Virtue Training: it’s just what the trainee doctor – and the teacher and the lawyer – ordered

Teachers, lawyers and doctors are expected to be beyond reproach when it comes to their conduct and ethical behaviour.

We entrusted them with some of our most precious gifts and possessions: teachers help to nurture our children and act in loco parentis; solicitors and barristers safeguard our personal assets and legal rights; and medics are responsible for our well-being, health and, quite possibly, our lives.

Individual members of the professions, regardless of seniority, are guided by prescribed codes of conduct and must adhere to rules and regulations in their day-to-day lives. Additionally, we also expect teachers, lawyers and medics to be role models. They should be “upstanding” and reliable

But how do young and inexperienced new professionals learn how to become the virtuous practitioners that society expects? How do trainees in their late teens and early 20s become equipped to manage their actions, behaviours and thoughts in the interests of pupils, legal clients and patients – as well as for their own benefit as flourishing human beings?

Crucially, previous research conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has revealed limited scope in the training programmes of student teachers, lawyers and doctors to examine and nurture virtues such as compassion, self-discipline, gratitude and honesty. It is perhaps a staggering omission.

All of the professions in the public and private sectors have rules and regulations and codes of conduct, but this is not enough to prepare trainees for the ethical and moral dilemmas they will face in the classroom, the courtroom or the hospital ward. Indeed, “rookie” professionals may find there is literally nowhere to go if an individual scenario does not fit into a rigidly defined framework of right and wrong.

It is the belief of the Jubilee Centre that virtues training can play an important role in guiding trainees and new professionals in such challenging circumstances. To address this learning deficit, the Centre is developing new online courses to promote virtue-based practice among students in these three key employment areas. Our teaching interventions are central to a new research project that is designed to extend professional knowledge and enactment of phronesis, or practical moral wisdom.

Using e-learning strategies, and in consultation with senior professionals in education, law and medicine, we have developed flexible and practical courses that inform students about virtue ethics as they start out on their careers.

The courses assume the students have limited or negligible knowledge of the themes and require them to engage as active, critical participants. The learning units include introductions from professionals and researchers in the relevant professions, presentations, activities and the consideration of role models.

The difficult challenges posed by ethical dilemmas form an important part of all the courses. By harnessing practical wisdom, virtue ethics maintains that we can improve our decision-making and make better choices. The courses’ ethical dilemmas, some of which are animated to help to bring them to life, allow trainees to test and reflect on their own reactions in everyday workplace scenarios.

For example, one of the medical dilemmas looks at the case of a patient who is HIV positive. The woman does not want her GP to disclose her condition to anyone, including her husband. The husband then makes a separate appointment with the same doctor and announces he is considering having a vasectomy as he no longer wishes to use condoms for birth control. What should the GP do?

There is no right or wrong answer to the dilemmas. Rather the scenarios and the course in general are designed to get trainees to reflect on their own professions, behaviour and decision-making. We want them to look at their own character because character goes everywhere with you and informs every decision you take.

As part of the course, trainees are also able to instigate conversations with their tutors or other students via anonymous online discussion boards.

Through the teaching interventions, we hope to encourage educators and trainers to create conditions in which the professional development of the virtues is given a higher priority.

Following rigorous trials and tests, the research will produce a new set of practical, free teaching resources that will help inform and guide the next generation of industry professionals. The courses are being designed so they can also be used by staff already working in relevant bodies organisations, such as NHS trusts.

The success of the interventions will be measured by examining the extent to which students and professionals become more virtue literate and work in the interests of both individuals and society at large motivated by virtues such as gratitude, compassion, courage and humility. We hope the teaching interventions will reinvigorate this neglected field of professional practice and guide new professionals throughout their careers.

Dr Binish Khatoon, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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