Teaching… is it a life or death scenario?

In these harsh times, cutbacks will force professional people to make some tough decisions, especially about allocating scarce resources. For some, like doctors, those decisions could cost lives. Moral philosophical debates have for centuries explored when it is, for example, acceptable to take life – and other unanswerable questions..!

One classic exercise of this kind involves ‘the train problem’. In this, you are standing beside a railway track and you see a train hurtling towards a group of people. It is certain to kill them all, but you have access to a switch that will divert the train on to another track. On that track however, is one person who is also certain to be killed by the speeding train.

What will you do?

Here’s another one. This time you are standing on a bridge above the railway track watching the aforementioned train hurtle towards the group. You have a very large man standing next to you. He is so large that if you push him in to the path of the train it will de-rail the train and you will save the group but certainly kill the man.

What will you do?

(By the way, before you agonise too much about your guilty choice, study after study shows that in the first problem, people will choose to flick the switch and divert the train to kill the individual stood on the track, but not choose to push the large man in to the path of the train.)

While policy strategists have to consider the implications of major resourcing decisions and doctors have to consider the implications of implementing those decisions in ways that actually might mean the difference between life and death for some; mercifully teachers don’t. At least I hope not…! not literally anyway.

But as a little moral, philosophical exercise, let’s apply the principles of ‘the train problem’ to explore some of the choices teachers might have to make. Of course, these examples will not be entirely realistic and there are always nuanced choices, but for the sake of argument let’s see how far we can go…

You have a large group of increasingly disaffected and challenging boys in the class who need intensive support. Without it, they will certainly fail to achieve (remember it’s for the sake of argument) Level 4 in English and Maths and the consequent (statistical) likelihood of a life time of academic failure. A dyslexic girl joins your class and you are offered the resource of a skilled classroom assistant for a limited time each week.

The boys are under-achieving. Do you use that resource to support the group in the hope they will achieve their potential? If you do, the dyslexic girl will under-achieve.

What will you do?

What do your choices reveal about you, if anything?   What do they reveal about your professional values?


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