Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 13: The Reflective Practitioner/Examples of Professional Articles

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As stated in the previous section, the authors of each of the following examples make particular assumptions about you, the reader. They expect you to have particular background knowledge, to have particular goals, and to do particular intellectual work in reading their material.

Example #1: How Do Children Acquire Moral Commitments?[edit]

In 1997, Herbert Saltzstein and several colleagues published a research-oriented article about how children acquire moral beliefs (Saltzstein, et al., 1997)[1]. The group of researchers were all graduate students and professors of psychology, working mostly at the City University of New York. When one of the contributors to this Wikibook, KelvinLeeSeifert, read of their affiliation with psychology, he suspected that they would talk about moral beliefs in general, and not necessarily about moral issues in classrooms, such as cheating or treating classmates with care and respect. Still, the article interested Kelvin as a former and current teacher, because he had long been concerned with fostering qualities like integrity, honesty, cooperation, and loyalty in students. If Kelvin could find out about the mechanism or process by which children acquire mature moral beliefs, he reasoned, maybe he could modify his teaching to take advantage of that knowledge.

So Kelvin began reading the article. He discovered some parts were challenging and required careful reflection, whereas others were easier to read. One of the most challenging passages came almost immediately, in the second and third paragraphs; these paragraphs, it seemed, required a bit of prior knowledge about theories of moral development. But Kelvin was willing to concentrate more fully on these paragraphs, because he expected that they might clarify the rest of the study. Here are the paragraphs (in italics), followed by some of Kelvin’s thoughts as he read them:

We began by re-examining the phenomenon of heteronomy, Piaget's assertion (1932/1965) following Kant (1785/1959) that young children equate moral obligation with deference to authority when justifying their moral judgments. The concept is important because it is central to the organismic account of moral development as a series of differentiations and integrations....[p. 37]
This was one of the difficult paragraphs, perhaps especially because Kelvin had never read the specific book by Piaget or by the philosopher Kant. But Kelvin did recall reading, at various times over the years, about Piaget's views on moral development. Piaget believed that at first, children define morality in terms of what adults think: an action is "good" if and only if adults (e.g. parents) consider it good, and "bad" if and only if adults consider it bad. This is the idea of "heteronomy" that Saltzstein is referring to. Children, in this view, take quite awhile to develop or "grow" into truly autonomous moral beliefs. Autonomous beliefs form slowly out of earlier beliefs, in the way that a young plant or animal might grow. This is the "organismic account of moral development" that Saltzstein is talking about.
...This account has been challenged by Turiel's "domain theory" (Turiel, 1983). According to Turiel and his colleagues, even young children intuitively distinguish moral from conventional rules. [p. 37]
Here was an idea that was intriguing! Saltzstein and his colleagues were pointing to research (by the person cited, named Turiel) that suggests that even preschoolers know the difference between truly moral rules and merely conventional rules. Apparently they believe, for example, that it would be wrong to steal toys or to hit someone, even if adults gave you permission to do so. But apparently they also know that it would be OK for traffic lights to use different colors--for red to mean "go" and green to mean "stop"—provided that everyone agreed on changing the rule. That is what the researcher named Turiel apparently meant by distinguishing convention from morality.

The introduction continued in this academically challenging style for about two pages, requiring Kelvin to read slowly and carefully in order to understand its points. Kelvin was not discouraged from continuing, though, because he wanted to find out more about how, in general, children acquire moral beliefs. Did moral beliefs take time to develop-- did they "grow" on children slowly after initially being borrowed from parents or other adults? In this case, then maybe Kelvin owed it to his students to adopt and express desirable moral attitudes myself, so as to provide a good model for their developing beliefs. Or were students’ key moral beliefs already in place when they entered school--almost as if "hard wired" in their minds, or at least already learned during infancy and the preschool years? In this second case, it might still be desirable for Kelvin to adopt positive moral attitudes, but not for the purpose of modeling them for students. Students already “hard wired” for key moral beliefs might not need a model so much as an enforcer of desirable moral behaviors. Concerning the issue of cheating, for example, the students might already understand the undesirable nature and implications of this behavior. As a result they might not need demonstrations of honest integrity from their teacher as much as affirmations from the teacher of the importance of honesty and integrity, along with consistent enforcement of appropriate sanctions against cheating when it did occur.

