Undoing Ethics in Education: Explorations with Arts-Based Inquiry

March 4, 2016

by — Posted in Peer Edited Submissions

My assumptions about professional ethics are situated in my experiences as a Child and Youth Worker in Vancouver’s public education system and the knowledge I have as a graduate student with the University of Victoria’s School of Child and Youth Care. Arriving at this conversation with an appreciation for the unique, often unmet needs of many children in Vancouver’s public schools, I have recently found myself exploring my personal implications in this scene through arts-based inquiries (Irwin, Beer, Springgay, Grauer, Xiong & Bickel, 2006; Springgay, 2008). Playing with aesthetic assemblages of words and photos, I aim to open spaces for affectual, relationally stimulated counter-stories to the individualist perspectives of developmental psychology which are so dominant in my experiences with ethics in education. As I tease out my own moral position as a student and school board employee, embedded in the complex social dynamics of Vancouver’s diverse demographic landscape, I am pushed to move beyond solidified interpretations of myself as an independent practitioner, informed in staticity by one-size-fits all ethical codes and policies. With blooming curiosity, the areas of thought explored in this post lean towards multi-hued and layered constructions of myself as a deeply implicated, morally engaged participant whose standards are “fluid and open to analysis to meet the changes and accompanying challenges of [my] daily life” in education (Everett, MacFarlane, Reynolds & Anderson, 2013, p. 25).

alex1   Split me open; let me live at the edge of fleshy skin

It is important to consider that regardless of my intention to think critically about my social location in public education, my institutional duties reinforce dominant stories that often times are not in line with my understanding of an ethical practice. Engaging with “case conferences, agency policies and procedures, and supervision recruits [me] into a standardized narrative that may actually suppress rather than facilitate transgressive acts of inquiry,” pulling me towards a decontextualized, passive account of students as cases or files in a cabinet (Sellick, Delaney & Brownlee, 2002, p. 495). With this thought, it has become apparent to me that I have received a lot of training to agree with rather than question commonplace practices in schools. Thinking about my position as a student and employee in educational settings, I agree with Heath’s (2012) orientation to helping practice which explains that “if I want to lead an ethical life- and I do- then I need to be actively seeking to understand the ways in which I wield power [and] the places I hold unexamined privilege” (Heath, 2012, p. 13). As a white, cisgender, middle-class and able-bodied student who was raised in a nuclear, third generation Canadian family, my experiences in school have been largely favourable because my social location allows me the privilege of understanding of how to learn and carry myself in Canada’s Euro-western education system. As a member of a dominant group in this context, I have read textbooks which testify to the existence of my ethnicity, spent time in groups with peers who share my cultural heritage, been tardy to class without having the lateness reflect on my race, admired school posters or classroom art which support the composition of my family unit and confidently attended school field trips to places which I safely assumed would be inclusive of my physical capabilities (McIntosh, 2009). Afforded now with the role as both graduate student and school board employee, I find myself paused in a space that allows me to challenge these seemingly familiar social happenings which reinforce dominant group advantages and critique taken-for-granted assumptions about the “ways in which we assume things have always been done” (S. Madigan, Personal Communication, Oct. 16, 2014).


Liquify me, let watery seepages slip through

By problematizing what some scholars describe as dangerously benign knowledge in educational practice (Chapman, 2010; Sellick, Delaney & Brownlee, 2002), practitioners can “show how our claims to truth are really acts of power that protect and serve the dominant culture while silencing alternative knowledges and marginalizing the social groups from which they rise” (Sellick, Delaney & Brownlee, 2002, p. 495). This orientation to practice invites me to move beyond taken-for-granted assumptions about ethics as a code or set of rules to abide by, or a policy that comes up in “response to a dilemma or problem” (Everett et al., 2013, p. 18). Highlighting the dynamic multiplicity of today’s student-climate (Nason & Hunt, 2010; Roth, 2013), many scholars argue that “in a contemporary, fast-changing world that is filled with uncertainty, standards for ethical behaviour cannot be fixed, absolute, and taken for granted” (Everett et al., 2013, p. 18). While traditional ethical documents, such as ethical codes or policy manuals, may act as a baseline for acceptable practice (Banks, 2003), they inherently bolster a codified knowledge that compartmentalizes ethics as an immobile document and reinforces dominantly Western constructions of the expert practitioner existing in a space of neutrality, detached from the intricate social situations that she must navigate (Reynolds, 2014). By pathologizing or “psychologizing” decision making practices into concrete, stratified terms, it can be argued that school-based employees may actually be slowing their ethical pulses, disengaging instinctive responses and rationalizing their choices based on decontextualized accounts of professional practice (Chapman, 2010, p. 7). In this vein, it is not surprising that schools base their ethical practices on such codified knowledge systems because the basis of much North American education is situated in discourses of individualism (Madigan, 2011; Roth, 2013), relying on the normalized baseline of a developmental milestone or predetermined learning outcome as a means to support students towards self-stratification and autonomy (Burman, 2008; Roth, 2013).









