Examining Ethics: Principled Action

Principled Action is an underused, underrepresented and sometimes misunderstood concept which stands at the heart of successful IB service teaching and learning.

Both process and product, Principled Action is the lodestone which ensures that well-intentioned service actions cause no harm. As the essence of ethics in the IBO’s mission and a crucial element of the IB core, Principled Action needs to be brought to educators’ attention as they prepare to integrate service into their subject teaching. In doing this, Principled Action is activated as a lens for critically evaluating service – pre, during and post action. The three versions (simple, SDG-linked & with images) of this student tool (along with the service ladder and empathy continuum) are designed to make the concept of Principled Action tangible for all stakeholders in the IB teaching and learning journey. By using Principled Action as a pitstop for critical examination, we ensure the IB community is truly helping “make the world a better place” (IBO) in safe, ecologically sound, dignified, equitable ways. Students should then embody integrity as a value that becomes an internal compass to navigate our beautiful yet troubled world.

To understand Principled Action, the best explanation can be found in What is an IB education? (2013). A simplified version is embedded for reference in the tool:

“Principled action, as both a strategy and an outcome, represents the IB’s commitment to teaching and learning through practical, real-world experience. IB learners act at home, as well as in classrooms, schools, communities and the broader world. Action involves learning by doing, which enhances learning about self and others. IB World Schools value action that encompasses a concern for integrity and honesty, as well as a strong sense of fairness that respects the dignity of individuals and groups. Principled action means making responsible choices, sometimes including decisions not to act. Individuals, organizations and communities can engage in principled action when they explore the ethical dimensions of personal and global challenges. Action in IB programmes may involve service learning, advocacy and educating self and others.”

The Service and Action section in the MYP: From Principles to Practice also states:

“IB World Schools value service with others as an important way to engage in principled action across a range of overlapping local and global communities. Through responsible action, tightly connected with sustained inquiry and critical reflection, young people and adults can develop the kinds of attributes described by the learner profile that are essential for success in future academic pursuits and for adult life.”

Directly linked to the IB Learner profile of Principled, a need to clarify what Principled Action means in the context of service has led to the creation of this tool. The first draft of this tool was given to my MYP 5 students to trial. Used on various service trips and activities, both local and global- a common service model for many international schools – my students voices are an integral part of improving this tool.

The aim of this tool is to enable any IB teacher to integrate service into their subject teaching and so students can plan service, examine their ethics and initiate principled action. Reflection pitstops during and after are also crucial as students may need to adapt or even abandon their service, if they realise that their actions are causing harm.

The five categories organise thinking and have pragmatic and philosophical purposes. They ascertain students protect themselves and others they serve (safety); protect the environment they serve in (ecology); are respectful towards those they serve (dignity); strive to be fair in their choices (equity) and are honest in taking responsibility for their actions (integrity). Please feel free to add other categories and questions- these are simply suggested starting points for discussion for students to construct their understanding of Principled Action. These categories can also be linked to the SGDs for stronger curricular links (see version 2).

It is said that the path to hell can be paved with good intentions*. Without Principled Action, this truly could be the case for human actions and their impact, beyond the IB. Imagine, for example, if the inventors of plastic had used principled action to examine the impact of their invention before unleashing it en masse upon the world. Would we be in the midst of a climate crisis? Issues of voluntourism, privilege and the saviour syndrome also need to be addressed in the context of service – and principled action empowers IB teachers to start the conversation or maybe, shut up and listen. As we educate our future leaders, equipping them with the moral compass of Principled Action is key. Ethical dilemmas can also be explored with younger students: the Good Project is an excellent online resource suited for PYP 4-5/MYP 1-3 students.

I hope this resource will be as useful to your students as it has been for mine. If you think this tool could be improved in any way, please don’t hesitate to email me. If you are one of the 300 or so schools signed up to trial this and the service ladder, I’d also love for you to share stories of use below for the benefit of our online PLN. Thank you!

*Source: “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirsSaint Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1150)

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