For Kelvin, therefore, the outcomes of research on moral development--including Saltzstein's that he was currently reading--posed issues of classroom management, both in university classrooms and in public school classrooms. So Kelvin read on. Saltzstein proposed resolving the issues about the origins of moral development by distinguishing between moral conflicts and moral dilemmas:

Moral conflicts are conflicts between moral duty or right and a non-moral desire. An example might be the conflict between whether to return a wallet to its rightful owner or keep the coveted wallet with its extra cash. In contrast, moral dilemmas are conflicts involving two moral rights or duties. For example, [a person might feel a dilemma between] whether to steal a drug to save a spouse's life. [p. 38]
The distinction between conflicts and dilemmas looked promising to Kelvin. Moral conflicts looked fairly simple in cognitive terms, even if they were sometimes difficult emotionally. The "right" action was obvious. Moral dilemmas were more complex cognitively as well as emotionally, because two "goods" were being weighed against each other. The moral alternatives might both be right and wrong at the same time, and their relative "rightness" might not be immediately obvious.

Saltzstein and his colleagues proposed that when young children show awareness of moral rules, they may be doing so in the simpler context of moral conflicts. A young child might believe that you should return a dollar to its owner, even if the child has trouble in practice overcoming a selfish impulse to keep the dollar. The same child might have trouble deciding, however, whether it is "right" to inform his teacher if a best friend has cheated on a test. In that case two moral principles compete for attention--honesty and loyalty to a friend. To sort out the implications of choosing between these principles, a young child might need to rely on older, wiser minds, such as parents or other adults. And the minute that he or she does so, the child is showing the moral heteronomy that Piaget used to write about and that Saltzstein referred to early in the article.

Understanding these ideas took effort, but once Kelvin began figuring them out, the rest of the article was easier to follow. In reading the remaining pages, he noted in passing that the researchers used several techniques common in educational research. For example, they interviewed participants, a common way of gathering systematic information about individuals' thinking. They also imposed controls on their procedures and on the selection of participants. Procedures were controlled, for example, by posing the same three moral dilemmas and to all participants, so that individuals' responses could be compared meaningfully. The selection of participants was controlled by selecting two age groups for deliberate comparison with each other--one that was seven years old and the other that was eleven. Since the researchers wanted to generalize about moral development as much as possible, but obviously could not interview every child in the world, they also sampled participants: they selected a manageable number (sixty-five, to be exact) from the larger student population of one particular school. In a second part of the investigation, they also selected a comparable number of children of the same two ages (7 and 11) from the city of Recife, located in Brazil. The Brazilian group's responses were compared deliberately with the American group's, in order to allow for the impact of cultural beliefs on moral development in general.

Kelvin recognized this research strategy as an example of using control groups. In research terms, the Brazilian group "controlled for" the impact of American culture on children's moral beliefs. And vice versa: the American group controlled for the impact of Brazilian culture on children's moral beliefs. Altogether, these techniques helped insure that the interviews of children's moral beliefs really illustrated what they were supposed to illustrate--that they were reliable and valid, in the senses that we discussed in Chapter 11. As Kelvin noticed Saltzstein's attention to good research techniques, he gained confidence in Saltzstein’s observations and in the interpretations that the authors made from them.

What did Saltzstein and his colleagues find out--or more to the point, what did Kelvin Seifert learn from what Saltzstein and his colleagues wrote about? There were three ideas that occurred to Kelvin. One was that in everyday life, children probably deal with moral beliefs of all levels of cognitive complexity, and not just "simple" moral conflicts and "complex" moral dilemmas. Saltzstein found that children's solutions to moral dilemmas depended a lot on the content of the dilemma. Children advocated strongly for truthfulness in some situations (for example, in deciding whether to tell the teacher about a friend's cheating), but not in other situations (like in deciding whether to back up a friend who is being teased and who has lied in an effort to stop the teasing). But it was rare for all children to support any one moral principle completely; they usually supported a mix.

