Active Learning, Critical Thinking and Multicultural Education
in Communication Ethics

Tom Brislin
University of Hawaii
Fifth National Communication Ethics Conference
May 10, 1998


This paper presents four teaching strategies, grounded in pedagogical theory, designed to encourage a more active, engaging, challenging, creative and meaningful experience for communication students as they grapple with moral issues and develop higher order thinking in the ethical decision-making process. Two strategies, emphasizing critical thinking and diversity awareness, have been sucessfully used in lower-division media and society classes. Two others, emphasizing active and collaborative learning, have been successfully used in an upper-division journalism ethics class and in professional journalism groups as well.1


Active, collaborative and cooperative learning, and critical thinking are receiving increased attention as strategies to transform the student from a passive receptacle to a direct participant in knowledge, and in the process of gaining it. These methods parallel the objectives and anticipated outcomes for the communication ethics classroom where decision-making processes are stressed (Brislin, 1995).

Strategies for, and assessment of active, collaborative and cooperative learning, and critical thinking have become the focus of teaching publications (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Ennis, 1962; Goodsell, Maher & Tinto, 1992; Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991; Kurfiss, 1988; Meyers & Jones, 1993; Nilson, 1997; Schwarz and Perkins, 1990); of academic organizations such as the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics; and of continuing education seminars in professional and applied communication ethics by such groups as the American Press Institute and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

The general characteristics of Active Learning strategies include (Bonwell & Eison, 1991):

This last characteristic makes Active Learning strategies particularly applicable to the study - and learning - of Communication Ethics, particularly Journalism Ethics, which itself is being promoted as a more activist approach to newsgathering.

The Society of Professional Journalists' "Doing Ethics in Journalism: A Handbook with Case Studies" (Black, Steele & Barney, 1997) stresses an activist imperative of getting news published or broadcast that reflects the journalist's primary principles of truth-telling, independence and minimizing harm. (A fourth principle, accountability, was added when the principles became the foundational structure for the revised SPJ Code of Ethics in 1996.)

Ethics is not prescribed or proscribed conduct to be learned from a code or set of rules, but rather is an active decision-making behavior based on duties and consequences that are an integral part of the day-to-day newsgathering process. Learning ethics requires taking part in this active decision-making, hence the Doing Ethics approach, "a belief that good ethical decisionmaking in journalism is a craft and a skill comparable to good writing, good photography and good editing." (Black, Steele & Barney, 1997, p. 2).

The Handbook analyzes various case studies for essential principles that journalists can draw -- and for questions that journalists can ask to tap those principles to apply to continuing and future news coverage. Two key and recurring questions in this newer paradigm of ethical decision-making are:

Critical Thinking strategies are mirrored in the ethical decision-making process. The intellectual foundations for Rest's and Narvaez' (1994) Four Component Model of ethical decision-making: Moral Sensitivity, Moral Judgment, Moral Motivation and Moral Character, can be found in Paul's (1990) Traits of Minds in critical thinking:

Rest and Narvaez (1994) emphasize that Moral Sensitivity is a precursor to decision-making - "the awareness of how our actions affect other people" - and describe both critical thinking and active learning skills in developing it: "It involves being aware of different possible lines of action and how each line of action could affect the parties concerned. It involves imaginately constructing possible scenariors, and knowing cause-consequence chains of events in the real world; it involves empathy and role-taking skills." (p. 23)

A similar predisposition to Critical Thinking is described by Shepelak, et. al. (1992) that "reflects a person's willingness and eagerness to respect divergent viewpoints, to review relevant evidence, and to value intellectual honesty." (p. 18).

The teaching strategies proposed in this paper emphasize utilizing steps in the critical thinking process, role playing, value assessment, and case study creation and analysis to enhance student engagement in the ethical decision-making process.

Strategy 1: Creating a Climate for Critical Thinking in the Classroom

"Imagine not being able to read the paper you are holding in your hands right now," the student writes. It's a position paper she's done on censorship. "We'd both be losers. I wouldn't be able to express my ideas and you wouldn't be able to read them."

This paper -- and 41 others -- are the product of an active/collaborative learning and critical thinking exercise on rights, limits and responsibilities.

