Pupils’ understanding of ethical concepts relevant to the public domain
In the Swedish National Test 2013, the 12-13 year old pupils were asked in one task to match four different statements with a relevant ethical concept chosen from three alternatives and argue for their choice. No correct matches between concepts and statements were indicated in the assessment instructions for teachers; rather the focus was on the pupils’ justifications of their choices, supposed to reveal their conceptual understanding. The four statements dealt with equality between boys and girls (2 statements), friendship at school (1), and same-sex marriages (1). The concepts the test constructors provided were justice, equality, solidarity and empathy. The testing of the pupils’ understanding of ethical concepts is in line with the knowledge requirements of the syllabus (Lgr 11, Eng).
The empirical material, one hundred (out of 25,000) strategically collected written responses to each of the four sub-questions of the task, has in this study been analysed based on three questions: a) Which concepts were chosen in response to the statements? b) What conceptual understandings come to the fore in the explanations of the concepts justice, equality, solidarity and empathy? c) What kind of moral issues do the pupils themselves raise in their answers to the questions?
One contemporary moral philosopher who has theorized the issues of rights and equality in the public domain, particularly in relation to the rights of women and migrants in the EU, is the Turkish-American political theorist Seyla Benhabib (2013; 2006; 1992). Given the profile of her work in ethical theory and the potential relevance of this work, she was chosen to provide the theoretical framework for the analysis of this task from the national test as it exemplifies issues from the public domain.
The preliminary results of the analysis point in the direction of the pupils using the concepts justice and equality most frequently. Their conceptual understanding seems reasonably good, even though it probably could be more nuanced. The task on same-sex relationships appears to have elicited responses where pupils express their own points of view. There are also answers showing limited conceptual understanding. In line with the theoretical framework of Seyla Benhabib, the pupils’ responses indicate awareness of contemporary injustices in relation to gender, and solidarity and equal treatment between pupils seems to be valued by them. The construction of this task, the knowledge requirements of the syllabus, and the underlying conceptions of ethics are also critically evaluated in this study.
Benhabib, Seyla (1992). Situating the Self. Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, New York: Routledge.
Benhabib, Seyla (2006). Another Cosmopolitanism. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Benhabib, Seyla (2013). Birthright Citizenship, Immigration, and Global Poverty, inUniversity of Toronto Law Journal, 63:3, p. 496-510.
Lgr 11 [Eng], (2011). Curriculum for the compulsory school, preschool class and the recreation centre 2011. Retrieved April 8th, 2015, from