Bound me.

As I experiment with poetry and visual arts, I am better able to stretch these dominant social assumptions about ethical practice and appreciate that “reality is subjective, multiple and fluid in nature, socially constructed through language within communities of people, and maintained through storied trajectories” (Saltzburg, 2007, p. 59). Thinking creatively about my position in and among these narratives “unsettles conventional ways of thinking or behaving” and while this may stir up tensions among my personal and professional obligations, if I want to promote ethical change I must sit in this discomfort and confront my own “manifestations of power and [my] entanglement in them” (Heath, 2012, p. 13). Holding these tensions with an honest curiosity, my orientation to practice becomes more interested in how I am “doing ethics” (Reynolds, 2014, p. 7), tuning into the complexities of school-based practice as an active engagement that is inherently messy, flexible and every-becoming.With an arts-based approach, my intention is to breathe life into my ethical positionings by undoing preconceived knowledge about what it means to be ethical, stimulating my awareness and connecting my practice to the perspectives of the students and families I serve. Heading forward in my practice with children and youth, my intention is to utilize the artistry of language and image to move beyond the bounded construction of people as static beings, using this space as an avenue to explore change and reinvent my ethical perceptions as living events that are always becoming something else.



Who am I in what I do?
Is it possible to be “me”
or am I a collection of many other things?

my ancestors, their times
a history of molecules that reconstitute themselves in my body
and all around me
Constantly becoming something else

Am I one or many?
A collection of ideas
Sifted through social and cultural politics
Implicated and messy
I am a carrier of these

A landscape of intersecting lines
That moves beyond surface or topography
Entangled in its weave
I have a social location
And a privilege that affords me this place

So what does it mean to be ethical?
With who I am in what I do
Not a question to be answered,
Opinion to gain,
Or destination to navigate

I begin and begin again
With an image I must shed
A map to burn
And a language to unthink

I am becoming with an ever-changing event
No solidified figure or concrete pathology
Representation defies its process
And recognition limits its flight

Marks are left and erased again
Roots are twined – signified, totalized – some become strangled
Others breathe in the spaces between

Becoming here
Is not black and white
A process of evolving – but not how I have been trained to see it
Forward and back again
Upside down and inside out

Am I one or many?
Who am I in what I do?

Perhaps – I am a body
Dusted with sand,
Age old and multistoried
Scratched surface –


Untitled presentation


Banks, S. (2003). From oaths to rulebooks: A critical examination of codes of ethics for the social professions, European Journal of Social Work, 6(2), (p. 133-144).

Burman, E. (2008). Deconstructing developmental psychology (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Chapman, C. (2010). Becoming Perpetrator: How I came to accept restraining and confining disabled Aboriginal children, PsychOut: A Conference for Organizing Resistance Against Psychiatry, OISE, Toronto.

Everett, B., MacFarlane, D., Reynolds, V. & Anderson, H. (2013). Not on our backs: Supporting counselors in navigating the ethics of multiple relationships within queer, two spirit, and/or trans communities. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 47(1), (p. 14-28).

Heath, M. (2012). On critical thinking. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. (4), (p. 11- 18).

Irwin, R. L., Beer, R., Springgay, S., Grauer, K., Xiong, G., & Bickel, B. (2006). The rhizomatic relations of A/r/tography. Studies in Art Education, 48(1), 70-88.

McIntosh, P. (2009). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. (pp. 7) Cambridge Scholars.

Madigan, S. (2011). Narrative therapy. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Nason, P. & Hunt, A. (2010). Pedagogy as an ethical encounter. In A. Campbell & P. Broadhead (Eds.), Working with children and young people: Ethical debates and practices across disciplines and continents (p. 79-102). Oxford, UK: Peter Lang.

Reynolds, V. (2014). Centering ethics in group supervision: Fostering cultures of critique and structuring safety. The international journal of narrative therapy and community work. (1), (p. 1-13).

Roth, W.-M. (2013). To event: Toward a post-constructivist of theorizing and researching the living curriculum as event*-in-the-making. Curriculum Inquiry 43(3), (p. 388-417).

Saltzburg, S. (2007). Narrative therapy pathways for re-authoring with parents of adolescents coming-out as lesbian, gay, and bisexual. Contemporary Family Therapy, 27, (p. 57-69).

Sellick, M., Delaney, R. & Brownless, K. (2002). The deconstruction of professional knowledge: Accountability without authority. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 83 (5/6), (p. 493-498).

Springgay, S. (2008). Body knowledge and curriculum: Pedagogies of touch in youth and visual culture. New York: Peter Lang.

This article was peer-edited by Ahna Berikoff

About Alex Berry

Alex Berry is a graduate student with the University of Victoria’s School of Child and Youth Care. As an active member of BC’s public education system and support worker for children and youth in Vancouver’s inner city schools, Alex is passionate about her research in arts-based learning and affect pedagogy. Alex is currently living in Goa, India conducting her research.
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