Another idea that Kelvin learned from Saltzstein's research was about how children expressed moral heteronomy versus moral autonomy. Age, it seemed, did not affect the beliefs that children stated; younger and older children took similar positions on all dilemmas initially. But age did affect how steadfastly children held to initial beliefs. Younger children were more easily influenced to switch opinions when an adult "cross-examined" with probing questions; older children were more likely to keep to their initial position. Moral heteronomy was revealed not by a child's views as such, but by the kind of dialogue a child has with adults.

A third idea that Kelvin learned was about children's perceptions of adults' moral beliefs. Saltzstein found that even though older children (the 11-year-olds) showed more moral autonomy (were more steadfast) than younger children, they tended to believe that adults thought about moral issues in ways similar to children who were younger. In the "teasing" dilemma mentioned above, for example, the 11-year-olds opted much more often than 7-year-olds for remaining loyal to a friend, even though doing so meant further untruthfulness with peers. Yet the 11-year-olds also more often stated a belief that adults would resolve the same dilemma in a way characteristic of 7-year-olds--that is, by telling the truth to peers and thus betraying loyalty to a friend. This finding puzzled Kelvin. Why should older, and presumably more insightful, children think that adults are more like younger children than like themselves? Saltzstein suggested an interpretation, however, that helped him make sense of the apparent inconsistency:

...Consistent with our past research, children attributed the kinds of moral choices made by younger children to adults. In our view, this finding tends to support a constructivist rather than a [social modeling] view of morality, which would predict that the child's judgments mirror (or develop toward) their representation of adult judgments. [p. 41]
In other words, thought Kelvin, if children learned moral beliefs by imitating (or modeling themselves after) parents or other adults, then they ought to see themselves as resembling adults more and more as they get older. Instead, they see themselves as resembling adults less, at least during middle childhood. This would happen only if they were preoccupied with "constructing" their own beliefs on the basis of their experiences, and therefore failed to notice that adults might also have constructed beliefs similar to their own.

Relevance: A Framework for Understanding Moral Development[edit]

The article by Saltzstein offered a way to understand how children develop moral beliefs, and especially to understand the change from moral heteronomy to moral autonomy. By imposing controls on the procedures (uniform interviews) and on the selection of participants (particular ages, particular societies or cultures), the researchers eliminated certain sources of ambiguity or variability in children's responses. By framing their project in terms of previous theories of moral development (Piaget’s, Turiel’s), furthermore, they made it easier to interpret their new results in the general terms of these theories as well. In these ways the investigation aspired to provide a general perspective about children's moral development. Providing a framework for understanding, you recall, is one of the major purposes of many professional publications.

But note that the authors paid a price for emphasizing this purpose. By organizing their work around existing general theory and research, they had to assume that readers already had some knowledge of that theory and research. This is not an unreasonable assumption if the readers are expected to be fellow researchers; after all, many of them make a living by "knowing the literature" of psychology. But assuming such knowledge can be an obstacle if the authors intend to communicate with non-psychologists: in that case, either the authors must make more of an effort to explain the relevant background research, or readers must educate themselves about the research. The latter activity is not necessarily difficult (the background knowledge for Saltzstein's work, for example, took me only a few paragraphs to explain in writing), but it must be done to make full sense of research that tries to provide a universal framework of psychological knowledge.

The Reader's Role: Interested Observer of Children[edit]

In conducting and reporting their research, Saltzstein and his colleagues were not presenting themselves as school teachers, nor were they expecting readers necessarily to respond as teachers. As they put it in the first paragraph of the article, they sought to offer "a more contextualized perspective for understanding the development of moral judgments" [p. 37]. Unlike most teachers, they seemed indifferent to recommending how children's moral judgments ought to be fostered. Observation of children was their purpose, not intervention. The meaning of the term "contextualized perspective" was not obvious to Kelvin when he first read it, but eventually it became clearer: they were talking about the importance of distinguishing among types of moral decisions and moral beliefs. They did sometimes note information relevant to teaching--for example, they pointed out that for cultural reasons, teachers in Brazil do not command high respect and therefore compared to American children, Brazilian children may feel less compelled to tell the truth to their teachers. But this comment was not the primary focus of their research, nor did the authors discuss what (if anything) it might imply about teaching in the United States.

