Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Trolleys and Tribulations


William Thompson, Diana Gedye | Published: November 17th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course Psychology, U.S. Government
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 180 minutes


This lesson provides an overview of ethical theory and integrity through discussion, reflection, and game-based learning. Through this lesson, students will gain a basic understanding of three common ethical frameworks: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue theory; and they will come to understand that integrity means acting in accordance with one's own chosen ethical framework. This lesson includes optional modifications for distance learning. Resources for use in Google Classroom are included.

Essential Question(s)

What does it mean to act with integrity?



Students are presented with the classic trolley problem.


Students play the K20 DGBL game Paper Trail.


Students use a Card Sort to classify decisions with ethical frameworks.


In groups, students discuss case studies.


Students write reflective essays considering how they can apply an ethical framework to their own lives.


  • Student devices with internet access

  • Student handout of ethical

  • Ethics Card Sort handout (attached)

  • Ethics Frameworks handout (attached)


Show slide 3 to the class and read aloud the dilemma presented as The Trolley Problem. Take a quick poll of the class to see if students would pull the lever to save five lives but sacrifice one.

Move on to slide 4 which adds a complication to the Trolley Problem. Read aloud the new dilemma and then move on to slide 5. Show the Trolley Problem video.

After the video, pose these discussion questions (on slide 6):

  • What decision would you make about the runaway trolley?

  • Would you push the big guy off the bridge to save others?

  • Why do most people say they would not?

  • Is there a moral or ethical dilemma in killing someone to save others?

  • How is the Trolley Problem a no-win situation?

Explain to students that in this no-win situation when there is no easy choice, we tend to rely on our own moral or ethical reasoning. Today students will look at three different ethical frameworks or perspectives. Pass out the Three Ethical Frameworks handout. Ask students to read silently the handout. Allow time for students to read the handout.

Once students have read the frameworks, return their focus to the Trolley Problem. With an elbow partner, discuss what each type of person would do in the Trolley Problem—the Consequentialist, the Deontologist, and the Virtuist. Allow about 5 to 7 minutes for partner discussion and call on a few pairs for their responses. Show slide 7 that gives an explanation of each type of ethical framework and how someone might react in each ethical framework to the Trolley Problem.

Ask students to volunteer which of the outcomes of the Trolley Problem from slide 7 appeal to them the most. This MIGHT be their ethical framework, although one dilemma alone is not enough to make a firm determination. Students will now play an Ethics game called the Paper Trail that may give them further insight into their own ethical framework.


Have students play through Paper Trail (this should take a little over an hour), then discuss how their experiences and choices differ. To access Paper Trail email


At this point, your students may have some idea which ethical framework they personally prefer but may need further help identifying how decisions correlate to these frameworks. Divide students into groups of three. Pass out a Card Sort deck to each group. In the deck ask the students to pull out first the cards that say- Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Theory, and Unethical. These cards will be used to organize the dilemmas into one of these four headers. Groups are to discuss each dilemma and make a decision as to which framework it might be. Use the Card Sort strategy to have students organize different decisions under four headers: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue, and Unethical. Let students use the Ethics Handbook or the student handout as a reference. An answer key is provided. After about 20 to 30 minutes of play, share the answer key with the students.


Have your students select one of the three ethical frameworks and partner with another student who has selected the same framework.

Select one to three case studies from the NHSEB Case Archive.

Option 1- Have each pair come up with a solution to the issue using their ethical framework. Once everyone has finished, have each pair share with another pair who chose a different framework to discuss the differences in their solutions.As a class, discuss the variety of solutions that were reached, how they are similar, and how they are different.

Option 2- Have each pair come up with a solution to the issue using their ethical framework. Student pairs present their solution and the framework they chose. After all of the presentations are completed, lead a whole-class discussion of the differences and similarities among the frameworks.

Have student pairs turn in their written solution to the dilemma and their reasoning of the ethical framework they used as a participation grade and formative assessment.


Have students write a short reflective essay about a difficult decision they had in the past. Have students use their current understanding of ethics and their chosen ethical framework to describe how they made their decision or how they could have improved their choices in that situation.

Students should also explain, to the best of their ability, why they chose their ethical framework, and why they believe this framework is preferable. There are no right or wrong answers in this section as long as the student understands the ethical framework clearly.