Review of teaching and learning about ethics on a professional training programme for educational psychologists in Scotland
Review of teaching and learning about ethics on a professional training programme for educational psychologists in Scotland
Abstract and Keywords
The ability to be alert to the ethical dimensions of practice and to acquire professional knowledge and skills to make informed ethical decisions is a core competency of educational psychologists. This chapter focuses on a review of approaches to teaching and learning about ethics on one professional training programme for educational psychologists in Scotland. The framework for this review incorporated documentary analysis of professional codes, the accreditation handbook and the programme handbook; literature on moral development and ethical behaviour, ethical theories, positive psychology, and teaching and learning about ethics; dialogue with colleagues from different disciplines; and an exploratory investigation into the ethical perspectives of a group of student educational psychologists at the beginning of their professional training. The chapter concludes with a consideration of how the review led to a re-evaluation of approaches to teaching and learning about ethics on the professional training programme and lessons for other training programmes in the UK and further afield.
In line with the aims of Part Six, this chapter considers ways in which understanding of ethics can be embedded into the thinking and practice of professionals in training (see Figure 1.1). To illustrate this, the case study of an educational psychology professional training programme is presented. The authors take a positive ethics approach and highlight the use of moral theory for ethical decision making.
The ability to be alert to the ethical dimensions of practice and to acquire professional knowledge and skills to make informed ethical decisions is a core competency of educational psychologists. This chapter considers approaches to teaching and learning about ethics and ethical practice that may assist student educational psychologists. Specifically, it reports on the authors' reflections about approaches adopted in one professional training programme; although it is anticipated that some of the issues and lessons learned will have resonance for other professional training programmes in the UK and further afield. In reviewing teaching and learning approaches, the authors have considered professional guidance (for example, codes of ethics), ethical theories and research in moral development and ethical behaviour. They undertook an exploratory investigation into the ethical perspectives of a group of student educational psychologists at the beginning of their professional training. The findings from this study, which resulted in a re-evaluation of approaches to teaching and learning about ethics and ethical practice, will be used in an illustrative manner.
An ecological perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) is helpful in conceptualising the dynamic interplay between different influences on professionals' ethical behaviour. An individual entering a profession carries with them their psychological characteristics, life experiences and values (for example, cultural values and religious beliefs), which will interact with the professional context to both shape and be shaped by that context, in line with an interactionist perspective. Lindsay (2009) referred to the influence of contextual factors on the development of psychologists' values that underpin their ethical behaviour; hence the importance of ethical codes reflecting societal values. Thus, new entrants to a profession carry with them views on what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that will have an impact on their ethical behaviour. During training, individuals learn and experience the values and cultural norms of their chosen profession. Handelsman et al (2005) propose a model whereby student psychologists acculturate to the value base and ethos of their profession. Gottlieb et al (2008) suggest that it is not sufficient to just teach ethics; students should be encouraged to be reflexive of their own values and have opportunities to talk through ethical dilemmas during professional training, using experiential approaches (see also Chapter Nineteen). They propose that students should be encouraged to adopt a more positive, aspirational view of ethics; and training courses should support students' ethical development and acculturation through the type of supportive ethical climate the courses create.
To achieve this, it is important to develop awareness of the types of situations that students could encounter in practice that may raise ethical dilemmas. Ethical situations where there may be more than one way to view a situation; where more than one course of action could be taken; and that produce a degree of internal cognitive conflict could be considered as ethical dilemmas. This is in contrast with ethical transgressions, where there is a clear breach of an ethical code (Dailor and Jacob, 2011). Ethical dilemmas can pertain to either an individual's own professional practice or that of someone else. For example, Dailor and Jacob (2011), in a survey of school psychologists in the US, offer insight into typical ethical dilemmas, including child protection issues, wondering how to respond to a colleague's unethical behaviour (see Chapter Three for issues of whistleblowing) and issues about sharing test protocols with parents.
