Students take on difficult issues in Ethics Bowl

January 26, 2021

Ethics Bowl is a new competition that two teams from Central will be participating in this semester, with English teacher Shane Thomas as their sponsor.

The process of bringing Ethics Bowl to the school started a few months ago, Thomas said, when he was contacted by a former student who’s now involved in the philosophy department at UNO. He knew that Thomas now teaches a class called Theory of Knowledge, which is similar to philosophy.

“The philosophy department at UNO is seeking to make inroads into local high schools to try to get more diversity within their department,” Thomas said, “And so, naturally, the urban high schools are places that they’d like to have some lines of communication open in. So, the student asked if it would be alright if the head of the philosophy department contacted me, and I said sure.”

Thomas talked with the department head about Ethics Bowl, a national high school competition that began in 2012. Thomas liked what he heard, and asked his Theory of Knowledge class if anyone was interested. To his surprise, nine out of the twenty-five students said they’d like to participate, and they started meeting from there.

Ethics Bowl is not like other “bowls,” like Quiz Bowl or Science Bowl. Perhaps the closest comparison for it would be a debate, but that also isn’t quite an accurate comparison.

“People who are familiar with debates tend to think of one side versus another side,” Thomas said. “With this, you are competing against another team, but the spirit of the competition is one of conversation.”

To start, one team—made up of about three or four people—receives an ethical case to talk about. They’ve seen the case ahead of time and have been able to think about it and plan arguments. Each case is related to some sort of real-world ethical issue, which is often based on current events.

“One of the topics is dining out during a pandemic,” Thomas said. “The issue is: is it ethical to go to dine-in restaurants in the midst of a pandemic? Where do we put health of others versus personal freedom?”

They take a case like that and have four minutes to address the issue and the ethical questions it raises. Then, the other team gets about two minutes to respond, in which they can agree or disagree with the ethics of the decision the first team came to. Then, the first team has a minute to give their closing statement. After that, the judges ask the first team some questions, and then the round is over.

In the second round, the format is flipped. The second team receives a case, and the first team responds. At the end, the judges assign a score to each team based on their answers, and the team with the higher score wins.

“What you want to end up doing is having a productive ethical conversation in which you sound good,” Thomas said. “So, it’s not really about countering what the other team said, it’s about sounding well-informed and intelligent in your response to the whole issue.”

Central’s first competition this year will be on Jan. 30. Their two teams will compete against a few different teams virtually, and if they do well, they will move on to more competitions. For right now though, Thomas isn’t too worried about the outcome of the competition.

“My goal is really just to feel it out this year, to participate and to have fun doing it, and to get the kids used to presenting arguments in kind of a debate-style format over ethical cases,” Thomas said. “That being said, if I had to make a prediction, it would not surprise me at all if our kids did really well.”

The students in the group have already impressed Thomas with their leadership and hard work.

“I didn’t know how much handholding I might have to do to get this to come to fruition, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the first time we met as a group, I had people who had set everything up and had already taken initiative,” he said. “They had formed two teams and set a meeting schedule, and they just ran with it. This class of kids in Theory of Knowledge has impressed me so much this year in so many ways, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was a little bit at how much they just picked it up and went with it.”

Thomas said seeing how the students think and synthesize information will be the best part of his experience in Ethics Bowl.

“I’ll be honest, I learn a lot from the students in my Theory of Knowledge class, and it’s the same for the kids in Ethics Bowl,” he said. “I don’t come in with a ton of answers, what I try to do is formulate questions. Seeing how these students interact with the questions is where I receive new knowledge formation for myself. It’s also kind of inspiring to see young people come up with solutions that are appropriate for society’s woes.”

Thomas said that the development of these problem solving abilities will benefit students in Ethics Bowl in the long run.

“I really think that one of the most critical things that’s leading to problems today is a lack of critical thinking skills,” he said. “Critical thinking is not done in a vacuum, so we can’t do critical thinking without talking about critical action. Here, students get practice in thinking calmly, and reasonably, and critically about an ethical dilemma, and then creating new knowledge about how we should respond to situations. That’s what we need to be doing in society today. This is preparing them to contribute to our democracy.”

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