In-Class Ethics Bowl

Posted by: This lesson plan, created by Mary Moran, is part of a series of lesson plans in Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
Designed for: High School, Middle School
Estimated Time Necessary: Two forty-minute classes
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Learning Objectives

  • Student Ethics Bowl competitors will: - • Work collaboratively in groups of two teams of 5-6 students per team • Analyze multiple ethical dilemmas • Identify relevant actors, issues, and philosophical theories • Develop and present a cohesive case about the right action(s) to take in the situation presented • Identify and describe potential areas of disagreement/alternative solutions and explain why they were not selected • Actively listen and question an opposing team’s presentation of their case in a critical, but productive manner • Interact in a productive, collegial and respectful manner
  • Three student judges will: - • Actively listen to presentation of case and critique • Critically question students who presented the case. Questions should challenge assumptions made, application of theories, consistency of thought and flexibility in response to critique by other team
  • Student note-takers (if needed due to size of class or group) will: - • Accurately record presentation, critique, and responses to judge questions for both cases • Provide the class with a summary of each case, the ultimate decision that was reached, and the relevant theories used

Tool Text

Materials needed:

  • Prior to Bowl:
    • A useful general description of ethics designed for High School Ethics Bowls – to use as supplement to in-class teaching (see Supplemental Materials below)
    • Copies of cases (given to students to prepare) from the National High School Ethics Bowl archives (sample case provided below)
  • For Bowl:
    • Scoring criteria (available on the National High School Ethics Bowl website)
    • Score sheet (available on the National High School Ethics Bowl website)



This lesson can engage students in the process of dissecting and discussing ethical issues. In a philosophy course, this activity can be used several times throughout a unit about ethics/applied ethics or it can be a culminating activity for the whole unit. In addition, this activity can be modified to fit into other courses to facilitate full class or small group discussions related to specific ethical topics or issues.


Issues that have been included in former Ethics Bowl cases are related to student lives, the role of government in the lives of citizens, and international relations. There are many cases available, so that the bowl can be tailored to specific topics and/or levels of student knowledge or interest. The National High School Ethics Bowl case archive lists many useful cases:


General Description

Two cases will be distributed to the teams at least one week prior to the in-class Ethics Bowl. Each case will have “study” questions on the bottom to facilitate preparation, but those will not be the questions used in class. To prevent rote preparation, each team will not know which case they will be presenting and which they will be critiquing. Judges/note-takers should not get the cases until the day of the activity.



Sample Case (from the Regional High School Ethics Bowls 2015):


“Copying Homework”

Gabriella and Vivian have been friends for a long time and are now juniors in high school with aspirations to attend top universities. They have four classes together, including three AP classes. Two of their AP courses have tests scheduled the same day, and homework is assigned in their fourth common course the day before they must take the tests. It is just a simple worksheet, but it must be submitted for a grade. Gabriella is annoyed that she has to take time away from studying for the tests, but does the worksheet in 30 minutes. Vivian, however, studies all evening and the worksheet just slips her mind.

The next day, Vivian realizes that she has forgotten to complete the homework. She knows that getting a zero on an assignment will hurt her overall average and the teacher does not accept late homework. She asks Gabriella if she can copy her answers to the worksheet.

Gabriella is sympathetic and wants to help her friend, but she is worried that she could get in a great deal of trouble for letting Vivian copy her work — after all, it’s considered cheating. Gabriella is also frustrated because she took the time to complete the worksheet while Vivian did not. It seems unfair that Vivian will receive the same credit as all of the students in the class who did the homework. At the same time, it is just a menial worksheet and doesn’t seem the same as plagiarizing an essay. The benefits Vivian will receive if Gabriella lets her copy the worksheet seem to far outweigh the triviality of the rule being broken and she doesn’t want to see Vivian’s grade damaged over a silly worksheet. Moreover, if Gabriella says no, she knows that it will really hurt her friendship with Vivian.


Study Questions

(1) Would it be morally permissible for Gabriella to allow Vivian to copy the worksheet? Why or why not?

(2) Does the fact that Gabriella and Vivian are good friends influence the ethical analysis of whether copying is morally permissible? Explain.