Yet the non-teaching perspective of the article did not keep Kelvin, a long-time school teacher and current university teacher, from reflecting on the article in terms of its educational relevance. As we mentioned already, Kelvin was attracted to the article because of his own concerns about character development in students--how do they acquire moral beliefs and commitments, and how should he help them in doing so? Kelvin did not really expect to find an answer to the second of these questions, given the "observation" orientation of the authors. He did hope to find an answer to the first, although even here he also expected that to make allowances for the fact that research interviews are not usually identical to classroom situations. Children might respond differently when interviewed individually by a researcher, compared to how they might respond to a teacher in class. Or perhaps not. So in reflecting on the article, Kelvin had to note the context and purposes of Saltzstein's study, and to remind himself that once a teacher went beyond simply observing children to intervening on their behalf, the teacher might be led to different conclusions about children’s moral development. But in spite of these cautions--or maybe because of them--Kelvin found much food for thought in the article related to teaching.

Example #2: Learning Disability as a Misleading Label[edit]

In 2006, Ray McDermott, Shelley Goldman, and Hervé Varenne published an article that discussed the use of disability categories in education[2]. The article attracted Kelvin’s attention because he had been concerned for a long time about the ambiguities of disability categories (see Chapter 5 of this book) as well as about their potential for stigmatizing individuals. He expected the article to document additional problems with labeling when a student is from a non-White ethnic group. Kelvin’s expectation was fulfilled partially, but he was surprised also to encounter an additional and tougher message in the article. Here is how the study began (again, printed in italics):

Since about 1850…classifying human beings by mental ability, accurately or not, has been a politically rewarded activity. Those with power have placed others, usually the downtrodden, into ability and disposition groups that they cannot escape… People who live together in a culture must struggle constantly with the constraints…of systems of classification and interpretation used in the culture.
Kelvin had a mixed reaction to this opening. In one way it seemed to say something familiar—that classification systems (such as categories for disabilities) may create problems for individuals. But the tone of the paragraph sounded more severely critical than Kelvin had expected: it was saying that power governed all classifications, implying that misclassifications may be widespread or even universal.

Kelvin’s initial hunch was therefore that the article would express a radically critical view of disability classifications—particularly as they affect the “downtrodden,” which presumably included children from minority ethnic groups. His expectation proved correct as the authors explained their point of view, which they called a cultural approach to understanding disability. Using learning disabilities (LD) as an example, here is how they explained their position:

We are not as interested in LD behavior as in the preoccupations—as seen from the level of classroom organization—of all those adults who are professionally poised to discover LD behavior. We are less interested in the characteristics of LD children than in the cultural arrangements that make an LD label relevant.
At this point Kelvin was not sure if he wanted to continue reading the article because it seemed like it might not be relevant to classroom life specifically. It also implied a severe criticism of professional educators—implied that they are too eager to find examples of LD and for this reason may misclassify students. On the other hand, Kelvin was already aware that LD are an especially ambiguous category of disability; maybe the article would help to show why. So he kept reading.

The authors continued by outlining the history of LD as a category of disability, describing this category as an outgrowth of the general intelligence testing movement during the twentieth century. By the 1970s, they argued, the concept of LD offered a way to classify children with academic difficulties without having to call the children mentally disabled. Because of this fact, the LD category was needed—literally—by well-off parents who did not want their children treated or educated as children with mental disabilities. LD as a concept and category came to be applied primarily to children from the White middle-class, and mental disability became, by default, the equivalent category for the non-White and poor.

