Why an Ethics Bowl?

Our world is changing, and Canadians need skills to deal with the ethical challenges we are facing. The High School Ethics Bowl is a new opportunity for students to learn and practice the skills they need as global citizens.

The unique, collegial dynamic of an Ethics Bowl encourages students to teach and learn from one another as they take part in courageous conversations about ethical issues. This process emphasizes the skills of communication and collaboration: critical thinking, active listening, articulation and expression, open-mindedness, and respectful dialogue and disagreement. Students engage actively with peers as they share diverse views, challenge ideas and assumptions, and deepen understandings.

Ultimately, an Ethics Bowl empowers students and shapes their identity as community members who are able and inspired to contribute to a society where everyone can thrive.

What is an Ethics Bowl?

An Ethics Bowl is both a collaborative and competitive event, where teams of students analyze and discuss ethical dilemmas. They imagine, criticize, and compare bold strategies, and may even amend their original positions when faced with convincing arguments. Students have opportunities to pose and respond to probing questions, which results in a deepening awareness of the stakes and principles that animate the discussion.

Teams from public schools are eligible to participate, and each school team comprises five students from Grades 9 to 12. In advance of the Bowl, schools receive cases that focus on current ethical issues – social, political, economic, scientific, cultural, or beyond. Students research and develop the cases, and arrive at the Bowl prepared to present their ideas and to listen to other perspectives. All teams participate in a round robin style competition. In each round, two teams discuss two cases, and winning teams proceed to the semi-final and final competitions.

Students are evaluated on the following skills:

  • Communication
  • Use of relevant information
  • Critical thinking
  • Original thinking
  • Intellectual improvisation
  • Collaboration

The first regional High School Ethics Bowl was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2014. Regional Ethics Bowls will take place all over Canada during Fall 2018. Winning teams will meet at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg to compete for the national title during Spring 2019.

Students participating in the 2018 Manitoba High School Ethics Bowl Regional Tournament.

Students participating in the 2018 Manitoba High School Ethics Bowl Regional Tournament.

Student Feedback

The Ethics Bowl has had a great impact on participating students, and on their school community:

“Discussing ethics is discussing the future of the world.” — H.

“It really makes you see things from a different perspective.” — K.

“The cure to ignorance is discussion.” — T.

“You will walk away a different person.” — N.

“I’ve learned how to approach social issues through education rather than anger.” - S.

“Now I’m going to look at all the different sides of a subject and what people it could affect.” - B.

“I definitely want to share my lessons I’ve learned with people around the world.” - V.

“It helped me be more open-minded and a more well-rounded citizen.”- K.

Teacher Feedback

Participating teachers have observed that student discussions are deeper and more meaningful as a result of participation in the Ethics Bowl. Many report that other teachers in their schools have also been inspired to integrate critical thinking and collaboration skills, creating a school-wide approach to discussing challenging ethical issues.

“The Ethics Bowl is an excellent opportunity for students to think critically about the issues facing society in a collaborative setting. It brings together so many different skills such as teamwork, literacy, analysis, and communication that are essential for success in the 21st century.” - Kara

“The Ethics Bowl has become part of our school culture… We have more and more students involved each year… Other teachers in our school use ethics as a teaching tool in their classrooms now.” -Caroline

What is the difference between an Ethics Bowl and a debate?

An Ethics Bowl looks the same as a debate from a distance: teams of serious, prepared students take turns talking and trying to outperform another team. Ethics Bowls and debates both have distinctive structures and processes, including a formal judging process. Each contest brings together two teams of students to engage in discourse around a selected topic or issue. The key difference is that a debate focuses on skilled opposition, while the Ethics Bowl encourages dialogue and collaboration.

In a debate, students demonstrate their argumentative skills. In an Ethics Bowl, they use argumentative skills to get at the heart of the matter, as they actually see it. Participants are judged on their demonstration of relevant knowledge, articulacy, respectful collaboration, originality, intellectual improvisation, and critical thinking.

Where a debate asks students to use skills of argumentation to rigorously defend an assigned position, the Ethics Bowl asks them to engage in dialogue to learn from one another about what they actually think is worth defending. They are not just trying to do it well in the Ethics Bowl. They are trying to  get it right, even if that means correcting and amending their positions as the conversation develops.

In debate, teams take positions either in support of, or in opposition to a given resolution, and their goal is to “win the argument.” There are no grey areas in a debate, and the team that presents the strongest arguments is judged to have “won.” In contrast, the starting point for an Ethics Bowl is not a resolution, but an ethically rich, open-ended issue or topic with multiple perspectives and possibilities.

Rather than take a simple “for or against” stance, each Ethics Bowl team is expected to acknowledge conflicting perspectives on the issue. Teams propose a position on how to deal with the ethical conflict considered, rather than merely taking a preferred side. During an Ethics Bowl, teams have opportunities to support and challenge each other’s thinking and perceptions. They are expected to pose questions that deepen the conversation and expand one another’s awareness of the ethical stakes and principles that animate the discussion. An overarching goal of an Ethics Bowl is to provide an arena for students to share ideas and teach each other—bringing their own experiences and insights to bear on the conversation. When this works, students can show off how well they can learn from the interaction, and skillfully integrate this learning into their final positions.

