Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 3: Student Development/Moral Development

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Morality is a system of beliefs about ethics, about what is right and good compared to what is wrong or bad. Moral development refers to the changes in moral beliefs as a person grows older and gains maturity. Moral beliefs are related to, but not identical with, moral behavior: it is possible to know the right thing to do, yet not actually do what is right. Morality is also not the same as knowledge of social conventions, which are arbitrary customs needed for the smooth operation of society. Even though conventions may have a moral element, they have a primarily practical purpose. Conventionally, for example, motor vehicles all keep to the same side of the street (to the right in the United States, to the left in Great Britain). This convention allows for smooth flow of traffic and prevents accidents. But following the convention also has a moral element, because any individual who chooses to drive on the wrong side of the street can cause injuries or even death. Choosing the wrong side of the street is therefore morally wrong, and choosing the conventional side is morally right.

When it comes to teaching, moral choices are not restricted to occasional dramatic incidents, but are woven into almost every aspect of classroom life. Imagine this simple example. Suppose that you are teaching reading to a small group of second-graders, and the students are taking turns reading a story out loud. Should you give every student the same amount of time to read, even though some might benefit from additional opportunity to read? Or should you give more time to the students that seem to need extra help, even if doing so bores others or deprives them of an equal share of “floor time”? Which option is more fair, and which is more considerate? Parallel dilemmas happen every day at all grade levels simply because students are diverse and class time and a teacher’s energy level are finite.

Embedded in this rather ordinary classroom incident are two moral issues, one about fairness or justice and the other about consideration or care. It is important to keep both in mind when thinking about how students develop their own beliefs about right or wrong. A morality of justice is a system of beliefs about human rights—or more specifically, about respect for fairness, impartiality, equality, and individuals’ independence. A morality of care, on the other hand, is a system of beliefs about human responsibilities—more specifically, about caring for others, showing consideration for individuals’ needs, and interdependence among individuals. Students and teachers need to develop both forms of morality. In the next sections therefore I explain one major theory about each type of developmental change, beginning with the morality of justice.

Kohlberg’s Morality of Justice[edit | edit source]

One of the best-known explanations of how the morality of justice develops was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg and his associates (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1991).[1][2] Using a stage model similar to Piaget’s, Kohlberg proposed six stages of development, grouped into three levels, which individuals experience universally and in sequence as they form beliefs about justice. He named the levels simply preconventional, conventional, and (you guessed it) postconventional. The levels and stages are summarized in Table 3-3.

Preconventional Justice: Obedience and Mutual Advantage[edit | edit source]

The preconventional level of moral development coincides approximately with the preschool period of life and with Piaget’s preoperational period of thinking. At this age the child is still relatively self-centered and consequently insensitive to the moral effects of actions on others. The result is a somewhat short-sighted set of moral beliefs. Initially (Kohlberg’s Stage 1), the child adopts an ethics of obedience and punishment—a sort of “morality of keeping out of trouble.” The moral rightness and wrongness of actions are determined by whether actions are rewarded or punished by authorities, such as parents or teachers. If helping yourself to a cookie brings affectionate smiles from adults, then taking the cookie is considered morally “good.” If it brings scolding instead, then it is morally “bad.” The child does not think about why an action might be praised or scolded; in fact, says Kohlberg, he would be incapable at Stage 1 of considering the reasons even if adults offered them.

Eventually the child learns not only to respond to positive consequences, but also learns how to produce them by exchanging favors with others. The new ability creates Stage 2, an ethics of market exchange. At this stage the morally “good” action is one that favors not only the child, but another person directly involved, and a “bad” action is one that lacks this reciprocity. If trading the sandwich from your lunch for the cookies in your friend’s lunch is mutually agreeable, then the trade is morally good; otherwise it is not. This perspective introduces a type of fairness into the child’s thinking, but still ignores the larger context of actions—the effects on people not present or directly involved. In Stage 2, for example, it would also be considered morally “good” to pay a classmate $5.00 per week to do your homework—or even to avoid bullying or to provide sexual favors—provided that both parties find the arrangement fair.

Conventional Justice: Conformity to Peers and Society[edit | edit source]

As children move into the school years, their lives expand to include a larger number and range of peers and (eventually) of the community as a whole. The change leads to conventional morality, which are beliefs about right and wrong based on what this larger array of people agree on—hence Kohlberg’s use of the term “conventional.” At first, in Stage 3, the child’s reference group are immediate peers, so Stage 3 is called the ethics of peer opinion. If peers say, for example, that it is morally good to behave politely with as many people as possible, then the child is likely to agree with the group and to regard politeness as not merely an arbitrary social convention, but a moral “good.” This approach to moral belief is a bit more stable, but not necessarily more profound, than the approach in Stage 2, because the child is taking into account the reactions not just of one other person, but of an entire group. But it can still lead a child astray if the group settles on beliefs that adults consider morally wrong, like “Be nice to everyone except Rachel” or “Shop lifting for candy bars is fun and desirable.”

