HOW TO Educate FOR Responsibility?

Ross McDonald (University of Aukland)

Abstract: As educators explore new ways of facilitating responsibility, curricular designs that allow people to not only think more responsibly but also to act more responsibly are beginning to be more seriously explored. In what follows one example is outlined which structures learning around active challenges that give learners practical opportunities to put the values they believe are necessary for building a better world into everyday use. Examples of tried and tested exercises are given along with a basic explanation of the aim and philosophy of educating for responsibility

Context: The urgent need to change business as usual

The UN PRME initiative is growing against a backdrop of mounting evidence that “business as usual” is likely to create major problems for humanity in the very near future. As the ecological and social impacts of our current economic paradigm become difficult to ignore there is an increasing appreciation that the business system must exercise more responsibility if we are to secure a decent future for ourselves. For many years education in the world’s business schools has focused almost exclusively on the imperatives of profit and growth often wilfully excluding other priorities.  Historically this was perhaps forgivable but as we take on board the sobering scientific evidence of shifting climates, collapsing biodiversity and radical social polarisation, education as usual becomes increasingly difficult to defend. As educators in contemporary business schools we now find ourselves facing a much more challenging ‘big picture’ than did those who taught for business as usual only a few decades ago. It is this global context that makes our work and the work of PRME so critically important.

As we have come to more consciously realise some of the unfolding dynamics that now challenge our shared future, educational practices have shifted in many of the world’s business schools. Beginning in the 1980s some began to integrate ethics and social responsibility (and more recently sustainability) into their core curricula and this is now common practice. Aided by an explosion of textbooks, journals, case studies and other resources, this early wave of change expanded the content base of teaching in business schools, but it did little to expand the range of teaching processes used to help students build a better sense of responsibility.

Now though, there is a strong sense that this is beginning to change. Driven in no small part by an increasing sense of urgency, some more creative learning arrangements are coming to light which engage not just an intellectual learning about responsibility but many opportunities also for practicing responsibility. Several business schools give learners opportunities to work in the community, consult with sustainable businesses, become social entrepreneurs, become active members of clubs that run micro-credit programmes or donate time to the voluntary sector. The PRMEtime blog showcases many examples of these innovations among member schools as similarly do the PRME collections of inspiring case studies for teachers. The previous two entries in this PRMEHow blog by Oliver Laasch and Mary Gentile are from educators working at the heart of this wave of change as look more deeply into what more it might take to do our work well. What follows is a brief account of my own experiments into finding alternative ways of working effectively in the classroom

Concept: Give learners opportunities to practice greater responsibility

Educating for Responsibility is an approach to working with ethics that aims to move education into a more reflective and experiential realm. The various techniques involved have been developed through many years of experimentation and move the course of learning beyond simply educating about responsibility to give participants the opportunity to enhance their own ethical capabilities through practice and reflection. Bringing focus to bear on the challenges learners face trying to become more responsible in their everyday lives and drawing essentially upon their own considered values as a guiding framework, educating for responsibility weaves a constant discussion around a core of practical experiments in acting more responsibly. As an educational strategy it aims to prompt a collaborative exploration of what it means to act with a more responsible alignment of head and hands within the context of our own everyday lives.

Educating for Responsibility Process
The Process of Educating for Responsibility

As learning progresses, students are encouraged to consider the world around them as a field of opportunity for putting their values into practice in more conscious ways. If a group has said that more equality, respect for human rights and a thriving environment will define what is a better world, they would be asked to identify where their everyday behaviours are inconsistent with these values and challenged to change their habits to become more consistently responsible.  During these practical exercises learners reflect on their experiences and engage in a series of ‘mindful’ writings through which they can be taught to more clearly see their own ethical tendencies – along with the patterns of avoidance and excuse they employ to compromise their own responsible potential.

Application: Practicing values and actions through reflective exercises

In practice educating for responsibility works best with relatively small classes (I work with a maximum size of 65) and in spaces where learners can easily form smaller groups for intense discussion.  We begin with a series of basic questions around what a better world would look like – better in the sense of both being better ethically and better to live in (see McDonald 2013 for details). Working with classes in a number of countries, I find that a consensus often forms that a better future will be (among other things) more sustainable, fair, inclusive, harmonious, healthy and beautiful. And furthermore that society at all levels will be more open-minded, compassionate, generous and honest and less hateful, greedy and violent as a matter of essential course. Once a firm consensus has been build that such values hold the key to building a better world we use them to guide our analysis of how things are and how they could be actively improved.