A critical analysis of the two main codes for practising psychologists in the UK, the British Psychological Society (BPS) Code of Ethics and Conduct (BPS, 2009) and the Health Professions Council (HPC) Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics (HPC, 2008) (updated in 2012 due to change of name to Health and Care Professions Council) was undertaken, with a view to revealing any underpinning philosophical basis and the nature of professional guidance offered. As discussed in Chapter One, the BPS (2009) states that the Code is based on the ‘British eclectic tradition’ (p 4), which appears to be a synthesis of deontological and teleological theories of morality (Thiroux and Krasemann, 2009). Four ethical principles underpin the Code, namely respect, competence, responsibility and integrity, each of which has a statement of values and a series of standards to guide the conduct of members. Thus, although there are guiding principles, values and standards, suggesting a duty-based, universalist perspective, the Code acknowledges the need for psychologists to be aware of the context within which they work, including the legal system and guidance from regulatory bodies, when making decisions. In contrast to the BPS Code, the HPC Standards do not make any reference to a philosophical basis.
The BPS Code aims to provide ‘more emphasis on, and support to, the process of ethical decision making’ (p 1). The BPS acknowledges that no code can cover all situations and that psychologists have to make professional and ethical judgements; although it does not provide a conceptual framework for professional judgement. In its guidance, the HPC stipulates 14 standards of conduct and ethics for registered members, while acknowledging that some of the standards will not be universally applicable; for example,‘You must deal fairly and safely with the risks of infection’ (HPC, 2012, p 3).
Shared features of these two professional codes are: guiding principles for professionals' behaviour; an aim to protect the public; recognition of the role of professional judgement in decision making; and acknowledgement of the nature and function of contextual factors. Although both codes make reference to personal behaviour and the importance of not acting in a way that would impact on the public's perception of and confidence in psychologists, neither code appears to refer explicitly to either personal values or the dynamics between personal, professional and contextual factors, as is found in a positive ethical perspective (for example, Handelsman et al, 2005; Aoyagi and Portenga, 2010).
One of the difficulties with professional codes of conduct and ethics is that they can reinforce a defensive view of professional practice, namely what the practitioner should not do or the minimum expected standards. This emphasis on compliance with rules and regulations may partially stem from a historical emphasis on problematic situations and the need to regulate and punish misconduct rather than promote aspirational principles for professional practice (Handelsman et al, 2005). Positive ethics, it has been argued, offers a more proactive and aspirational perspective of professional activities, whereby the practitioner aims to achieve the highest standards in the best interests of his/her client (Aoyagi and Portenga, 2010).
Positive ethics, with its emphasis on positive values and ideals, has its roots in the scientific field of positive psychology, founded by Professor Martin Seligman in the 1990s (Seligman, 2003, 2006). The science of positive psychology encompasses an understanding of contextual influences that promote ‘positive emotions’ and ‘positive character’, including the role played by ‘positive institutions’ (Seligman et al, 2005). Positive ethics adopts a multifaceted perspective of ethics, acknowledging and exploring the dynamics between internal and external factors (Handelsman et al, 2005). This will be elaborated later, in the section on ‘Positive ethics and psychologists’. This is exemplified by research from the field of business ethics that suggests that when it comes to making ethical decisions there is an interaction between personal ethics and organisational ethics, which can impact on ethical decision making (EDM) (Elango et al, 2010). Furthermore, research indicates that congruence between the ethical values of the individual and the organisation can lead to better job satisfaction and commitment (Ambrose et al, 2008), as highlighted previously in Chapter Five.
When examining and understanding an individual professional's conduct, a positive ethical paradigm enables consideration of the interplay between personal, professional and organisational values and societal influences. Much of the sourced literature on positive ethics was in the field of business ethics, and largely pertained to the North American context. There was limited literature, mainly from North America, that considered a positive ethical perspective in psychology practice (for example, Handelsman et al, 2005; Aoyagi and Portenga, 2010).
