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Can We Teach Social Conscience?

Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience, educator, Brenda Dyck examines whether social conscience is caught or taught. She shares how a recent project about homelessness helped reshape her students' mental models. Included: Web sites to help you stir up your students' thinking.

"Children develop not because they are shaped through external reinforcements but because their curiosity is aroused. They become interested in information that does not quite fit into their existing cognitive structures and are thereby motivated to revise their thinking." -- W.C. Crain, from Theories of Development

I've often found myself wondering whether social conscience is caught or taught. Is it our job as teachers to stir up students' social consciences and, if it is, how do we do that?

To answer those questions, I pulled out some learning theory from my university days. At that time, Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development were the irrelevant musings of a psychologist far away. This time around, however, Lawrence Kohlberg's theory was pungent with practical application for me. Using Kohlberg's philosophy of moral development as a lens, I took a critical look at The Eleanor Rigby Project, a telecollaborative project about homelessness that I created for my language arts students. I considered how effectively the project's activities challenged student thinking about the issue of stereotyping the homeless and I evaluated whether the lessons students learned during the project supported ethical challenge and long-term moral action. As I watched my students get involved in the project, I was abe to see many of Kohlberg's principles come to life. I even saw my students' thinking shift!

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According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg,

  • most adults never get past level three of the moral development stages; and an individual can only progress through those stages one stage at a time -- they cannot "jump" stages.
  • people will come to a comprehension of a moral rationale only one stage above their own.
  • those who deal with children should present them with moral dilemmas for discussion, dilemmas that will help them to see the reasonableness of a "higher stage" of morality.
  • most moral development occurs through social interaction.
  • in order for children to reorganize their thinking they must be active in the process, not just passive listeners. Just listening to adults promote moral judgments will not promote moral development.
Six Stages of
Moral Development

--- Obedience and punishment
--- Individualism and reciprocity
--- Interpersonal conformity
--- Law-and-order
--- Social contract
--- Universal ethical principles

To learn more about the six stages and what motivates their development, see Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development.

It is so easy for adults to tell children what they should think. For educators on a tight teaching timeline, it's difficult to take time to let students work out ethical and moral issues for themselves. But it's sobering to confront the idea that all our telling doesn't guarantee students will embrace our morals or automatically empathize with the social injustices in the world. If students' moral thinking is reorganized best by being active in the process, then it is essential for teachers to create hands-on activities and thought-provoking discussions that immerse students in all sides of the issues.


The day that one of my students asked me to go through his "Homeless Advocacy Campaign" PowerPoint presentation with him, I had a birds-eye-view of his thinking metamorphasis. As we flipped through his slides, we would pause to discuss the content. On one of the slides, my student, Mike, had written:

"When a homeless person begs for money you shouldn't give it to them because it too often gets converted into drugs or alcohol. Instead, buy them a sandwich or give them yoursIt gives the homeless person what he or she actually needs."

Mike suddenly stopped flipping through his slides and looked at me with a perplexed look on his face. "That's an assumption, isn't it Mrs. Dyck? I don't know why I wrote that," he said.

Mike had just recognized his own generalization, one resulting from the well-ingrained mental models we all have about the homeless. At that moment the old mental model did not line up with what we had learned and discussed about the homeless over the past month. We talked some more about whether his statement was an assumption or not and why he said it. In the end, Mike decided to create some additional slides addressing the myths surrounding homelessness.

As I reflected on that teaching moment with Mike, I realized I had just watched a disconnect take place in his mind; it was a moment when his previous ideas didn't line up with what he had learned. That moment of disconnect promoted a reshuffling of thinking, one that resulted in a new perspective and a deeper understanding about the problem of homelessness. Mike had helped me see firsthand -- and truly understand -- what Kohlberg was getting at when he talked about students "jumping stages."

That same day I watched Greg breeze past an assumption made in his PowerPoint presentation. On Greg's slide defining homelessness he had written "Many homeless people are lazy." We talked about that statement being a generalization but, unlike my earlier discussion with Mike, Greg didn't appear to have a breakthrough moment... perhaps because I was telling him about it instead of letting him recognize it himself.

While telling kids, according to Kohlberg, may be somewhat counterproductive, I take solace in the fact that creating a classroom environment that allows students to say things like "Many homeless people are lazy" provides an opening to continue the discussion.

As much as I wanted to speed along the process with Greg, he wasn't ready to "jump stages." Kohlberg has helped me to realize that I cannot rush moral development. Some students will arrive at a thinking destination and others will still need more time to mess around with their ideas. Greg still needs more opportunity to interact with the concept of stereotyping; just telling him his statement is wrong will not fast-track him to a deeper level of thought, to that Aha! moment. Perhaps the next exposure, the next project, the next lesson will be the one that helps ready Greg to jump to that next stage in his moral development. When he does that, it will be a moment that is personal, profound, and possibly life-changing.


Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development
Learn more about the six stages of moral development and their implications for educators.

Service Projects Help Students Find Their Voices
Looking for ways to unleash student concern for those in need? Consider service projects.

Teaching For Tolerance
This Web site is dedicated to helping teachers "foster equity, respect, and understanding in the classroom and beyond."

Community Service
Explore more deeply the issue of "teaching" community service in this special Education World archive.

"Bursting" Stereotypes
This lesson offers a fun and "visible" way to expose students to the concept of stereotypes or generalizations.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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