The students are enrolled in an entry level Media and Society course. Only a handful are communication or journalism majors. Most are taking the course as part of their Social Science core. All of them are consumers of media messages.

This exercise -- this course -- is designed to make them more informed consumers of those messages (media literate in current parlance) so that they can become more active participants in the civic dialogue that fuels a democracy.

The exercise is constructed to enhance critical thinking. At its most basic levels, it requires thinking before a decision; listening to opposing views; and being able to articulate both sides of an issue before committing a position to paper. Just as importantly, it puts the burden of thought on the student, refocusing the energy sometimes spent attempting to second-guess and parrot the instructor's position.

A discussion of censorship provides a good trigger for the process, but it is adaptable to any current issue. To keep the discussion from producing more heat than light, the students must go beyond unreflective opinion-making and into realms of more informed thinking.

This exercise follows a programmed structure to guide them through a critical-thinking process, with instructions projected on an overhead transparency. To make it active and collaborative, students are organized into small groups -- six or seven per group works nicely. Groups with even-numbered participants, it will be seen, are easier to subdivide tasks.

Each group of students is assigned, or asked to, divide into two sides: x and y. Each x and y subgroup is handed, for the purpose of a censorship exercise, a sheet of rap lyrics. The particular lyrics are selected because they advocate racial or sexual violence, or attacks against police. It's frankly pretty rough stuff -- but commercially and readily available. Each subgroup is given only one sheet of lyrics so that they have to begin the process of working together by reading together.

Some examples: "So pay respect to the black fist/Or we'll burn your store right down to a crisp" ("Black Korea" by Ice Cube). "Got sticky sneakers from the blood of a shot cop"/"G-A-T-E-S, you better wear a vest" (Two lines Warner Bros. asked Ice-T to delete from "Home Invasion"). "She was the perfect 'ho but wouldn't you know/The bitch tried to take me/So I had to kill her" ("One Less Bitch," by N.W.A.).

After the students have had a chance to absorb the lyrics, they are given these instructions:

1. Side x members discuss: "What public good would be served by censoring these lyrics.
2. Side y members discuss: "What public harm would censoring these lyrics bring about?

Each side is asked to come up with at least three arguments to support their view. Students are reminded they do not have to agree with censoring or not censoring the lyrics -- their job is to form the arguments that proponents or opponents would use.

After allowing about 10 minutes for discussion, the students in sides x and y are asked to get back together in their original groups to share their findings with these instructions:

1. Side x members LISTEN to what side y members have to say. Do not question or comment.
2. Side y members LISTEN to what side x members have to say, with the same restrictions.

Students at this point are reminded that this is not the time to debate the issue, but to share what and how their classmates have thought about the issue. In some classes it's been necessary to circulate among the groups to make sure they don't start a debate!

After several minutes of articulating and listening to arguments, the students are faced with a role reversal as they again divide into their respective sides, x and y. But this time they are told:

1. Side y members discuss: "What public good would be served by censoring the lyrics.
2. Side x members discuss: "What public harm would censoring these lyrics bring about?

Now the students must build counter-arguments to their own original positions. They are advised to do this in two ways: Thinking about what the other side DIDN'T say in supporting THEIR original position, thus creating a new argument for "the other side;" and by testing the weakness of their own original arguments by providing counterexamples that would challenge their validity.

After about five minutes for this stage of argument-building, the x and y teams are brought back together in their original groups and again instructed to articulate and share their arguments, but not debate them.

After this short period of sharing, each group is asked to provide one pro- and one anti-censorship argument, which are noted on transparency or on the board. Oftentimes one group will offer an argument that did not come up in other groups. Again, these arguments are not debated, but might be amplified with an example from the instructor or from the group.

In this example of censoring rap lyrics, some arguments in favor included: Maintaining social order; reducing racial violence and violence against women; protection of the young.

Arguments against censorship included:

The entire class is now armed with numerous arguments and accompanying examples for and against censorship. As the period is now drawing to a close, the question is posed to them: "Is there anything that should be censored. What? Why? How? The students are asked to write a 1-page position paper answering that complex question. They are reminded that the best articulation of a position acknowledges and recognizes the legitimate opposing views, but demonstrates why the position chosen clearly overrides those views.