Historically, the introduction of ethical guidelines into corporate business practice is a relatively recent development in the US, dating from the 1960s with only a few exceptions (Goolsby et al, 2010). (p.283) The impetus for this development appears to have been legislative imperatives and resultant fears of punitive outcomes. Svensson and Wood (2003) propose a dynamic model of interaction between time and culture (societal values, beliefs) that leads to changes in perceptions of what is right and what is wrong in business practice. Increasingly, there are voices in the business world calling for a more proactive approach to ethical behaviour and examples of successful individuals acting as role models for others (Goolsby et al, 2010). This has been accompanied by attempts to understand ethical behaviour in organisations from a positive stance. An example from business ethics is the construct of benevolent leadership, which is defined as ‘the process of creating a virtuous cycle of encouraging and initiating positive change in organisations through (a) ethical decision making, (b) creating a sense of meaning, (c) inspiring hope and fostering courage for positive action, and (d) leaving a positive impact for the larger community’ (Karakas and Sarigollu, 2012, p 537).
Positive Ethics and Psychologists
Handelsman et al (2005), writing from a US context, are proponents of a positive ethical perspective for psychologists. They suggest that a negative, rule-bound approach to the professional conduct of psychologists may result in feelings of alienation, due to a separation between an individual's professional role and his/her personal moral philosophies (other chapters have raised this potential disjuncture between personal values and a rules-based approach to professional behaviour). Handelsman et al (2005) provide a helpful ethical framework for psychologists comprising seven basic themes, which incorporate internal and external factors, each influencing the other rather than operating in a discrete and linear fashion. The seven themes are: ‘values and virtues: inspiring psychologists toward the ethical ideals of their profession’, ‘sensitivity and integration’, ‘ethics and ongoing self-care’, ‘ethical reasoning and decision making’, ‘appreciation of the moral traditions that underlie ethical principles’, ‘prevention of misconduct and promotion of positive behaviours’ and ‘sensitivity to our larger professional contexts’. Positive ethics is able to accommodate a range of moral philosophical positions. Psychologists operating from different ethical perspectives can utilise this framework in their practice. Thus, this model appears to offer a way forward in informing the teaching and learning of ethics in both the initial training and the continuing professional development of psychologists.
(p.284) Although not explicitly citing positive ethics, Seider et al (2007), based on empirical findings from the GoodWork project that was led by researchers in the US with international collaborators in Scandinavia, propose a paradigm for practising psychologists that shares a number of features with positive ethics. These include the importance of self-awareness in professional practice; consensus within a profession about the values, activities, goals and rewards of the work being carried out; and mentorship as a means of professional development. These features resonate with some of the themes identified by Handelsman et al (2005).
Teaching and Learning about Ethics in the Professional Training of Educational Psychologists
The core curriculum for educational psychology training programmes in Scotland is set out in the BPS accreditation documentation (BPS, 2010 [revised 2012]). Under the section ‘Frameworks for professional practice’, it states that students will develop ‘A professional and ethical value base including reference to the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct and other relevant guidelines’ (BPS, 2010, p 16). Furthermore, programme standard 2 refers to the need to include ‘evaluation of students’ understanding of working ethically, as appropriate to the level of study' (BPS, 2010, p 24).
The authors were interested in reviewing the teaching and learning methods used on a training programme for educational psychologists in Scotland to assist students in developing a ‘professional and ethical value base’ (BPS, 2010, p 16). The authors adopted a systematic approach to this review. This involved documentary analysis of the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct (2009), HPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics (2008 [updated 2012]), the BPS (2010) accreditation document (revised 2012) and the MSc in Educational Psychology programme handbook (2010). They undertook an exploratory investigation of the ethical perspectives of a sample of students in one cohort at the beginning of their training. The review was informed by literature on moral development and ethical behaviour; research into the teaching of professional ethics in higher education in the UK (Illingworth, 2004); as well as through dialogue with colleagues from different disciplines in the university. This process is illustrated in Figure 18.1. (p.285)
Analysis of Approaches to the Teaching and Learning of Ethics
The authors analysed programme and module learning outcomes, underpinned by the core curriculum (BPS, 2010), to identify those that appeared to contribute to the overall aim of students developing a ‘professional and ethical value base’ (BPS, 2010, p 16). This resulted in the identification of eight learning outcomes:
2. Manage a personal learning agenda promoting critical reflection and self-awareness that enables the transfer of knowledge and skills to new settings and problems.
3. Engage in and learn from interactive supervision processes, including peer mentoring.
4. Professional competence relating to personal and professional development and awareness of the educational, professional and social context within which work is undertaken.