To support this assertion, the authors reported a classroom observation of three non-White boys—Hector, Ricardo, and Boomer—while they worked together to design an imaginary research station in Antarctica. Citing actual transcripts of conversation while the boys worked, the authors concluded that all three boys showed intelligence and insight about the assignment, but that the teacher was only aware of the contributions of one of the boys. Hector systematically hid his knowledge from the teacher’s view by getting Boomer to speak for their group; Ricardo participated well in the group work but was rarely acknowledged by the other two boys. Boomer received considerable praise from the teacher, thanks to his speaking for the group. Yet the teacher was never aware of these subtleties. The authors blamed her oversight not on the teacher herself, but on an educational and cultural system that leads educators to classify or typify students too quickly or easily. Here is how they put it:

The American classroom is well organized for the production of display of failure, one child at a time if possible, but group by group if necessary…Even if the teacher manages to treat every child as capable, the children can hammer each other into negative status; and even if both…resist dropping everyone into predefined categories, the children’s parents can take over, demanding more and more boxes with which to specify kinds of kids doing better than other kinds of kids. In such a classroom, if there were no LD categories, someone would have to invent them.
When Kelvin read this conclusion, he did not really disagree, but he did feel that it was beside the point for most teachers. Maybe children do get classified too easily, he thought, but a teacher’s job is not just to lament this possibility, as the authors seemed to be doing. Instead their job is to help the real, live children for whom they have daily responsibility. What teachers need are therefore suggestions to avoid misclassifying students by overlooking key information about them. Kelvin wished, at the end, that the authors had made some of these suggestions.

Relevance: A Critical Framework[edit]

In this study the authors offered a sort of backhanded framework of thinking about categories of disability; or more precisely they offered a framework for understanding what the categories are not. In essence they said that disability categories describe qualities “in” students only in the sense that educators and others happen to think of disability categories in this way. An equally reasonable way to think about disabilities, they argued, is that modern society is organized so that its citizens have to be classified for many different reasons. Educators are simply helping to implement this society-wide expectation. A frequent result in classrooms is that teachers classify students too easily and that key evidence of students’ capacity is overlooked.

In making this argument, the authors implied an indirect recommendation about how to teach, though the recommendation actually focused on what teachers should not do. Instead of (mis)identifying children with learning difficulties, the authors implied, teachers and other educators should stop concerning themselves with classifying children, and seek to reorganize classrooms and schools so that classification is less important. “Change the school,” they wrote, “and LD becomes less relevant.” This conclusion may be an important reminder, but it is not especially helpful as a recommendation to practicing teachers, who usually need to know about more than what to avoid.

The Readers’ Role: Concerned Advocate for Social Justice[edit]

It is not surprising that the article lacked concrete recommendations for teaching, given that the authors seemed to speak to readers not as classroom teachers, but as general critics of society who are concerned about fairness or social justice. Their comments made two assumptions: first, that readers will want to minimize unfair stereotypes of students, and second, that readers will seek greater fairness in how teachers treat students. For readers who happen to be teachers themselves, the first of these assumptions is a reasonable one; most of us would indeed like to minimize unfair stereotyping of students. The second is also reasonable, but perhaps not in a way that the authors intended. Teachers probably do try their best to treat students fairly and respectfully. Their responsibilities usually mean, however, that they can only do this conveniently with their own students; the time available to work toward general social justice is often limited. (As you might suspect, Kelvin was not fully satisfied after he finished reading this article!)

Example #3: The Impact of Bilingualism on Reading[edit]

In 1995, three education professors--Robert Jiménez, Georgia García, and David Pearson--published a study about the impact of bilingualism on children's ability to read English (1995)[3]. The three specialized in curriculum studies, literacy acquisition, and bilingual language development, and were therefore motivated by a concern for the academic success of bilingual children and especially by concern for identifying why bilingual children sometimes have difficulty learning to read English. Too much research on bilingualism, they argued, was based on what they called a "deficit" framework: it focused on what bilingual children lacked compared to monolinguals. They sought an alternative framework, one focused on bilingual students' competence, and especially on their competence to read a second language.

To search for this alternative, the researchers mounted a large research program, and the article published in 1995 was one of the studies resulting from this research. It caught Kelvin’s interest not only because of its topic, but because of its approach. Instead of surveying dozens of students with a questionnaire, as researchers sometimes do, these investigators relied on just three students studied intensively. Each student became a case study and included detailed, lengthy observations and interviews of that particular student. Each student was chosen deliberately for a particular purpose. One was a highly proficient reader who was also bilingual (Spanish and English); a second was a marginally proficient reader who was bilingual (Spanish and English); and a third was a highly proficient reader who was monolingual in English. To qualify for the study, furthermore, each student had to be comfortable reflecting on and talking about their own reading processes, so that the authors could interview them at length on this topic. The researchers asked each student to read six one-page passages in English and (where relevant) in Spanish. They invited all three to think aloud about their reading as they went along, commenting on how they figured out particular words or passages. The oral readings and think-aloud commentaries were taped and transcribed, and became the information on which the authors based their conclusions and recommendations.

