An Agent of Moral Development–on a Mission~

Human Development Week 9:

How do we become agents for moral development within the school setting? Granted my Christian faith perspective may contribute to some bias on my outlook, but how do I as an educator balance a non-relativistic approach as Kohlberg arguably espoused while working within the incredibly diverse educational environment?

Reading the article entitled, The Development of Children’s Orientations toward Moral, Social, and Personal Orders: More than a Sequence in Development, by Elliot Turiel, proved to be an incredibly challenging task for me and significantly altered by previously confident view of myself as “The Bookworm Queen” (a title I was awarded when in the 3rd grade)! Struggling to get through this, I felt as though I had lost my ability to read and comprehend! Oh well…

While reading the article, particular statements that stood out to me were related to Kolberg’s quest to understand the interconnectedness of ‘the development of moral thought to moral conduct and emotion’ (p. 8) (as cited within Turiel, p. 24). Turiel states that, “…primary emotions associated with morality are positive ones like sympathy, empathy, and respect…” and that,

…emotions do not drive thought and behavior and individuals do not simply act nonrationally or irrationally because of unconscious or unreflective emotional reactions. Emotional appraisals are part of reasoning that involves taking into account the reactions of others and self [Nussbaum, 1999]. The emotional reactions of people are a central part of moral judgments,

and it is reciprocal interactions, along with reflections upon one’s own judgments and cultural practices or societal arrangements, that influence development [Kohlberg, 1969; Turiel, 2002].  (as cited within Turiel, 2008, p. 24).

As I reflect on these thoughts and try to ponder what they could mean for me as a classroom teacher whose goal is truly as the assignment describes, “to become an agent for moral development”, I consider the fact that the students who enter my classroom (even the ones who may appear to act “irrationally” at times!), all have a “story” that led them to my door. Even if I were not a special education teacher who served high school students with IEPs, each of my students would have a personal “his-story or her-story” to tell, (although most will not tell what has contributed to their “behind-the-scenes” development—regardless of whether it is positive or negative). I consider that perhaps the “reciprocal interactions” represent experiences within their homes and other settings—and their “reflections upon (their) own judgments” (possibly representing self-esteem) have directly impacted their moral development up to this time.

With regard to Kolberg’s Stages of Moral Development and Implications for Education, in William Crain’s, Theories of Development, Chapter 7, the author describes a variety of experiments conducted by Kolberg and Blatt, involving:

…the dialectic process of Socratic teaching (where) the students give a view, the teacher asks a question that gets them to see the inadequacies of their view, and they are then motivated to formulate better positions….” and found that “Socratic classroom discussions held over several months can produce changes that, although small, are significantly greater than those found in control groups that do not receive these experiences (Rest 1983), (as cited within Crain, 2010, p. 177).

Bringing together the two worlds of “home” and “school”—I must say that as a parent, as well as a teacher, I agree with Kohlerg’s idea of “a multifaceted conception of morality that include(s) analyses of the integration of thought, emotions, actions, and development (Turiel, 2008, p.35). As I reflect on my experiences within the classroom and within my extended family, I see these factors as all having an influence on the development of a young person’s personal morality. In light of the fact that within a family, developmental influences on children are more similar than dis-similar (and yet children can still respond in such different ways), it is no surprise that influences in a more diverse environment such as is found in an educational system would yield a more widely diverse set of outcomes in terms of individual student morality.

So, as an educator, how do I become an agent for moral development within such a diverse school environment? First of all, based on my observation, I believe that regardless of the specific details of what a person in leadership believes, others (in this case, children) will look (even unconsciously) for a sense of “integration” or genuineness on the part of the leader, or teacher. I believe that the impact we have on our students (and their families) will be based more on who we are as individuals and how we interact with them as individuals– than the content we set out to specifically “teach” them. In consideration of the points I have drawn together in this post related to a student’s history of “reciprocal interactions” and possible teaching strategies such as the Socratic Method, I recall a particular time when a student asked me my opinion as to whether she should move out from her family’s home and in with her boyfriend. She looked at me with questioning and sincere eyes—patiently waiting for my response. Many thoughts went through my mind as I prayed for wisdom. The words that came out of my mouth were, “Your family will always be your family, but will your boyfriend always be your boyfriend?”

The author ends the article by stating “Imperfect social institutions and cultural practices are challenged by reasoning individuals with their capacities to stand back and take a critical view from the perspective of their moral judgments (Turiel, 2008, p. 36). Although I am still struggling to comprehend the intended meaning of this article, I believe that in an amazing and similar fashion, children are able “to stand back from the perspective of their (young and developing) moral judgments” and look at our “imperfect” selves as teachers–and see through to our true intent–as we are placed in authority over them in the school setting.  At least I pray that this is so. For years I have prayed daily for wisdom to know what to say to my students, but perhaps more importantly–when to speak and when not to speak. A new addition to my prayer is that the “primary emotions” displayed within my classroom will be “empathy and respect” –and that these will contribute to the moral development of my students.


Crain, W. C. (2011). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Boston, MA: Prentice Hall.

Turiel, W. (2008) The Development of Children’s Orientations toward Moral, Social, and Personal Orders: More than a Sequence in Development


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Helene Hatch on November 28, 2011 at 10:48 am

    I guess my comment/question would be, when did educators become responsible for developing morals and values with students.


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