Many of the resulting papers show a careful, critical analysis of the question. Some acknowledge arguments that they wouldn't have considered - - and in a few cases wouldn't have understood -- had they not been "forced" to consider multiple perspectives before choosing to intellectually invest and commit to one. With their now developed and articulated arguments, they are ready to debate the issue during the next class period. The x and y groups are now defined by those who favored some form of censorship and those who opposed any.

Each side is instructed to present its arguments, followed by an exchange of counter-arguments. The pro-censorship sides are charged with proposing a workable system of who would do the censoring. Their opponents are charged with proposing remedies for social injury the uncensored marketplace of ideas might cause.

Some results?

The students certainly didn't agree, but they were able to base their individual positions in a context of critical thinking -- and they were able to critically assess the underlying values of their own positions and those of their fellow students. Both are essential skills in lifelong learning.

Strategy 2: Creating "Case Studies by Numbers:"

Ohio State University Professor Robert Monaghan (1968) outlined a "systematic" approach to creating TV programs he had introduced during the 1960s at NBC.

While his system might not bear the responsibility for "My Mother The Car," it does account for the creation of such programming oddities. Monaghan deconstructed popular TV shows of the mid- to early 1960s, to create a paradigm of program types defined by four elements to which he assigned letters: A. Reality; B. Values; C. Complexity; and D. Seriousness. He assigned numbers to three sub-categories each of reality and values, and two each to complexity and seriousness:

A1. Factual/Informational (non-fiction); A2. Fictional/Representational (believable characters/situations); A3. Fictional/Non-Representational (cartoonish characters/situations).

B1. Moral (differing views of morality presented in conflict); B2. Moral/Sentimental ("good vs bad guys"); B3. Moral/Neutral.

C1. High Complexity; C2. Low Complexity (predicatable, "formula" format).

D1. Comedy; D2. Non-Comedy.

The archetypical lawyer show of the times, "Perry Mason," for example, would be classified A2, B2, C2, D2: fictional-representational (believable characters in believable situations), moral-sentimental ("good guys vs bad guys"), low complexity (formula program - we know who will win) and non-comedy. The strange "My Mother The Car" fits a formula of A3, B2, C2, D1: fictional non-representational (characters in cartoonish situations); moral-sentimental; low complexity and comedy.

By continually recombining the categories, producers could come up with potential story lines. For example, pursuing an A1, B1, C1, D2 formula might have, for the times, brought forth a "60 Minutes" or other news magazine/documentary program: factual-informational; moral (differing views of morality presented in conflict); high complexity and non-comedy.

(Combining winning elements, of course, is the hope of all TV programmers. Brandon Tartikoff, as NBC programming head, ordered the creation of what became "Miami Vice" with his two-word memo: "MTV Cops." (Wilson, 1993))

Monaghan's "Systematic Way of Being Creative" can be applied to the study of Journalism Ethics as a device for students to design their own case studies. Doing Ethics in Journalism Co-author Bob Steele (1997), in his work as Ethics Programs director of the Poynter Institute for Media studies, extracted "Guiding Principles" for journalists that provide the basic elements in creating a "Case Studies by Numbers" paradigm: Seek truth and report it as fully as possible; act independently, maintaining a professional stewardship; and minimize harm while serving the greater social good.

From these three basic elements, several sub-categories can be developed and assigned letter-number designations:

Eighteen combinations of the paradigm are possible. One the one extreme is formula A1, B1, C1 - a situation in which everything goes right (Full-disclosure truth; indepedently reported; no harm). On the other is A3, B2, C3 - an ethical black hole from which no journalistic light could emerge (Intentional deception; acting by special interest; great harm caused).

While neither extreme should be ignored (it can be instructive for students to construct situations where these prime imperatives are followed), the most profitable discussion and learning takes place in between, where the guiding principles can conflict.