5. Engage in a dynamic, responsive and on-going process to maintain and develop professional practice through the process of professional reflection, supervision and continuing professional development.
6. Development of awareness, knowledge, skills and values that enable effective work with diverse client populations and promotion of equal opportunities practice.
7. Demonstrate ability to operate effectively within the legislative, national and local frameworks for educational psychology practice.
8. Manage a personal learning agenda and self-care.
Illingworth (2004) identified three commonly used approaches to applied/professional ethics teaching in higher education, namely a pragmatic approach that uses as its starting point the codes of practice of regulatory bodies; an embedded approach in which students study ethics indirectly through consideration of the concept of professional identity, but with a significant ethical dimension; and a theoretical approach that commences with the study of moral theory and that students then apply to real-life situations. Analysis of the learning outcomes, indicative content and teaching methods on the training programme revealed a synthesis of these approaches.
Exploratory Investigation into the Ethical Perspectives of Student Educational Psychologists: Case Study of a Cohort of Students on a Scottish Professional Training Programme
Fourteen out of 22 students participated in two focus groups to explore their ethical perspectives at the beginning of the programme (October/ December 2010). The open-ended questions were:
1. What is your understanding of ethics?
2. What has influenced your understanding of ethics?
4. What has influenced your understanding of professional ethics?
5. What happens if there is a conflict between your personal and professional ethics?
6. What happens if there is a conflict between your and others' professional ethics, especially in an interprofessional context?
Sessions were audio recorded and the recordings were transcribed by an administrator. Transcripts were shared with the participants and they were given the opportunity to correct any obvious errors and request removal of extracts. The authors had copies of the transcripts and audio files.
Adopting a phenomenological approach, the authors were interested in the participants' understanding, views and experiences of ethics in their personal and professional lives. As such, a thematic approach to data analysis was deemed appropriate (King and Horrocks, 2010). As the authors were interested in the participants' views as a whole, it was decided to analyse the entire data set for themes. Thematic analysis, at the semantic level, based on Braun and Clarke's (2006) six phases was employed.
The authors conducted the analysis in a collaborative fashion, enabling rich discussion and debate and enhancing the inter-rater reliability of the findings.
Insight into the Ethical Awareness and Understanding of Students
Theme 1: Perspectives on Ethics
Students viewed ethics as the way people act and what guides their behaviour. A rule-based approach to actions in personal lives was evident in some of the comments, for example, rules are “about the way people conduct themselves essentially” or “guidelines that … (we) live by”. What is not clear is how these rules are determined and how ethical theory informs that process. Individual differences in personal ethics and an awareness of influences on the development of personal ethics were apparent in comments. Students viewed ethics as socially constructed and a lens “through which they view life”. There was an acknowledgement that there could be differential “interpretations”, due to people having “different ethics”.
(p.288) In terms of professional ethics, there was an awareness of the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct (2009) and the HPC Standards (2008 [updated 2012]). Both these documents were viewed as providing guidance for professional behaviour and ensuring that professionals and those they work with are kept “safe”. This suggests that the students were adopting a utilitarian ethical perspective, focusing on the perceived benefits for the professional and those they work with of following these codes and standards. They could see the positive consequences for clients of psychologists following a professional ethical code. One of the students commented that “ethics are there for accountability … that is probably one of the huge benefits of having a kind of ethics about the way people conduct themselves … essentially ethics code of conduct”. Codes were also construed as assisting decision making by providing professionals with “support guidelines”to inform action.
Students believed that ethics should be more than compliance to professional codes, a “proactive approach as opposed to being reactive”, with some students highlighting the importance of the concept of ‘justice’. This suggests a more aspirational and positive view of ethics (Handelsman et al, 2005). Some students appeared to hold nonconsequentialist (deontological) personal ethics suggesting that personal morals and values are “things you hold sacred to yourself”and are the “building blocks” of professional ethics.
