Teaching vs. preaching: Conversational ethics in the classroom

Key Insight: Sharing personal opinions can enrich a conversation and advance a learning opportunity, but done incorrectly, can turn “teaching” into “preaching.” Not understanding when we are preaching can alienate students and detract from learning. In this blog, I talk about those differences, and discuss that line between sharing helpfully and sharing forcefully.

My family woke up one Sunday morning, a couple of weeks before election day, to find that our “Vote No” yards signs had been stolen. Minnesota was one of four states in the 2012 election asking voters to weigh in on amendments banning gay marriage. Later that morning, we heard a prescriptive message coming from a religious leader at our place of worship, a prescription we experienced very negatively. I felt trapped and forced to listen to views with which I strongly disagree being put forth as the only truth. As I reflected on the day’s events, it struck me that there are important parallels in the classroom. When might my students feel trapped, without voice, when I put forth information considered ‘truth?’ What kinds of classroom situations might make them feel like they need to believe what I believe to be successful in the course? As professors, our jobs are to engage students in the important issues germane to our courses—what we usually call ‘teaching.’ The election season gave me pause to consider the distinct ethical issue of when ‘teaching’ turns to ‘preaching’—when we confuse student learning with student proselytization.

The great social issues we face are complex, and nuanced, and foster serious passion. The same is true of the significant issues facing managers and organizations today: how much regulation should we have in the markets? What is the most motivational and fairest way to compensate workers? How should we balance environmental realities with manufacturing needs? We need to facilitate conversations with our students about topics that matter, but that is not easy and there are ethical process issues to consider.

Picture this scenario: you’re having a rich and in-depth discussion with your students about a controversial ethical topic and it’s going better than you had anticipated. Let’s say it’s about the leadership issues surrounding Arizona’s immigration law, or, the strategic choice sets facing a local organization that wants to shift to renewable energy, when your state’s economy is built on coal. Maybe it’s about the economics of food subsidy policies that are likely to change with Obama winning re-election. You’ve prepared deeply for this conversation, studying the facts. You’re priding yourself on having finally gathered the courage and emotional stamina to take on this topic, and students will have varied and strong opinions about it.

The discussion is going along well, and a student asks you: “Professor Smith, what do you think about this issue?” Because you’re so well versed in the subject now, you have a strong opinion on what should be done and you share this with the class. You believe you’ve presented your viewpoint clearly, backing it up with empirical evidence. As you finish sharing your opinion, you suddenly notice a change in the room’s vibe, and as the silence lengthens, few students are making eye contact with you. You try to open the conversation again, but now, students are less willing to challenge each other, and the discussion that was so vibrant before now seems one-sided and forced. You answered that student’s question honestly and fully, with a well-supported fact base.

What went wrong? And why is it an ethical issue?

Blurring the line between teaching and preaching can stifle discussion of differing opinions in the classroom, particularly about these difficult or controversial issues. In our courses, especially graduate seminars, we are both facilitators as well as participants in important learning conversations. As an ethicist, I research salient management ethics issues and usually formulate a pretty solid opinion about those issues. Critically considering topics in all my classes includes an ethical impact discussion. Students are normally quite interested in my view, but the trick seems to be deciding when my learning objectives include sharing my opinion. In other words, I have to decide if both the process of sharing and the content of my opinion are contributing to learning or, conversely, if either process or content could anchor the conversation in a certain way, or create an ideologically hostile space where some students feel trapped like rats listening to me. Both anchoring and creating a hostile learning space are shades of preaching, and we need to be very careful about making that distinction.

For guidance on opinion-giving practices, I turned to the literature about “teaching vs. preaching” in higher education. Sarah Pfatteicher notes that, “…we may have occasion to fill the role of preacher as well as that of professor, and we should carry out both roles with enthusiasm, but we should also be clear on which role is appropriate at what time” (http://jee.org/2001/january/347.pdf p. 137). We can ‘preach’ on behalf of certain ideas with students, like sustainable manufacturing processes or better educational opportunities for low-wage workers, and we can ‘profess’ [teach] best practices for either idea based on empirical evidence, but we need to understand for ourselves the differences between those two roles and, I would add, signal as such to our students.

I also found that work about professor self-disclosure (PSD) was helpful. “Self-disclosure” itself is usually defined as any information a person divulges about him or herself to another person, usually to facilitate gaining trust or interpersonal liking. In the classroom, PSD is more often used to facilitate a learning outcome in lieu of fostering personal relationships with students. Wheeless and Grotz’s seminal work (1976) distinguished between interpersonal self-disclosure and PSD because the goals are different—I am not sharing my opinion to foster an interpersonal relationship with students (and please recall my earlier blog about students who want to Friend me) but rather to advance conversational learning about potentially difficult and/or affectively charged topics.

Scholars (see Cayanus & Martin, 2008) indicate that PSD can help students learn complex concepts better, improve affective learning, and assist with student problems more effectively. From a communication perspective, PSD can contribute to greater intimacy in the classroom and make difficult conversations more accessible. That’s the good news.

Now, here’s where things can go badly, and why PSD is indeed an ethical consideration for the classroom. Put yourself in students’ shoes, or, maybe simply recall one of your own experiences where, stuck in a classroom setting, your professor regaled you with some wholly inappropriate personal opinion that not only didn’t add to learning, it repelled learning. I remember several of those trapped-like-a-rat experiences from my student days like they were just last week. When our classrooms become ideological preaching sessions wherein students are forced to listen to our personal inclinations at the expense of being taught something germane to the course, we’ve crossed an ethical boundary. And, there’s a second aspect of PSD that deserves attention—the power aspect. Ejsing’s (2007) work is illustrative.