(3) Is it ever morally permissible to break rules in order to help a friend? If so, what must the conditions be?


Preparation Prior to the Bowl

Students should discuss the case and develop a consensus about the right course of action for the two girls. Guidelines for discussion could include asking them to identify the stakeholders in this situation (all of the people involved), how each of the stakeholders is impacted, and what would constitute the moral actions of each stakeholder.

Prompting students to think about motives, short and long-term outcomes, and the relationships between different people involved will also help them develop a thorough answer.

Students can use outside research to enhance their presentation, but they should focus on the fundamental issues raised by the case. Direct students to think about and analyze the ethical decisions that need to be made in the situation presented.


The Bowl

  • Seating should be arranged so that the two teams of five to six students are facing each other, but still able to communicate within the team between the separate parts of the presentations or during the judges’ questioning.
  • Judges should be able to see both teams, but if space/numbers are an issue, then the judges/note-takers can form a circle around the two teams.
  • At the start of the Ethics Bowl, flip a coin to determine which team will be Team A (presenting the first case). The team that wins the toss will decide to be either Team A or Team B, without knowing which case is going to be the first case.
  • Distribute the case to all members of the class with the NEW question on the bottom. Read the question to be answered out loud to the class. This is a critical component because the students must adjust their preparation to specifically address this new question.
  • The activity can follow the National High School Ethics Bowl time limits or the times suggested below (adapted for class time). Be sure the only people talking are the ones presenting or questioning. In addition, all members of the class should be quiet during prep time, except the members of the team that are preparing.
    • Determining Team A/Team B and presentation of case/question – 3 minutes
    • Prep time for presenting team – 2 minutes
    • Presentation of case – 5 minutes
    • Prep time for critiquing team – 2 minutes
    • Critique of team that presented – 4 minutes
    • Prep time for presenting team – 2 minutes
    • Response to critique by presenting team – 4 minutes
    • Questioning of presenting team by the judges – 10 minutes
    • TOTAL time – 32 minutes (this allows for time to set up the circle, general directions, and some summary conversation if necessary/desired)
  • This time frame will allow for one case to be presented, critiqued by the opposing team, and questioned by the judges in one forty-minute period. The other team will do the same on the following day.
  • After providing the students with the case and the question, the presenting team should summarize their position. Their final position should include identifying all of the stakeholders, answering the question asked, providing reasons for their position and, perhaps most importantly, discussing other possible resolutions of the question and explaining why they did not choose those options. This part of their answer can also include any struggles or disagreements they had in reaching their group decision. For example, most groups will probably decide that cheating would be wrong, but they probably have done it themselves at some point during their school career (or been tempted).
  • The other team will then respond to the presentation. They should NOT present their own opinions, but use their ideas to help the first team clarify their position. Posing questions and/or asking for more detailed support for the first team’s reasoning are encouraged.
  • The first team will then respond to the constructive criticism. This response can include both clarification or more detail and incorporation of ideas or suggestions from the other team.
  • The last part of the bowl focuses on the judges’ questions. These questions are only asked of the presenting team, and can serve to ask the team to clarify its position if the class feels this is necessary. Questions can also be asked about the applicability of the presentation team’s response in other similar (or different) hypothetical situations. Finally, if the students developed some moral rules in their presentation, questions can challenge the applicability of those rules. For example, is it ever morally permissible to break a rule to help a friend? Can you give a situation when this might be the case?
  • This activity has a natural end to it, but students can also be asked to write a personal reflection. Prompts can include:
    • Did they agree with the decisions reached by the class? Why or why not?
    • What was the strongest argument used? Explain.
    • Present an alternative solution and defend it.
    • Personal reaction to the experience in general



Supplemental Materials

“Case Archive.” National High School Ethics Bowl. NHSEB, n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.

Connolly, Peggy, et al. Ethics in Action: A Case-Based Approach. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell,, 2009.

Deaton, Matt. Ethics in a Nutshell: An Intro for Ethics Bowlers (2nd ed.). 2013. National High School Ethics Bowl. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.

Rachels, Stuart, and James Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy (6th ed.). New York: McGraw, 2010.



This lesson plan, created by Mary Moran, is part of a series of lesson plans in Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).



In-Class Ethics Bowl