How we choose to act in challenging situations heavily relies on what may be referred to as a moral code, an important component of responsible decision making.
Schooling plays a large role in the moral development of students as they learn to navigate rules, fairness, and standing up for what is right. For the youngest learners, this happens at the most basic level as they come to recognize positive and negative consequences for their actions. As students age, however, determining “rightness” becomes somewhat subjective, and it becomes clearer that there are gray areas. What is right for one person may, certainly, not be for another, and as students navigate the winding pathways of ethics, the adults in their lives, including teachers, largely influence how they will define what is right later in life.
Giving students the chance to actively sort through how to make responsible decisions supports their development as deep thinkers and problem solvers, as well as skilled communicators. As Danny Wagner of Common Sense Education adds, “By being critical, courageous, confident and independent, kids can change their schools and the world, emerging as better decision-makers more prepared to face adversity and support and defend uncommon—yet just—views.”
The decision making activities below are appropriate for a range of moral development. Younger students will examine the reasoning behind common universal rules, and older students will consider the complexities of dilemmas that may have no one clear answer.
Recommended Grade Level: Elementary and Middle
SEL Skill(s): Empathy, Impulse Control
Duration: 30 minutes
Responsible Decision Making Lesson Instructions
Note: The grade ranges provided serve as guides, and the lesson graduates into deeper thinking. Read through the materials carefully, and begin or end wherever feels appropriate for your group of students.
Tell students that today you will be revisiting the classroom rules. Have students list the rules together. As each rule is named, ask:
Why do we have that rule?
What might happen if we didn’t have that rule?
Invite students to share other rules that they know from school or home, as well as laws they may be familiar with. Again, have them discuss their thinking behind why we have certain rules, challenging their reasoning to go beyond “because breaking them is wrong.”
Ex:“We don’t steal because the person you took from won’t have what they need.”
Middle School Extension: Continue the conversation by asking:
When is it hard to follow rules?
Is it ever okay to break a rule?
Say “When there is a clear rule or a law, we know what is expected. For example, we don’t hit people because that hurts them and also doesn’t solve problems; and we don’t cheat on tests because it’s dishonest and won’t help you learn. Sometimes, though, figuring out the best decisions isn’t so easy and we have to stop and think about what a good choice is.”
Choose 3 scenario cards that best reflect your students’ reasoning abilities, noting that they increase in difficulty. Break students into pairs or small groups and read the scenarios aloud. Allow several minutes for teams to discuss what they would do in the situation, then share answers with the whole group. Encourage students to recognize and respect that their choices may be different in situations where there is no clear rule or answer.
Option A (Developing Level) Good Choices Poster: Ask students to imagine a world where people thought about others and carefully made the best choices. Say,
“Earlier we talked about the consequences of what happens if people don’t follow expectations, rules, or laws. We have rules in place because without them something might go wrong or someone might be hurt. Now imagine what would happen if people thought about others and made careful decisions for what is best. Together we can make the world a better place.”
Have students choose a clear rule from the earlier prompt that they believe has a meaningful impact when followed. Just as they considered what might happen if the rule was broken, now they should imagine what might happen if everyone followed it.
“If everybody lined up quietly we would get to recess safer and faster”
“If nobody littered the playground, it would stay clean and beautiful”
Middle School Examples:
“If everyone put their phones away in class we wouldn’t be distracted”
“If people listened without interrupting we would understand each other better”
“If people didn’t text and drive the roads would feel safer”
Provide students with a Good Choices poster to illustrate their ideas.
Option B (Advanced Level) Dilemmas: Challenge students to consider what to do in situations where there is no easy solution. Provide students with a Weighing the Consequences worksheet, allowing them to think through a scenario of their choice. On the back of the page, students may write about a time when they faced a difficult decision, or a situation that required them to bend or break a rule and why they thought it was the right choice.
Invite students to share what they have worked on in the Inspire activities. For Option A you may wish to create a class book or bulletin board of Good Choices. If you selected Option B, you may wish to allocate a second block to unpack the Weighing the Consequences activity, allowing students to practice respectful listening and debate with their peers over topics that have no clear answer.