Opinions can turn into sermons when we forget our authority role, which can be easy to do in this age of first-name bases and dialogical learning. In another way of thinking about opinion as power, think of this ‘translation:’ I can make you sit there and listen, and our hierarchical roles in the learning process could influence you to remain silent when in fact you have great objection to what I say. The undiscussed and implicit threat of course grades may delimit your response set, while I am free to say what I like. Not good. Politics is especially enticing as opinion- imposing fodder for some folks, and there is no shortage of stories of questionable behavior.

Like most things, what’s difficult about the teaching-preaching distinction and PSD is the operational stuff—how it’s done, when it’s done, and how much of it there is. Research by Cayanus and Martin (2008) indicates some conditions have to be met for PSD to be helpful and ethical. Think about how you’d like to RAP when it comes to sharing your opinion: PSD can be helpful and contributive to learning when it’s Relevant to the topic of conversation, not when I am ranting about uninsured drivers. PSD fosters student learning when it’s Appropriate in amount, not when I come to class every time and talk about something going on in the community that I’m interested in. Finally, PSD can be effective for student learning when I share mainly Positive stories or examples, not when I share negative or derisive stories about a topic that make students squirm in their seats, unsure of even what expression to put on their faces.

Let’s revisit the opening scenario—a composite of the few times this has happened to me. When I examine the PSD literature, one key thing leaps out: ultimately, what do we want students to learn? Does what I am saying contribute to students’ learning, or to some other (unintended and unwanted) outcome? I don’t think I can honestly now say that I advanced student learning by providing an illustrative opinion or set of facts. I think I wanted to show students I had prepared for this topic, and that I could be relied on as a resource of “unbiased” evidence when we discuss complex issues. I should have said much less, and shared some of the evidence I used to come to my opinion, but not ALL of the evidence like I did. I should have been more alert to my students’ nonverbals, like when they sat back with their arms crossed, or when they stopped meeting my eyes. I should have invited their comments and challenges to what I was saying, rather than monologuing. Last, I should have been more alert to my power position in the class, and the delicate balance that conversational learning requires: providing an evidentiary discussion frame without quelling students’ experiences. Although my PSD was certainly Relevant to our conversation, I failed the RAP test on the “Appropriate amount” as well as using “Positive” examples aspects.

Understanding our own teaching vs. preaching line demands self-awareness. There may be some topics that we just cannot seem to engage with objectively. For me, that topic is affirmative action, and I clearly have a propensity to preach on, rather than teach about, that topic. How do you know when that happens? Student course evaluations (or some other systematic feedback mechanism) will usually coalesce around these topics, or, maybe a colleague can come observe your classroom as you present certain topics for discussion and identify specific anchoring behaviors you exhibit. If you identify certain topics about which you have such strong beliefs that “teaching” them yourself seems risky, here are some terrific options.

  • Invite guest speakers who hold differing viewpoints on that topic.
  • Ask a trusted colleague to help facilitate the conversation with you, which would balance topical preaching toward teaching again.
  • Borrow from law schools by creating structured debates with defined roles to argue both sides of an issue. Pre-assigned teams of students explore defined sides or aspects of the topic, like the pros and cons of increasing the minimum wage, and present them in class. You advocate for both sides in turn, after students from each side speak. Because you speak on both sides, neither is privileged by your personal opinion signal.

As with most ethical issues, there are few hard and fast rules. While I think preaching is pretty much always suspect, it may be more so at an undergraduate level than at an MBA or executive level. The executives in particular may have little problem challenging us in the classroom, but I am still leery of that line. McElroy, a law professor, asks us to consider our teaching vs preaching stance: “..we professors are still steering the ship, even if we do not endorse the ‘sage on the stage’ approach to teaching. Does that power dynamic dictate some sort of professional distance?”

Some discussion questions:

  1. Think about a time when you have experienced something like the scenario described above. What happened, and what was the topic? What was the opinion you offered that seemed to shut things down? How could you have offered it differently to engage students?
  2. What are some helpful ways of framing learning objectives for courses that entail engaging in difficult conversations around controversial topics?
  3. Do we ever have a responsibility to shut out differing opinions of a topic when those views may be morally repugnant? In other words, should we ever make the determination of when one particular opinion about something is so “obvious” that the topic does not deserve entertaining different views? If so, what might those topics entail, and how would you go about delimiting the conversation?
  4. What are some strategies for functionally bringing up controversial topics about which we as professors are likely to have strong opinions?
  5. What are the topics about which you believe you’d have a tough time teaching instead of preaching? What intervention could you employ in that instance?


I welcome your experiences and responses.


Cayanus, J.L. & Martin, M.M. (2008). Teacher self-disclosure: Amount, relevance, and negativity. Communication Quarterly, 56(3), 325-341.

Ejsing, A. (2007). Power and caution: The ethics of self-disclosure. Teaching Theology and Religion, 10(4), 235-243.

Wheeless, LR & Grotz, J. (1976). Communication and measurement of reported self-disclosure. Human Communication Research, 2, 338-346.

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Author: Kathy Lund Dean

I have been a member of the Academy for 15 years, and served in several governance roles including the Chair track for MSR. At Gustavus Adolphus College I hold the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair in Leadership & Ethics. My family and I moved to St. Peter after 10 years in Pocatello, Idaho at Idaho State University.

2 thoughts on “Teaching vs. preaching: Conversational ethics in the classroom”

  1. Thanks for introducing us to the PSD literature, the RAP analysis framework, and the list of reflection questions. It seems now the AoM Ethicist Blog is coming through on FB so I can follow it more easily.

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