Eventually, as the child becomes a youth and the social world expands even more, he or she acquires even larger numbers of peers and friends, many of whom may disagree about ethical issues and beliefs. Resolving the complexities lead to Stage 4, the ethics of law and order, in which the young person increasingly frames moral beliefs in terms of what society as a whole seems to believe. Now an action is morally good if it is legal or at least customarily approved by most people, including people whom the youth does not know personally. This attitude leads to an even more stable set of principles than in the previous stage, though it is still not immune from “wrongheaded” ethics completely. A community or society may sometimes agree, for example, that people of a certain race should be treated with deliberate disrespect, or that a factory owner is entitled to dump wastewater into a commonly shared lake or river. To develop ethical principles that reliably avoid mistakes like these, therefore, requires further stages of moral development.

Postconventional Justice: Social Contract and Universal Principles[edit | edit source]

As a person becomes able to think more abstractly (or “formally,” in Piaget’s sense), ethical beliefs shift from mere acceptance of what community and society do believe to the process by which community beliefs are formed. This new focus constitutes Stage 5, the ethics of social contract. Now an action, belief, or practice is morally good if it has been created through fair, democratic processes that have respected the rights of the people affected. Consider, for example, the No Child Left Behind legislation—the current law in the United States requiring that all students be given standardized tests in order to decide whether schools and teachers are teaching adequately (United States Government Printing Office, 2002).[3] This law is certainly legal, but is it ethical? Was it created by consulting with and gaining the consent of the relevant people? How well, for example, were educational leaders consulted? Or how about students and families of color, or teachers in schools lacking crucial resources? Reasonable, thoughtful individuals disagree about how thoroughly and fairly these consultation processes have occurred. Their focus on the process means that they are thinking according to Stage 5, the ethics of social contract, regardless of what they may also think about the content of the legislation. In this sense beliefs on both sides of a debate about No Child Left Behind can be morally sound, even if they contradict each other.

Paying attention to due process certainly seems like it might avoid help to avoid following conventional moral beliefs mindlessly. As an ethical strategy, though, it too can sometimes fail. The problem is that an ethics of social contract places more faith in democratic process than the process sometimes deserves, and does not pay enough attention to what may be decided through democratic due process. In principle (and unfortunately in practice), a society could decide democratically to kill off every member of a racial minority, for example, but would the due process make it ethical? The possibility of ethical means serving unethical ends leads some individuals toward Stage 6, the ethics of self-chosen, universal principles. At this final stage, the morally good action is based on personally held principles that apply both to the person’s immediate life as well as to the larger community and society. The universal principles may include a belief in democratic due process (Stage 5 ethics), incidentally, but others may also be involved, such as a belief in the dignity of all human life or of the natural environment. At Stage 6 the universal principles will form a person’s beliefs even if the principles occasionally mean disagreeing with what is customary (Stage 4) or even with what is legal (Stage 5).

Gilligan’s Morality of Care[edit | edit source]

As logical as it sounds, Kohlberg’s stages of moral justice are not sufficient for understanding moral development either of students or of teachers. To see why, suppose that you have a student who asks for the extension of the deadline for an assignment. The justice orientation of Kohlberg’s theory would prompt you to consider issues of fairness and individual rights. Would the extension be fair to others, since the late student might be able to put more work into the assignment than can other students? And would the extension be fair to you, since you may need to mark the assignments as promptly as possible, so that you can move on to other teaching tasks. These are important considerations, but not the only ethical ones. Another set has to do with the responsibilities that you and the student have for each other. Does the student have valid personal reasons (illness, death in the family, etc.) for why the assignment has to be late? And will the assignment lose its educational value if you force the student to turn it in prematurely? These latter questions have less to do with fairness and rights, and more to do with taking care and responsibility for students. They require a framework different from Kohlberg’s to be understood fully.

One such framework has been developed by Carol Gilligan, a former student of Kohlberg’s, whose ideas center on a morality of care, or system of beliefs about human responsibilities, care and consideration for others. Gilligan proposed three moral positions that represent different extents or breadth of ethical care. Unlike Kohlberg (or Piaget or Erikson), she does not claim that the positions form a developmental sequence, but only that they can be ranked hierarchically according to their dept or subtlety. In this respect her theory is only “semi-developmental,” in a way similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of motives (Brown & Gilligan, 1992; Taylor, Gilligan, & Sullivan, 1995).[4][5] Table 3-3 summarizes the three moral positions from Gilligan’s theory.

