Growing Communities: Ethical dilemmas as a recipe for problem-solving | Harbord & Khan | 5 Min Read

Gardens can grow communities either at school, on your block, or someplace in your city. 

The skills and knowledge gathered by growing food and learning to cook are valuable in developing lifestyles that sustain us individually, culturally, and intergenerationally. We focused the unit we had developed on edible gardens around the human value ‘Wisdom’, in order to investigate indigenous and scientific knowledge and innovation.

Many families and communities developed edible gardens during lockdown, and schools have some excellent programs and strategies to connect students to living in more sustainable ways. Creating an edible garden will help grow your community and collaborations within the student body. We had repurposed the space outside our Design lab and grown tomatoes with our students. One of our parents kindly cooked us some spaghetti in tomato sauce for lunch!

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Liza Engelberg (LE) is the Director of Education, NYC Edible Schoolyard Program. Their goal is to provide edible education for every child in New York City. They partner with the city’s public schools “to cultivate healthy students and communities through hands-on cooking and gardening education, transforming children’s relationship with food”. 

How can ethical dilemmas guide students during their exploration of significant content? Below we have aligned the ethical dilemma with the Design Thinking Cycle (Stanford IDEO model) and extracts from Liza Engelberg’s interview. Our possible lines of inquiry can generate problem-solving opportunities for students.

Ethical Dilemma: 

When growing food, is it sustainable to only think of human interest or should we consider what benefits nature?

Ethical dilemma in action: “We talk about the costs of monoculture vs. the benefits of biodiversity. We talk about how bees and other pollinators are facing danger from pesticides. And we examine the injustices faced by workers at various levels of our food system.” – LE

At every stage the Design Thinking Cycle presents students with opportunities for problem-solving:

EMPATHIZE — An investigation of ethical dilemmas can reveal the emotional context, the human story behind the scenario. This can inspire empathy and support relationship-building. The germination of inquiry begins with compassion.

Ethical dilemma in action: “Everyone should have access to affordable, healthy, and delicious food. Everyone should live in a safe and beautiful environment and know that this environment will remain safe and beautiful for their children and grandchildren.” -LE

Possible inquiry: 

  • What does a safe and beautiful environment look and feel like to you?
  • What does food taste like when you have planted the seed, nurtured the plant, harvested the produce, and then finally prepared it to eat?
  • What does it feel like when you collaborate with your community to create an edible garden?
  • What does it feel like when you know you have the skills and knowledge to grow food?

DEFINE — Defining terms are an integral part of the problem-solving purpose. Ethical dilemmas require students to define and develop an understanding of ethical codes (and moral conduct) in relation to the real-world issues they are exploring. Students need to understand the context where things originate. 

Ethical dilemma in action: “For our youngest kids, we are explaining the fundamental fact that food grows from the earth. For our older students, we talk about climate and seasonality and, by extension, food miles.” – LE

Possible inquiry: 

  • Where does our food come from? 
  • What are the dynamics of demand and supply that require food to be transported over great distances? 
  • What are the hidden costs of eating food sourced from all over the world throughout the year, rather than what is locally grown and seasonal?

IDEATE — Ethical dilemmas give students multiple viewpoints and many ideas. 

Ethical dilemma in action: “We talk about how Native Americans grew the “three sisters”: corn, beans, and squash. These foods grew together in a symbiotic way, exemplifying the benefits of biodiversity and companion planting.” – LE

Possible inquiry: 

  • What are some of the connections between growing food and telling stories? 
  • How many family or cultural events are focused on special foods at particular times of the year?
  • What are some of the ways in which knowledge is passed on from one generation to another? 
  • What can we learn about collaboration from companion planting (how some plants are grown together for mutual benefits such as pollination and natural insect control)?
  • How could this inspire our students?

PROTOTYPE — Ethical dilemmas are a safe space to test, take risks, and fail. They are not judgmental and provide a way to try out solutions.

Ethical dilemma in action: “We hope that caring for their own school garden will make students more invested in the environment in general. We also try to employ a “lens of resistance” when teaching about environmental issues. We worry that teaching students about environmental degradation and climate change can leave them feeling helpless, so we try to show them examples of actions they can take to make things better.” – LE

Possible inquiry: 

Explore ways to include Mindfulness activities to help build resilience in students so they can emotionally deal with some of the facts relating to environmental degradation and climate change. Our students need support through techniques of social and emotional strategies to self-regulate their feelings.

TEST — Ethical dilemmas provide students with opportunities to reconsider their ethical stance. This is a time for evaluating and testing but also for modification and adaptation. The feedback received during the collaborative learning process in Design Thinking is vital for personal growth and development. 

Ethical dilemmas in action: (4th and 5th Graders) “They were interested in the problem of garbage in their neighborhood, which led them to study recycling, which led them to advocate for recycling at their own school.” – LE

Possible inquiry: 

  • What are some of the needs and solutions we face with regard to waste? 
  • What are some of the systems we can develop to manage garbage efficiently and how can we test them?
  • What are some of the ways we need to adapt our behavior in order to take responsibility for our actions?

Some of the main ingredients of ethical dilemmas are ethical issues, emotional responses, and human values. A measure of success is not that students resolve these dilemmas neatly, but that they are encouraged to identify and examine sustainable ways of living and thinking as part of the problem-solving process within Problem Based Learning. 

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website:

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