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Fostering Moral Development in the Classroom

Ch. 2, p. 57

Fostering Moral Development in the Classroom

The study of moral development is one of the oldest topics of interest to those curious about human nature, but the implementation of moral education curricula has not taken place without controversy. Educators and families active in these endeavors have grappled with the important distinction that theories deal with moral reasoning rather than with actual moral behavior. Successful programs have incorporated values education at the global, local, and individual levels.

Global Level—Districtwide Approach. Many schools have chosen to institutionalize a global, inclusive approach to character building with input from teachers, administrators, parents, and, at the higher grade levels, even students (see Kohlberg, 1980; Lickona, 1992). Here, values education is found across the curriculum, implemented throughout the school building, and connected to the home. Such programs emphasize the individual citizen as a member of the social institution and advocate particular levels of moral behavior. They provide students with a framework of expected behavior; violations of these standards can then be addressed. At the elementary level, students receive guidelines and are invited to discuss violations and their consequences. In middle school and throughout the high school years, students are more involved in the creation and maintenance of guidelines and even play a significant role in the decision making surrounding violations of the guidelines.

Local Level—Classroom Instruction. At the more local level, the teacher might choose to capitalize on students’ natural curiosity and might teach values and decision making through “What if...?” discussions. The classroom is an ideal laboratory in which students can test hypothetical situations and potential consequences. Teachers must recognize the cognitive abilities of those in their class and maximize these abilities through problem-solving activities. Being an effective moral educator is no easy task. Teachers must reexamine their teaching role; they must be willing to create cognitive conflict in their classrooms and to stimulate social perspective taking in students (see Reimer, Paolitto, & Hersh, 1990).

Individual Level—Conflict Management. The shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas; Columbine, Colorado; and elsewhere in recent years clearly showed the most horrific face of school violence and drew attention to the overall problem of violence in schools. Families want schools to provide students with the necessary tools to mediate serious conflicts without violence, and teachers and administrators are evaluating or initiating conflict resolution programs in many schools (see Bodine, Crawford, & Schrumpf, 1994).

Children’s conflicts and their understanding of conflict-related events are a critical context for the development of both their moral understanding and their behavior (see Killen, 1996). Although a great deal of attention is given to aggressive conflicts because of the nature of the consequences, nonaggressive conflicts are more pervasive across all age and grade levels. Many children’s conflicts require them to coordinate both moral and personal elements. In peer-peer conflicts children explore the boundaries between their own legitimate personal needs and goals and the legitimate needs and goals of others.

Teachers are in a position to foster the necessary social skills to allow students to become autonomous and socially competent individuals. Through the use of cooperative learning, a teacher builds a collaborative atmosphere in the classroom. This collaboration is an opportunity for each student to demonstrate the social competence that helps the group reach equitable solutions while fostering personal success. Noddings (1995) suggested organizing curriculum around “themes of care,” to build social competence, tolerance, and altruism throughout children’s development.

Through efforts like these to foster sound moral development, teachers play a tremendous role in preparing students to be good citizens in a world in which the potential for conflicts continues to increase.

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