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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Grasping phronesis : the fabric of discernment in becoming an ethical teacher Jope, Gilmour


This study aims to contribute to scholarship on ethics and teaching with particular relevance for teacher education. The point of departure for the research is the problem of theorizing both teaching and ethics in universal terms, an approach that I suggest fails to capture the particular character of these concepts, their relationship to each other, and to explain how people learn to teach ethically. Following Aristotle’s writing on phronesis or ethical judgment, Martha Nussbaum’s concept of ‘discernment’ suggests that people gain the capacity for phronesis by learning to discern the ethically-salient features of particular situations, and this involves the priority of particular perceptions over universals, emotions as judgments of value, and a kind of insight that is gained through an interplay between particulars and universals in the exercise of phronesis. The questions guiding the research were: how do teacher candidates begin to discern the particulars of teaching while on practicum and how does this discernment help teacher candidates to construct their practices in more ethically-responsive ways? The methodological approach for the study drew on Nussbaum’s merging of ethical inquiry and literary criticism, and data was gathered through a series of life history interviews, classroom video-recordings with subsequent interviews with the participants, and a research journal. The main themes from the study were that learning to teach ethically involves seeing particulars, responding to particulars, and seeing new particulars, and these themes inform three issues in teacher education: (1) the kind of experience that teacher candidates gain while on practicum is a kind of practical knowledge that orients them to future experience in particular ways; (2) seeing and responding to particulars relies on an openness to surprise, ambiguity, and experience itself as a way of becoming discerning while on practicum; and, (3) wise practical reasoning is informed by human emotions because they enable teacher candidates to see and to respond to practical situations in ethical and educationally-valuable ways that our cognitive intellect alone cannot. The study concludes that teacher education should focus on the cultivation of educational discernment as the capacity to see and to judge and to act ethically in classrooms.

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