Ethics? Ask a First Grader

MBAs learn that the toughest moral critics are 6 years old.

Date: February 13, 2004
Time: 9:20 a.m.
Place: Miss Herman’s First Grade Class, Monroe Primary Center, South Bend, Indiana


Twenty-four tiny hands shoot into the air as Notre Dame MBA candidates Mary Camire and Tim Chase ask for volunteers for a skit based on Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. Once the turtle finishes ahead of the dozing bunny, Camire and Chase ask about the choices the two characters made: Could the turtle have decided not to run the race? What would have happened if he didn’t run?

The class decides on two good alternatives for the turtle: “to keep going” or “not to keep going.” Now it’s time to map the good and the not-so-good consequences of those choices. What would happen if the turtle kept going? “He could win,” shouts most of the class. And if he didn’t run the race? “He wouldn’t get sweaty,” pipes up one tiny student.

Camire and Chase are three weeks into MBA 634, a new ethics class at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business that seeks to teach students how to make ethical choices even as they teach ethics to children. The class focuses on tying decisions to long-term goals and consequences instead of traditional “should” or “shouldn’t” ethics.

The MBAs attend a three-day boot camp to learn the decision-making process and, later, how to apply that framework to case studies. But it’s the six weeks spent in public schools that resonate most. Teaching decision making to children, the business students say, provides an indelible lesson in how even the simplest decisions can have ethical components. “There’s not going to be a poster on your office wall that says you should do something,” says Katrina Glerum, who also teaches at Monroe. “Many ethics classes create need for an external authority that tells you right from wrong. You have to resist that. You have to learn to make right decisions on your own.”

Amid the epidemic of companies exposed for shady practices, B-schools are striving for new ways to teach ethics–from “spirituality in the workplace” courses to “scared straight” programs that let students tour prisons. “But most wrongdoing is at the level of everyday things,” says Carolyn Woo, Mendoza’s dean. “How do we build a habit of ethical behavior even on the small things?”

MBA 634 seeks to teach a way of thinking through decisions that’s simple enough for first graders. The boot camp is taught by Tom Reynolds, who helped create a decision-making model called goal-oriented option development. Students look at two options–like the turtle’s choice to run the race or not. But instead of balancing negatives against positives, the model forces a choice between two positive consequences. As they work through the model, students look at how the outcomes may affect their goals. The teaching assignments that follow are meant to reinforce the model. After all, there may be no greater test of one’s thinking than holding it up to the scrutiny of 6-year-olds.