arrange students in a large circle as they play the role of a major hospital's board of directors. The chairman of the board (the teacher) presents students with the dilemma: Several doctors want Dr. Smith fired while, on the other hand, a number of patients and family members of patients have written to commend Dr. Smith. The board needs to discuss the issue and vote to decide Dr. Smith's fate. Will they terminate his employment at the hospital? Issues including the intent of the Hippocratic Oath, the need to maintain the hospital's profits, and the professional collegiality of the medical staff all come to bear in the lively discussion that follows.

Following the discussion, a writing exercise is usually presented. In this particular case, one option students have is to invoke various parts of the Hippocratic Oath as they write a persuasive letter to this fictitious hospital's board of directors. In that letter, they must share their opinions about Dr. Smith's unique brand of doctoring.


Dilemmas may be much narrower and more personalized in scope. Consider the following dilemma presented after a class investigation revealed ample evidence of cheating in the ancient Olympics:

You have worked hard to become a starter on your school's football team after several years of warming the bench. On a night after a game early in the season, several friends attempt to coax you to attend a beer drinking party at someone else's house. If you don't go, you will be ridiculed. If you do go, even if you don't drink, you risk being thrown off the team. What will you do?

In this setting, the discussion is all about what each student will do. Understanding and acceptance of the consequences is a critical component in most dilemmas, especially one as critically age-oriented as that one can be.


Moral dilemmas, by their very nature, are not simple circumstances with straightforward solutions. They force students to examine their inner values and provide legitimate rationales in a public forum. Logically, they are not just sprung upon students without laying a foundation upon which to rest the principles of the dilemma. In the Dr. Smith example above, students spent a class period in advance reviewing on-line versions of the Hippocratic Oath -- the original one and several modern ones -- as they question and explain the meaning of the Oath's numerous tenets.

An array of benefits is associated with the employment of moral dilemmas in social studies instruction. A primary objective is to bridge the humanity of earlier eras with the students' contemporary world. Ethical issues that Hippocrates struggled with almost 2500 years ago still vex today's physicians and their society.


History is the story of humanity. An instructor's mission is to tell the story well. Dismissing the emotional context of events leaves a significant void in the comprehensive narrative of any era.

Students generally relish the change of pace afforded when they are asked to inject a bit of their inner selves into meaningful situations that spring from the dry pages of a history text. Moral dilemmas are a consequential means of engaging students beyond the rudimentary cognitive aspects of classroom life.

The intrapersonal nature of history's moral dilemmas can easily lead students, via the back door if you will, into substantial cognitive learning. As prompts for written essays of a persuasive, interpretative, or analytical nature, dilemmas provide teachers with another tool to motivate students and to hone and present their thinking processes using written skills.

Discussions of moral dilemmas, whether designed as role-play activities or formal debates, offer students practice in civic discourse. Guided by the teacher, students have the opportunity to apply listening skills as they avoid "stepping on" another student's opportunity to speak his or her mind -- unlike those forums they witness on today's talk shows, where confrontational shouting matches are promoted. Responding to points made earlier in the discussion, and addressing the previous speaker by name while linking to his or her ideas, gives students practice in listening and invoking the power that comes from recognizing individuals for their thoughts, whether or not they agree with those thoughts.


Moral dilemmas also come with some inherent cautions. For the exchange to be a truly civic exercise, the teacher cannot dominate the discussion; nor can he impose his values. Edicts, such as You really shouldn't think that way or I think you're totally wrong tend to dissuade students from opening up. That is not to say that the teacher is completely silent during these discussions. Rather, working as a "guide on the side," the instructor gently prompts continued discussion, asks clarifying questions when needed, and detangles congested conversation when two or more participants decide to speak simultaneously. The teacher withdraws to a minimal role, allowing the students as much of the stage as possible to conduct worthwhile dialogue in a public setting and in a civil manner. Usually, however, when contentious, questionable logic is offered by a student, others will beat the teacher to it; they will take that student to task as they seek legitimate reasoning for an apparent hostile position.

The age appropriateness of topics and the politics of the local community is a boundary that calls upon good "teacher sense." Students' backgrounds and maturity should dictate the realm of topics addressed by a moral-dilemma activity. I've had no hesitation about engaging seventh graders in a discussion of euthanasia in conjunction with their study of the Hippocratic Oath. However, while debates on abortion would also fit within the confines of the Oath, I view the topic as one with which seventh graders aren't quite prepared to grapple. Nor would I be ready to deal with its fallout in the community if I decided to pursue such a discussion.

Moral dilemmas have multiple functions. They are a bridge to the assorted epochs of human history, a tool of engagement for learning, a means of character education, and a potential model for civic interaction. They are a vital component in linking human nature across the millennia.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max W. Fischer
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