Ethical Thinking as a 21st Century Skill  

Feb 28, 2024

Challenges in Definition and Assessment

Education leaders have long argued for the importance of preparing students for an increasingly global, interconnected, and technologically complex world. The array of skills necessary to thrive in that world—skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity—present substantial challenges to educators who wish to define, teach, and assess them. In this post, I’ll explore some of these challenges for one of the skills that’s increasingly considered important for 21st-century thriving: ethical thinking.

The need to support young people’s success after high school has resulted in a proliferation of conceptual and empirical work on a set of skills that go by many names collectively. The most widely used is “21st-century skills,” so I use that term here to refer to all such frameworks.

Being a responsible citizen and understanding one’s own and others’ values are elements of many 21st-century skills frameworks. And with good reason: Full civic participation in the modern world often requires that citizens consider social and scientific issues with ethical dimensions, such as climate change, sustainable economic development, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence.

For the full collection of related blog posts and literature reviews, see the Center for Assessment’s toolkit, Assessing 21st Century Skills.

In a recent project for International Baccalaureate (IB), I had the opportunity to explore and define ethical thinking as a cognitive skill that draws from—and intersects with—the ethics-and-values aspects of 21st-century skills frameworks. After reviewing the literature on ethical thinking, I propose the following definition:

Ethical thinking is the process of identifying and describing ethical issues in a variety of contexts, articulating the ethical considerations involved in different responses to those issues, and providing a rationale for a position that addresses those considerations.

In this definition, ethical issues are dilemmas that cannot be resolved without entertaining ethical considerations, which include notions of right and wrong; the dignity and rights of persons, communities, and non-human animals; values, principles, and core beliefs; justice and care; and similar considerations.

This definition draws primarily from 21st-century skills frameworks and a cognitive framing for the target skill. Importantly, ethical thinking doesn’t mean having specific values or acting in particular ways (although, of course, ethical thinking engages one’s own values and is about values and actions). My definition is also informed by the literature on ethics and moral reasoning in philosophy, religious traditions, psychology, and moral and character education.

Much more has been written about defining moral reasoning than the construct of ethical thinking, especially in psychology and moral and character education. From these fields, we can survey findings on the development of moral reasoning, its cultural variability, how it is taught in schools, and how it has been measured, and gain a bit of insight into how we might do likewise with ethical thinking.

Development and Cultural Variability of Moral Reasoning

The development of moral reasoning has enjoyed extensive study in psychology for at least a century, with the foundational theories of educational psychologists Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg positing a progression of stages. In the 1980s, psychologist and ethicist Carol Gilligan questioned that earlier work’s applicability to women, which resulted in the elevation of care as an ethical framing distinct from Kohlberg’s justice-and-principles framing. Elliot Turiel and his colleagues’ work in domain theory has further expanded our understanding of young children’s moral development and confirmed that they distinguish between ethical considerations and social norms.

Outside of education (and the U.S.), the findings of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt are poised to influence future research on moral development and, consequently, ideas about what it means to engage in ethical thinking. His identification of moral foundations that extend beyond justice and care also contributes to the cross-cultural dimension of ethical thinking as a valued outcome of education. 

Instructional Approaches to Ethical Thinking

Moral and character education programs have been the primary means for providing students with direct instruction in ethical thinking. Pedagogies for developing ethical thinking include approaches aligned with Kohlbergian stage-based theories, domain theory, constructivism, and social-emotional learning. These methods acknowledge the critical role of schooling structures (such as relative student autonomy, student-versus teacher-centeredness of classrooms, and disciplinary policies and practices) and establishing the right atmosphere for moral development.

In a 21st-century-skills framing, ethical thinking has a cross-disciplinary character that calls for greater integration with the core curriculum. Accordingly, my proposed definition emphasizes that ethical thinking is always contextualized; it doesn’t happen in the abstract. In practice, this means that opportunities for students to engage in ethical thinking would ideally arise within their instructional programs.

Assessment of Ethical Thinking

There are several well-validated instruments for assessing moral reasoning. Many of these are variations of the Defining Issues Tests (DITs) that began with Kohlberg and were further developed by James Rest and his colleagues.

The tests each present about five moral dilemmas to the test-taker. After each dilemma, the test-taker rates or ranks each of several statements that contain fragments designed to activate a particular “moral schema,” which is a related cluster of moral considerations. The “personal interest schema,” for example, concerns direct personal advantage, fairness of exchanges, and maintaining good relationships. Several scores can be derived from DIT responses, including one for each schema.

The DITs capture a person’s dominant moral schema and are suitable instruments for assessing how instruction has resulted in a schema change. However, the DITs don’t reveal much about whether and how a person reasons through the dilemmas or the extent to which they think about and evaluate alternative courses of action (or how they would do so if asked to justify a position on an ethical issue).Assessing ethical thinking would require more insight into this process, which a teacher could elicit one-on-one, in a structured group discussion, through a written assignment or project, etc. The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) publishes a rubric for ethical reasoning with elements that capture some of the process aspects of ethical thinking.

Assessment Considerations

Assessing ethical thinking involves practical, technical, and (fittingly) ethical issues. As with other 21st-century skills, the context and purpose of assessment have heightened relevance when assessing ethical thinking. These skills develop over more extended periods than does the learning of academic content, implying less frequent assessment.

Because they purport to be the skills students carry into future learning or work environments, they also characterize capabilities that are more “core” to the learner than command of specific academic content. This set up a tricky question about feedback from tests on these skills.

When students do less well than they expected on an assessment of academic content, they can learn from their mistakes and better understand what they did not learn. When students demonstrate some shortfall in creative thinking, ethical thinking, or some other 21st-century skill, however, it is much less clear what they can actually do to improve. These sorts of considerations have led my colleagues Carla Evans, Jeri Thompson, and Chris Brandt to rightly question the utility of broad, decontextualized claims about a student’s command of 21st-century skills.

Another assessment consideration for all 21st-century skills, particularly for ethical thinking, is that skill labels carry associations that definitional exercises cannot corral. For ethical thinking, these associations include being an ethical person, coming to the “right” conclusions, and perhaps holding certain values.

None of these characteristics are in my proposed definition of ethical thinking. But no matter how clearly we define our target skill, we cannot disregard those associations—which a student will carry with them after receiving their score, or other form of assessment feedback—when assessing ethical thinking. Instead, we must acknowledge these shared notions when considering where, how, under what circumstances, and to what end we assess ethical thinking and other 21st-century skills.