For example, students can be assigned to small groups of four or five, given variants of the principles paradigm, and asked to construct illustrative situations. Students might come up with such scenarios as:

Drawing from the basic "ABC" menu of truth-telling, independence and compassion, or minimizing harm, a dozen other combinations through a simple mix and match are possible and assignable, and - once instructor and students have become familiar with the paradigm coding - easily decipherable:

A1, B2, C1  A1, B2, C2  A1, B2, C3  A2, B1, C2  A2, B1, C3  A2, B2, C1 
A2, B2, C2  A2, B2, C3  A3, B1, C1  A3, B1, C2  A3, B1, C3  A3, B2, C2

Once students have arrived at their own hypothetical case studies, the groups can be re-formed so that they contain one representative of each case. The students can then explain the case situations and, more importantly, articulate which values are present, which are absent, which conflict, and what should be the overriding principles in coming to a resolution. The results of this second stage of discussion can be shared from each group with the entire class.

The method is extremely flexible - other "guiding" elements can be added to the lettered group, and the numbered sub-categories can be increased as well to create new and expanded paradigms around which cases can be built. It is a natural and logical extension to the teaching mentod of "casuistry" (Boeyink, 1992), the use of case analysis to develop policy guidelines in journalism ethics.

Having gone through the exercise of creating "home-grown" case studies, students demonstrate a heightened sensitivity to, and ability to apply, the overarching guiding principles to actual case situations and on-going coverage of local, national and international news stories. Specifically, students showed an increased ability:

These outcomes were assessed through more mature written analyses of subsequent case studies and through the students' abilities to discuss and analyze critical incidents in news coverage where conflicts erupt among elements of truth-telling, independence, or compassion - the triumvirate of ethical journalism.

Strategy 3: A "Jigsaw" Approach to Case Analysis

Although role playing is a key strategy in active learning, to insure that students benefit not only from the perspective of the role they are assuming, the "jigsaw" method of group discussion (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991) can be adapted for a discussion of how to balance the sometimes competing imperatives of truth-telling, independence and minimizing harm in newsgathering and publication.

The Arthur Ashe "AIDS Outing" is a good case study for this discussion as most of the "stakeholder perspectives" were publicly stated (Ashe, 1992; Deford, 1992; Gersh, 1992; Morrow, 1992; Policinski, 1992; Shuster, 1992) and are a good point of departure for the students' analysis of their own values and attitudes.

A media ethics class was assigned during the previous session to read over brief handout materials describing the case and its main issues. Here is one way to use the "jigsaw" in a 50-minute class session (Steps 1 and 2 should take about five minutes.):

This active learning strategy has been used more than a dozen times in three Journalism Ethics classes of 25, 16 and 20 students. It has also been used in a News Reporting course of 12 students and an introductory Press and Society course of 45 students, demonstrating its workability in classes of various sizes.

With smaller class sizes (12 and 16) the number of groups can be cut to four (in this case, eliminating Group E - the Professional Stewards). The groups can be unevenly distributed when class size is not cleanly divisible by the number of groups. Just assign the extras in any of the original lettered groups to one of the subsequent numbered groups.

The important thing to remember is that there will be at least one "stakeholder representative" in each of the subsequent "jigsaw" groups. Nothing is lost by, in this case, having an extra USA Today journalist or member of the public in the second groupings. It can even add to the deliberations.

Once students got a feel for this multi-group, multi-perspective approach, they adapted to it with enthusiasm. They reported in mid- and end-of-term course evaluations that their own decision-making was empowered by viewing the problem through the eyes and intellects of others. Where many had been reluctant to openly reveal their feelings, values and attitudes to the whole class (and instructor) in a traditional lecture-discussion format, they were garrulous in small groups. They found a new confidence in analyzing and expressing their values.

In general introductory discussions - and written analyses - of case studies before using this strategy, students tended to show a stunted sense of "moral imagination," not just in acknowledging multiple perspectives in the case dilemma, but even in the ability to identify relevant stakeholders from whom those perspectives would arise.

Students tended to pick one stakeholder to identify with and not recognize that their resulting thinking was directed by their "bias," regardless of how objective they tried to appear to be. Rather than explore multiple alternatives, students tended to make a "gut reaction" or instinctual judgment and then search only for those arguments or perspectives that supported their view.

Finally, because of their shortness of imaginative sight, they were unable to anticipate consequences of more than two courses of action - their own and the wrong (translation: any other) one.

A course-end evaluation by the most recent class (N=16), revealed the following results on a five-point scale (1=Strongly Disagree; 5=Strongly Agree):

Strategy 4: "Smile: You're on Collaborative Camera!"
Learning Diversity Through Self Images

One student calls himself "a work in progress." He writes that he sees himself "as a struggling young college student who brings a hard-working disposition into the classroom every day." He includes a picture of himself barely able to see above the pile of textbooks on his desk.