Using these procedures, Jiménez, García, and Pearson discovered important differences among the three girls. The proficient bilingual, Pamela, used her growing knowledge of each language to help in learning vocabulary from the other language. When she encountered the English word species, for example, she guessed correctly that it meant the same as the similar Spanish word especies; and when she encountered the Spanish liquído, she guessed correctly that it meant the English liquid. Her focus on learning vocabulary was stronger than for the proficient monolingual, Michelle, who commented less on specific words than how the overall reading passages related to her prior general knowledge. The difference presumably stemmed from Michelle's greater familiarity with English vocabulary--so much greater, in fact, that Michelle did not need to think about individual words deliberately. Both Michelle and Pamela differed, however, from the less-proficient bilingual reader, Christine. Like Pamela, Christine focused on vocabulary, but she did not think of her native Spanish as a resource for this task. When reading a Spanish word, she was sometimes reminded of English equivalents ("cognates," as language teachers call them), but she did not use her much greater knowledge of Spanish to assist with her more limited English. But she did not search for equivalent words deliberately, as Pamela did.

Relevance: Recommendations for Teaching English as an Additional Language[edit]

The authors of this article focused more directly on particular learning behaviors than did the authors of the two articles described earlier. Jimenez and his colleagues emphasized the importance of regarding a child's native language as a strength in the process, not a liability, and they then pointed out the importance of facilitating vocabulary development. But they did not claim this recommendation to be appropriate for all children or for all forms of bilingualism. They only focused on a particular pair of languages (Spanish and English in the USA), and on three combinations of skill level in these two languages. These are common bilingual experiences in the United States, but they are not the only ones, either in the United States or elsewhere in the world.

For other bilingual situations, their conclusions might not hold true. For some students (e.g. Chinese-Americans), the native language and the second language are much more different in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar than Spanish is to English, and therefore may provide less of a resource to a child learning to read. And in some settings, relationships between languages are more equal than in the United States. In Canada, for example, both the numbers and the overall social status of English speakers and French speakers are more equal than in the United States. In both of these situations, if a child fails to learn to read the second language, it may not be for the reasons suggested by Robert Jiménez, but for other reasons, ranging from difficulties with reading per se to cultural differences in how a child expects to be taught (Johnson, 2004)[4].

The Reader's Role: Both Teacher and Researcher[edit]

In the published article describing their research, Jiménez, García, and Pearson assumed that readers have some familiarity with bilingual students and with issues related to teaching reading. They began their article by describing previous research studies in these areas--more than a dozen of them, in fact. In the middle they described numerous responses of the three bilingual students to the passages they were asked to read. At the end of the article they made specific suggestions for teaching, such as "focus more on vocabulary development." When Kelvin read these various sections, he found that his prior knowledge of and reflections about teaching helped to make sense of them. But he also found that did not need to be an expert in bilingualism order to understand the authors' messages—he had never, in fact, taught English as a Second Language, nor had he ever conducted research on reading or bilingual language development.

(back to Chapter 13...)


  1. Saltzstein, H., Millery, M., Eisenberg, Z., Dias, M., & O’Brien, D. (1997). Moral heteronomy in context: Interviewer influence in New York City and Recife, Brazil. In H. Saltzstein (Ed.), New directions in child development: Culture as a context for moral development, pp. 37-50. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. McDermott, R., Goldman, S., & Varenne, H. (2006). The cultural work of learning disabilities. Educational Researcher, 35(6), 12-17.
  3. Jimenez, R., Garcia, G., & Pearson, D. (1995). Three children, two languages and strategic reading: Case studies in bilingual/monolingual reading. American Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 67-98.
  4. Johnson, M. (2004). A philosophy of second language acquisition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.