Theme 2: Ethics as a Dynamic Process
Students viewed ethics as ‘constantly evolving’ (Lindsay, 2009), identifying a number of influences on ethical development in their personal and professional lives. In terms of professional ethics, there was acknowledgement of the impact of professional training, which “definitely influences how you understand and interpret the world”, of on-going supervision and support through enabling students to see “if there is something you are missing” and how another person would “interpret it”; and the impact on one's ethical perspective of working with others “so you have to keep reflecting”, implying an on-going active process. These statements suggest that the students valued the role and impact of professional development programmes (initial and continuing) on their ability to understand and respond to situations in an informed manner (Ehrich et al, 2011). Professional codes of ethics and conduct have been developed by professional bodies as guidance for their members and, as such, are based on group consensus. This was reflected in the students' viewing professional ethics as “group consensus … it is not individual”. This might indicate a normative perspective (p.289) (Thiroux and Krasemann, 2009) whereby the group prescribes how an individual member of the profession ought to behave. An awareness of the evolving nature of ethics due to the sociohistorical context was noted; for example, “something we might see ethical now give it 50 years and we will look back in horror”. This could impact on both personal and professional ethics.
Theme 3: Factors that Inform Ethical Decision Making
In terms of professional EDM, one of the students acknowledged that practitioners must be able to “adapt quickly … to change in situations”. This might indicate a relativist perspective, such that ethical principles are viewed as being contingent on the context (Healy, 2007). The influence of personal values on EDM was commented upon. Thus, decisions are based not only on professional judgement and codes but on the “morality that we brought with us from home environment or social environment … it is really important”, and “how you react to things whether you think it is ethical or not is determined by those values”. This suggests an awareness of the dynamic relationship between personal and professional ethics in EDM. This is addressed in a number of EDM models and frameworks (for example Miner and Petocz, 2003; Ehrich et al, 2011).
Students at this stage of their professional training demonstrated an understanding that it is not possible to entirely separate behaviour in one's personal life from expected professional behaviour. For example, one student stated that “you cannot be going out and doing things that you shouldn't be doing because they [will] conflict with your professional ethics and obviously that you have repercussions later on”. This resonates with the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct (2009) where, as part of the ethical principle of responsibility, there is a reference to avoiding personal misconduct. Students had knowledge of the importance of both the BPS Code and HPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics (2008 [updated 2012]), as “it is important to realise that …you are bound by professional ethics … you are also regulated by those ethics” and “can be answerable to the Health Professions or the BPS”.
Theme 4: Ethical Dilemmas
Students identified and reflected upon a number of hypothetical and actual ethical dilemmas. Examples are grouped by category.
Students recognised that there would be occasions when they would come across difficult ethical situations that might conflict with their own personal moral values: “we might have to work with parents who abuse their children … neglect their children”. They recognised that having chosen a career in educational psychology they had committed to act in accordance with the guidelines and rules of that profession. In doing so, they would have to look at what is “going on in their [the parents'] life and adopt a professional perspective on that”. “I think that is going to be a massive challenge … for me working with some of these groups.” This suggests that students are aware of the need to adopt the values, standards and expectations of their chosen profession, indicating the beginning of a process of professional acculturation (Gottlieb et al, 2008).
A number of ethical dilemmas in the context of multi-agency working were raised by the students. One scenario pertained to the sharing of information between professional groups: “recently an early intervention team was set up … representation from police, … social work, … education and the education person thought it was their right to get all the information on the people from the educational psychologist”, which raised issues for the student in relation to client confidentiality and permissions. Another student thought that it might be “unethical not to share the information”, as the sharing of information between agencies might be the best course of action for a child. This discussion highlighted students' awareness of the complexity of the scenario and the need to adopt different moral perspectives.
(c) Professional in an Organisational Context
In Scotland, the majority of educational psychologists are employed by local authorities, which are the funding agents for resources such as educational placements for children. Students noted potential conflicts that could arise between a psychologist and his/her employer. Most educational psychologists operate in the dual role of an agent of their employer and a professional acting in the best interests of the child.
“So many values at the moment especially funding things like where you think you might know the best possible placement but is it reasonable to ask that … (of the local authority). You can see that they are not child centred, they are financially centred in terms of what placement is best (p.291) for the child. It is obviously going to impact on the quality of their life … you have competing demands”.
