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What may be learnt in ethics?

Varieties of conceptions of ethical competence to be taught in compulsory school

In Swedish compulsory school children are taught ethics, an idea that in itself is far from obvious. In addition, the conception of ethical competence displayed in the Swedish national curriculum appears unclear, and moreover, pupils are since 2013 given national tests in ethics. The purpose of this research project is to critically discuss varieties of conceptions of ethical competence as potential educational content in a compulsory school.

Ethics education has been critiqued from different perspectives. Education aimed to instil fundamental values in young people has been described as a lubricant in our shared social machinery, as something that will ensure the smooth operation of society by fostering loyal citizens who will adhere to and believe in the virtue of shared values. At the same time, research has shown that some forms of education in this field may contribute to increased, rather than reduced, bullying.

The question of what constitutes ethics education and what purpose it is intended to serve can be said to have gained renewed urgency as national tests are now conducted in ethics as part of the subject of religion in grade 9 (2013-2015 also in grade 6). This implies that roughly 25 000 pupils per year are evaluated as having or not having approved knowledge of ethics. The issue of which knowledge of ethics is focused upon thereby becomes even more relevant. As we see it, the conception of ethical competence conveyed through the tests and the national curriculum needs to be explored and discussed in relation to other possible conceptions of ethical competence, occurring in ethical theory and empirical contexts. Teachers, pupils, other countries’ national curricula and transnational policy documents may hold alternative notions of what constitutes ethical competence, notions that may be relevant to consider in relation to those represented in the national tests. This provides for a critical discussion of these conceptions as well as of what constitutes relevant knowledge of ethics in contemporary compulsory school.

The purpose of the project is to identify and elucidate varieties of conceptions of ethical competence as well as critically analyse and discuss them in relation to each other and in relation to ethical theory as potential educational content in ethics education in compulsory school.

The starting point of the project is pupils’ utterances in national tests of ethical competence conducted within the subject of religion. The conceptions of ethical competence exhibited in the national test are critically analysed. Also pupils’ utterances in interviews about ethical competence are given attention, as are teachers’ interview responses and varieties of conceptions of ethical competence in policy documents of various countries and supranational organisations.

Thus, the material used is both qualitative and quantitative in nature. Pupils’ written responses (200), interview material (around 80 pupils + 80 teachers), policy documents (9) and pupils’ test scores (3185) are considered.

The research questions are as follows:

  1. What conceptions of ethical competence can be identified in pupils’ utterances in
    a) national tests and
    b) concerning experienced needs of ethical competence as expressed in interviews?
  2. What conceptions of ethical competence can be identified in teachers' utterances in interviews regarding their commission and the goals of their teaching of national tests?
  3. What conceptions of ethical competence can be identified in supranational policies and in a sample of national curricula?
  4. What can be said about the identified varieties of conceptions of ethical competence in the light of each other as well as ethical theory, and as potential content in contemporary compulsory school?
    a. What conceptions of ethical competence are present, marginalised and not visible, respectively, and in what contexts?
    b. How can the identified conceptions of ethical competence be conceived as possible content in compulsory school? Which strengths and weaknesses can be identified?

The theoretical framework through which the material is analysed is developed from both qualitative content analyses of the empirical material and relevant ethical theorists representing various ethical traditions (Nussbaum, Singer, Benhabib and Løgstrup).

Ethics education remains a largely unexplored research area, between values education and religious education, and hence it is important to explore the fundamental issue of varieties of conceptions of this knowledge field and of its contributions to young people, i.e. varieties of conceptions of ethical competence.

Research environment

Host institution: University of Gothenburg, Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies, Subject Matter Education in Social Studies

Project members

Christina Osbeck, project leader, Docent (Reader/ Associate Professor), University of Gothenburg
Olof Franck, Docent (Reader / Associate Professor), University of Gothenburg
Annika Lilja, Senior Lecturer, University of Gothenburg
Karin Sporre, Professor, Umeå University
Johan Tykesson, Senior Lecturer, Chalmers University of Technology


The Swedish Research Council

Project period and total grant

2015–2017; SEK 7 552 000


Here you find all the current publications.





Welcome to EthiCo Conference!

What may be learnt in ethics?

Conference in ethics, 11-13 December 2017.

For more information

Christina Osbeck, project leader
Phone: 031-786 2273

Contact Information

Department of pedagogical, curricular and professional studies

PO Box 300, SE 405 30 Gothenburg

Visiting Address:
Pedagogen B, Läroverksgatan 15

+46 (0)31 786 0000

+46 (0)31 786 2244

Page Manager: Johanna Gunnarsson|Last update: 9/19/2016

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