If a group articulates the view that a more sustainable world will only be possible if we exercise significant self-restraint in our current patterns of consumption, then we will try and put this into practice by restraining our own consumption of unsustainable or wasteful things. Some might opt to forego plastic, palm oil, petrol or personal gadgets (for a week) and then write on the experience of restraining their unsustainable or exploitative habits. During the challenge people would be asked to observe and then reflect on their own patterns of resistance and excuse-making as they find their minds excusing inconsistency by thoughts like “it won’t make any difference if I change, or “it’s too inconvenient”, or “my friends will reject me if I get all righteous on them” etc). Such widespread rationalisations can then be collated through writing and compared in class and through this, the common excuses we all make in order to allow ourselves off “the ethical hook” can be brought to light and worked on.

Or, if a group argues sees that social justice is constituent of a better world and that this can only come from our exercising compassion and generosity, we might convert this into a challenge to identifying a truly compassionate cause and generously give time or funds to help. We might raise money for simple cataract operations for the rural poor of the Pacific – where sight can be restored for $25 (so $5 from each student and five from four friends and they can literally change a life). Or we might self-organise to practice a wider range of individual actions aimed at including and assisting those around us. Again learners would reflect on their own thoughts and feelings as they practice behaving in better and more responsible ways.  Revealed in the process are many important dynamics of the resistance, fear and fulfilment we all feel when moving beyond habitual comfort-zones. Reflective writings based on simple questions are again collected and collated to see more clearly the internal dynamics that so often restrain our responsible potential.

If a group says that more political integrity and honesty are required for a better world, then they might be asked to write to members of parliament or to lodge formal submissions based on their values to local and national governments. If a class argues that we need to begin to show more respect for the rights of other living creatures then we might practice vegetarianism for a week. If we think that a better world will involve less isolation and solo-absorption in technology, then we will put screens away for a week and see what stresses, strains and insights are provoked by trying to align of values and enacted habits. If designed carefully exercises like these stimulate a good deal of learning about self and society and help build a practical competence for coordinating head and hands in a more consistently responsible way.

The ways in which students values can be empowered by putting them into practice is limited only by the teachers imagination and below is a short list of a few other examples of how values and actions might be linked in potentially enlightening ways.

Educating for Responsibility  Exercises
Educating for Responsibility Exercises


An open and collaborative learning process can use practical exercises like these to deepen, broaden and expand learning for responsible action in a host of interesting ways. Single exercises can be inserted into existing courses or a whole course can be built around such exercises. I would encourage people to explore some of these open techniques – not least because it creates a learning environment that is as enjoyable and enlightening for the teacher as it is for the student.


Educating for Responsibility Resources

1) Advice for designing a different learning space can be found in the book “A practical guide to educating for responsibility in management and business’, available from Business Expert Press. This has many examples of writing tasks, feedback documents, and tested challenges and student work.

2) Here is a link also to a shorter guide to using exercises that was prepared for the Asia regional meeting of PRME in 2014.

3) Here also is an article to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Business Ethics that explains some techniques for facilitating collaborative discussions and forging consensus.  The search page for this upcoming resource is here


In application educating for responsibility uses a host of visual resources to expand perspective and integrate understanding. Included are lots of links to on-line talks, films and documentaries so it seems most fitting here when considering additional resources to suggest a few further explorations in that spirit. Here then are a few links to thoughtful and creative educators whose work aligns with the intentions and methods of educating for responsibility.  They all address hope for a better world and point in their own way to the need to inspire and nurture responsibility at all levels of learning. These resources are given also as a glimpse into the richness of educational materials that are available on-line. They are increasingly appealing to a younger generation raised on connection and the visual mode, and anyone interested in integrating such media into a course of learning might benefit from on-line libraries like these – Top Documentary Films On-Line ( ) and Films for Action ( ).


Resources aligned with the spirit of educating for responsibility

An example of teaching for responsibility in a Japanese school

Liz Coleman on the importance of re-inventing liberal education

The Yes Men create hope for a better world

Barry Schwartz on our loss of moral wisdom

John Paul Flintoff on how to change the world