Position 1: Caring as Survival[edit | edit source]

The most basic kind of caring is a survival orientation, in which a person is concerned exclusively with his or her own welfare. If a teenage girl with this ethical position is wondering whether to get an abortion, for example, she will be concerned entirely with the effects of the abortion on herself. The morally good choice will be whatever creates the least stress and disrupts her life the least. Responsibilities to others (like the baby, the father, or her family) play little or no part in her thinking.

As a moral position, a survival orientation is obviously not satisfactory for classrooms on a widespread scale. If every student only looked out for himself or herself alone, classroom life might become rather unpleasant! Nonetheless, there are situations in which caring primarily about yourself is both a sign of good mental health and also relevant to teachers. For a child who has been bullied at school or sexually abused at home, for example, it is both healthy and morally desirable to speak out about the bullying or abuse—essentially looking out for the victim’s own needs at the expense of others’, including the bully’s or abuser’s. Speaking out requires a survival orientation and is healthy because in this case, the child is at least caring about herself.

Position 2: Conventional Caring[edit | edit source]

A more sophisticated or subtle moral position is caring for others, in which a person is concerned about others’ happiness and welfare, and about reconciling or integrating others’ needs where they conflict. In considering an abortion, for example, the teenager might think primarily about what others in her life prefer her to do—whether the father, her parents, or her doctor want to keep the child. The morally good choice becomes whatever will please others the best. This position is more demanding than Position 1, both ethically and intellectually, because it requires coordinating several persons’ needs and values at the same time. But ultimately it is morally insufficient because it does not consider one crucial person: the self.

In classrooms, students who operate from Position 2 can be very desirable in some ways; they can be kind, considerate, and good fitting in and at working cooperatively with others. Because these qualities are very welcome in a busy classroom, it can be tempting for teachers to reward students for developing and using them for much of their school careers. The problem with rewarding Position 2 ethics, however, is that doing so neglects the student’s identity—his or her own academic and personal goals or values. Sooner or later, personal goals, values and identity need attention, and educators have a responsibility for assisting students to discover and clarify them. Unfortunately for teachers, students who know what they want may sometimes be more assertive and less automatically compliant than those who do not.

Position 3: Integrated Caring[edit | edit source]

The most developed form of moral caring in Gilligan’s model is integrated caring, the coordination of personal needs and values with those of others. Now the morally good choice takes account of everyone including yourself, not everyone except yourself. In considering an abortion, the woman at Position 3 would think not only about the consequences for the father, the unborn child, and her family, but also about the consequences for herself—her own needs, values, and plans. This perspective leads to moral beliefs that are more comprehensive, but ironically also more prone to moral dilemmas because the widest range of individuals are being considered.

In classrooms, integrated caring is most likely to surface whenever teachers give students wide, sustained freedom to make choices. If students have little flexibility about their actions, there is little room for considering anyone’s needs or values, whether their own or others’. If the teacher says simply, “Do the homework on page 50 and turn it in tomorrow morning,” then compliance becomes the main issue, not moral choice. But suppose instead that she says something like this: “Over the next two months, figure out an inquiry project about the use of water resources in our town. Organize it any way you want—talk to people, read widely about it, and share it with the class in a way that all of us, including yourself, will find meaningful.” Although an assignment this general or abstract may not suit some teachers or students, it does pose moral challenges for those who do use it. Why? For one thing, students cannot simply carry out specific instructions, but must decide what aspect of the topic really matters to them. The choice is partly a matter of personal values. For another thing, students have to consider how the topic might be meaningful or important to others in the class. Third, because the time line for completion is relatively far in the future, students may have to weigh personal priorities (like spending time with family on the weekend) against educational priorities (working on the assignment a bit more on the weekend). As you might suspect, some students might have trouble making good choices when given this sort of freedom—and their teachers might therefore be cautious about giving such an assignment. But in a way these hesitations are part of Gilligan’s point: integrated caring is indeed more demanding than the caring based on survival or orientation to others, and not all students may be ready for it.

(back to Chapter 3...)

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Kohlberg, L., Levine, C., & Hewer, A. (1983). Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics. Basel: S. Karger
  2. Power, F., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1991). Lawrence Kohlberg’s approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press.
  3. United States Government Printing Office. (2002). No Child Left Behind Act: A desktop reference. Washington, D.C.: Author
  4. Brown, L. & Gilligan, C. (1992). Meeting at the crossroads: Women’s psychology and girls’ development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  5. Taylor, J. & Gilligan, C., & Sullivan, A. (1995). Between voice and silence: Women and girls, race and relationship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press