Another student submits a magazine ad of a woman, but she has pasted on it the face of a child. "I am a child trapped in a woman's body," she writes of herself. Yet another turns in two pictures. One is taken down a long, narrow hallway so that she appears small, distant and insignificant. The second is taken closer-up. Although she is clearer in this shot, her image is still ill-defined. "I'm coming into my own," she writes. "You still can't see the real me because I haven't arrived yet."

These student ventures into creative self-assessment and appreciation of diversity come from a "Self-Image Portfolio" project assigned to an introductory-level Media and Society class. The project helps students become more media literate and aware of the influences of the "image culture" on their own self-images and on their perceptions of others. Through active and collaborative learning strategies and creative endeavors, they move from image consumers to image producers, and in the process develop a critical assessment on diversity in themselves, the class, and society.

The understanding and appreciation of a diverse society has become a major value in pedagogical as well as communication ethics (Blum, 1998; Jenkens and Bainer, 1991; Love and Love, 1997; Schoem et. al., 1993; Simcock and Lokon, 1992). To complete the projects the students combine "found" images from magazine ads with photos they take of themselves, and write a 1-2 page paper on what this collection of images says - and doesn't say - about them.

The project is outlined this way:

Students select five images from magazine ads that they identify with because the images reflect something about them. They write an analytic paragraph of what each image reveals about them. In small groups they share the images - and meanings - they've collected and explain why the images serve as a mirror to a part of their persona. (During this time course content also flows. Advertising techniques is covered, so students can use their ads to find examples of "glittering generalities," "bandwagon" and other persuasive appeals.)

One class is set aside for students to take each other's pictures using provided disposable "snapshot" cameras (with flash, 27 exposures, app. $10. Processing per roll app. $6. Cost per student app. $1.25). Students are told well in advance to think about how they want to be photographed. Each will get two frames to show different aspects of themselves and will have complete control over how their image will be captured. They can bring in costumes or props, shoot inside or outside the classroom, and can instruct the photographer (another student in the collaborative group) to shoot close-up, far away, from a high, low or side angle.

Students bring in everything from musical instruments to surfboards to teddy bears to be photographed with. Some wear football helmets, mask and snorkel, or expressive T-shirts. One student posed with the handlebars from his Harley. One student wanted the picture to be taken from a distant, high angle to show her small and alone - how she felt as a new freshman from a rural Hawaii Neighbor Island in the big Honolulu university. Another wanted to be shown with a group of students to show his friendly nature. Another wanted to be shown apart from the same group to show his shyness.

The students then combine the images in a portfolio that suits their creativity. Some make collages, some booklets, some posters. One student covered the eight surfaces of a box with the "found" images and put the pictures of her inside. Along with their image collection they submit the brief self-analysis. Between the picture-taking and portfolio-making (to allow time for film processing), the course content covers "images that injure: stereotypes on TV." As part of this discussion, students again gather in small groups to discuss how the stereotypes of their own ethnic groups differ from reality.

The aggregate of the small group image-sharing and discussions, collaborative image-making, and individual self-analysis brings the students to a greater appreciation for the complexity and diversity in people, including themselves.

Their self-analyses invariably note that even though they could select from the glossiest and most professionally prepared advertising images, and even though they could completely control the capturing and presentation of their own photographic images, their portfolios could only reveal a small part of themselves. "(These images) in no way explain where I have been or where I am going ... tell the world what I believe or how I perceive ... in no way define the total package called 'me,'" one student summed up.

One lesson they carry from this project is that others cannot judge or know them based only on their images. Even more importantly they recognize that they, in turn, cannot legitimately judge others by image alone. That is no small victory - and at an affordable activity cost in both class time and departmental funds - for appreciating individual and human diversity in an age of unrelenting mass images.

1 Portions of this paper have been published in: Brislin, T. (1995). Active Learning in Applied Ethics Instruction. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 6(3), 161-167; and Brislin, T. (1997). Creating Case Studies by Numbers. Journal of Mass Media Ethics 12(4), 221-226.


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