Key Words to Describe an Ethics Bowl

An Ethics Bowl presents the opportunity for students to develop competencies in the following areas:

  • mutual respect

  • open-mindedness
  • meaningful dialogue
  • critical conversation
  • active listening
  • using evidence
  • challenging assumptions
  • thinking, rethinking
  • courage
  • flexibility, adaptability
  • risk assessment
  • synthesizing new information
  • intellectual improvisation
  • political, cultural awareness
  • original thinking


What are others saying about the Canadian High School Ethics Bowl?

“The Canadian Philosophical Association (ACP-CPA) heartily endorses the creation of a National High School Ethics Bowl. As advocates for reasoned discourse and careful thinking, we see encouraging high school students to engage with questions of ethical significance in a collaborative, constructive manner as an important and beneficial part of creating a public attuned to the philosophical dimensions of life. In working to create such a public, we believe that the National High School Ethics Bowl will simultaneously promote many of the virtues central to democratic citizenship.”

-Samantha Brennan, President, Canadian Philosophical Association

“Through collaborative analysis, students participating in an Ethics Bowl gain a better understanding of ethical questions they encounter. The ethical cases they are asked to analyze are exemplars of issues relevant to their daily classroom experiences and mirror national and international ethical issues. Manitoba supports the idea of a Canadian High School Ethics Bowl to take students beyond the polarization of issues to a deeper and broader understanding of the dimensions of current topics that make the headlines each day.

It will build citizens who are knowledgeable and able to communicate a rich understanding of their role as citizens to maintain a democratic and socially just society.

“Students in schools from across Canada can improve their global competencies of critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration, and citizenship by participating in the Canadian High School Ethics Bowl.”

-Darryl Gervais, Director, Instruction, Curriculum and Assessment Branch, Manitoba Education and Training

“The Manitoba Provincial Health Ethics Network and its council are pleased to endorse the High School Ethics Bowl. The aims of collaborating, research, critical thinking, active listening, and public speaking are increasingly important and this type of event has the potential to support important educational objectives for schools at all levels. This type of approach to problem solving you describe will serve students well throughout their lives in whatever role or field they end up working.”

-Jennifer Dunsford, RN, MN; Co-Chair, Manitoba Provincial Health Ethics Network

“While the same rigour of empirical inquiry and investigation is expected, as exists in traditional public debate, there is one important distinction to the overall strategy taken by students during the Ethics Bowl: through their collaborative inquiry, students are meaningfully engaged in an intrinsic and fundamentally important understanding of how both the individual and collective dimensions of situated context and lived experience do influence and shape public dialogue with their peers on the issues and challenges raised. This moves beyond mere ‘facts’ to a more critical appreciation and iteration of each dilemma.

From my vantage point, our students’ abilities to circumnavigate this valuable confluence of the many ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ realities that inform each ethical question provides them with a foundational basis for renewed and strengthened public dialogue.

It is my firm belief that our students’ abilities to achieve mutual understanding of, and co-defined solutions or outcomes to, these important questions, is a valuable method for ensuring that the public school system’s twin objectives of preparing students to assume their rightful roles as citizens and as social contributors will be fully achieved by the time they graduate.”

-Josh Watt, Executive Director, Manitoba School Boards Association

“On behalf of the more than 15 000 members of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, we are very pleased to lend our support to both the Manitoba High School Ethics Bowl and the creation of a National High School Ethics Bowl. We see these events as amazing opportunities to support the growth and development of our youth in areas of collaboration, critical thinking, and active listening.

“It is as a result of opportunities like this that students develop the confidence and skills that ensure future leaders who are open minded, respectful, and receptive to new ideas.”

-Norm Gould, President, Manitoba Teachers’ Society

“The Ethics Bowl is unique in its commitment to promoting free and open debate on topics of vital importance. MARL does not promote any particular point of view, but rather encourages students to reflect on their own views, and to learn how to discuss those views with others. Students are exposed to a method of public discussion that breaks free from the rancor and partisanship that characterizes much of our current political discourse, and in doing so they are given an alternative model of engaged citizenship. I fully anticipate that many of them will carry those schools forward into their lives and careers.”

-Neil McArthur, Director, Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, University of Manitoba

“The Manitoba High School Ethics Bowl teaches and embodies qualities essential to business, government, and community success. Respectful, evidence-driven collaboration isn’t just the best path for advancing shared prosperity in our communities, it’s the only path.

“The skills the Ethics Bowl invites attendees to develop are what turn young people into catalytic leaders. The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this initiative and its potential to drive transformation in our city.”

-Loren Remillard, President CEO, Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce

An Ethics Bowl team at the 2018 Manitoba Regional Tournament.

An Ethics Bowl team at the 2018 Manitoba Regional Tournament.

Interested in Organizing an Ethics Bowl?