In this quote, the student acknowledges the conflict between the professional value of being “child centred” and the authority's need to be “financially centred”. There is also a focus on consequences both for the child – “impact on the quality of their life” – and for the authority in terms of reduced costs. What is not clear is how these conflicts can be resolved or what can inform professional behaviour in such circumstances.
Theme 5: Ethical Intentions and Consequence
Students demonstrated awareness that you may act with the best of intentions, suggesting the adoption of a ‘utilitarian framework’ (Reynolds, 2006), but that does not mean that the outcome is necessarily positive. The consequences could be negative not only for the client but also for the professional, in terms of the potential repercussions of their actions via their regulatory body.
Review of Teaching and Learning Approaches and a Way Forward
The findings from the focus group interviews suggest that students had an awareness of personal ethics, including its evolving nature, contextual influences and resultant individual differences. However, there was no reference to ethical theories underpinning personal ethics. This reflected a gap in the students' baseline knowledge. Students were aware of the significance of professional ethics, viewing codes as offering guidance to professional behaviour and leading to positive consequences for both clients and professionals. They were able to identify ethical dilemmas in professional practice, such as those arising from conflict with personal values, working with professionals with different codes of ethics and examples of conflict between professional values and the employing organisation's priorities. However, the students did not refer to ways of addressing such dilemmas in their professional practice, such as the use of EDM models (for example Miner and Petocz, 2003; Ehrich et al, 2011), again reflecting a gap in their knowledge base. Students acknowledged the importance of professional development, including the role of formal training, peer support, supervision, working in groups and opportunities for reflection.
These findings offered insights into students' level of knowledge and understanding about ethics at the beginning of their professional (p.292) training and were considered in the context of findings from the analysis of approaches to the teaching and learning of ethics (as reported earlier in the chapter). This analysis indicated a need to incorporate more explicit teaching of ethical theory and EDM models in the training programme. Although there was some exposure to ethical theory in lectures, this knowledge and understanding should be deepened, for example through application to exemplar case studies. There should be a greater focus on developing ethical reasoning and decision-making skills through consideration of models and frameworks (for example, Miner and Petocz, 2003). A number of writers have advocated the teaching of moral philosophy to assist in EDM (for example, Miner and Petocz, 2003; Ehrich et al, 2011). EDM models would assist in understanding and addressing ethical conflicts in the context of interprofessional working. Some of the students in this study assisted in the development of joint experiential problem-based learning with social work students, piloted in session 2012–13. This offers the opportunity for students to learn about respective roles and values in a safe environment in which they are supported by tutors and peers to reflect on their personal and professional values and those of students in other disciplines.
Reviewing programme learning outcomes from a positive ethics perspective (Handelsman et al, 2005; Gottlieb et al, 2008; Aoyagi and Portenga, 2010), there appeared to be insufficient emphasis on students developing a self-awareness of their personal value base. In psychotherapy practice, Tjeltveit and Gottlieb (2010) emphasise the importance of being reflexive, acknowledging the influence of values and feelings on professional decision making to prevent ‘ethical infractions’ (p 98). They advocate that teaching ethics in the curriculum is not sufficient and students should be supported in becoming more self-aware of their value base. This self-awareness is a basis for developing an aspirational perspective and approach to their profession. Handelsman et al (2005) highlight the importance of the ‘implicit’ curriculum for students learning about ethics and ethical practice. In contrast to the explicit curriculum, where ethics is taught through the course content, the ‘implicit’ curriculum is where ‘students absorb the ethical lessons within the milieu of their institutions’ (p 739). On this educational (p.293) psychology programme there is both an ‘explicit’ curriculum (for example, lectures on ethics) and an ‘implicit’ curriculum where tutors aim to model respectful and collegiate behaviour and to demonstrate care and support for students, while challenging students to continually aspire to develop their practice.
This systematic review of teaching and learning about ethics, while focused on one professional training programme for educational psychologists in Scotland, offers valuable insights for other professional training programmes (for example, social work) in the UK and further afield. It provides a framework for undertaking a review (see Figure 18.1) that incorporates investigation into the knowledge, understanding and skills of students at various stages in the programme. The authors intend to carry out a longitudinal investigation with the participants in this study at the end of their probationary period in September 2013 in order to compare their ethical perspectives with those at the beginning of their professional training.
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