By Jana Mohr Lone

During the past couple of years, I have organized ethics bowls with 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students, both as classrooms units and as larger whole grade events. Ethics Bowls are designed to promote thoughtful, civil dialogue about difficult questions. Students learn ethical reasoning and good listening skills, and they are evaluated on the extent to which they engage thoughtfully, collaboratively, and open-mindedly with the ethical issues raised.

The bowls I run with this age group involve one ethics case, usually drawn from resources designed for the Middle School Ethics Bowl. There are two teams, and the event begins with each team giving short presentations about the case (3-5 minutes). Then the teams engage in a self-moderated open dialogue, for up to ten minutes. The idea is for the teams to think together in a more unstructured and conversational way about the issues that emerge in the presentations. After this, the judges ask the teams questions, designed to further refine each team’s position and to help both teams do the best work they can do. 

Sometimes student spectators participate in the judging by suggesting questions (written on notecards) to the judges during the judges’ questions portion of the round. Finally, each team has a minute to respond to the following question: What point or points did the other team make that really made you think?

Some of the bowls have included numerical scoring and some have simply involved feedback from the judges without any scoring. Some have been judged by fellow students, others by adults. When the teams’ performances are scored, we have had three judges; more judges have been involved when the teams are receiving only verbal feedback.

In a fourth grade in a Seattle public school this year, we held in-class ethics bowl rounds in two classrooms, and then a final round between the winners of the initial rounds. We used the same case, Friendship Ties (case number 6 in this case set), in all the rounds. Before the in-class rounds, one of PLATO’s Graduate Fellows, Melissa Diamond, and I held several preparation sessions in the two classrooms. In the first, we distributed the case and discussed it with the students, identifying and analyzing the ethical issues raised. 

After the introductory session, students signed up to be team members, judges, or spectators. We worked with the teams to develop their presentations and with the judges to think about how they might approach this role. We emphasized the importance of taking seriously the neutrality and objectivity the role demanded of them. Judges and spectators were given feedback forms, which asked them to consider the following for each team:


  • Did the team clearly identify and discuss the case’s central ethical ideas?
  • Did the team consider other viewpoints, including ones that disagree with their position?

Open Dialogue

  • Did the team answer questions posed by the other team, and suggest original ideas?
  • Did the team build on the ideas of others, exploring different ethical perspectives?
  • Did the team demonstrate open-mindedness, taking turns, and listening actively?

Judges Questions 

  • Were the team’s responses thoughtfully composed and well developed?
  • Did the team directly address the judges’ questions?

At the end of the in-class rounds, the judges gave both teams verbal feedback, without indicating which team they thought had won the round, after which the student spectators gave their own feedback. At that point the judges gathered, with the adult moderator (Melissa or me) helping to facilitate the discussion, to decide which team was the winner. In the first rounds, in both classes, the judges unanimously chose the winning teams.

In the final round a week later, six student judges, three first-round judges from each classroom, were chosen to judge the final round between the winning teams from the two classrooms. At the end of the final round, after judge and spectator feedback, the judges met to determine the winner. Initially, the vote favored one team. During the students’ discussion, several judges changed their votes and the judges ended up in a tie, half favoring one team and half the other (the vote did not follow the classrooms to which the judges belonged). The students decided that a tie was the best result because, they observed, the teams had excelled at different aspects of the event and they also had different weaknesses.

When we reviewed the event the following week, some students expressed frustration with the result, believing that there should not have been a tie. We wondered whether next year we might have an uneven number of judges to avoid a tie, and we discussed how to do this fairly if it would mean having more judges from one classroom than another. 

I asked the students if they would prefer that we use a numerical scoring rubric, and we had a long conversation about this idea. Many students said that a scoresheet would put a different kind of pressure on the event, and they felt that it would inhibit the kind of open conversation that they had really appreciated. At the end of the discussion, we voted on the issue. A significant majority of students rejected numerical scoring.

It’s inspiring how seriously the students take this activity. They work hard to think through the ethical problems involved, and to learn how to analyze why someone might disagree with their approach to the case. They seem to relish the deep and open conversations that ensue. But perhaps what stands out for me most are two related observations. 

First, I notice the genuine listening that the students demonstrate. They pay focused attention to other students say and respond in very specific ways to the points made by the other team. Rather than just repeating their own points, they allow other perspectives to influence their developing thinking about the case and don’t stay attached to the points of view with which they began their presentations. They exhibit flexible thinking and a willingness to change their minds, and to think out loud.

Second, and perhaps it is the deep listening on the part of the other students that fosters this, I watched several students grow more and more confident at being able to say what they think. One student said, “I learned so speak when I had something to say and not to wait.”  I think that student confidence is also cultivated by their recognition of the importance of articulating well-reasoned views, as opposed to just stating opinions. As another student noted, “When judges ask you a question, you have to give a strong answer, but before you say it, you have to think if it really makes sense.”

Would that we all always ask ourselves, before we speak, if what we are about to say really makes sense!

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