Moral Education Research Paper

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1. What Is Educational Moral Progress?

If we ask about moral progress in sociological terms, the most popular answer would be that: during the last few centuries, humans have become more morally rational. Rorty (1998) on the basis of the philosophical reflection of Baier (1987) denies this hypothesis and instead believes that moral progress develops through moral sentiments and moral story telling, in which feelings and sentiments for the weak and the strangers are articulated. If we apply this idea to the educational and developmental field it could mean that moral educational progress also develops through the development of moral feelings; through story telling and possibilities to put oneself in the shoes of others. Or, in simpler terms, reading Les Miserables from Victor Hugo would be more effective than rationally solving moral problems. Indeed, it is crucially important, for example, to understand that we cannot stimulate pupils to achieve a higher level of moral judgment (one form of rational progress) simply by imparting knowledge, or by using teaching methods based on practical experience and problem solving. Or indeed, by treating personal experiences in a creative artistic manner, or by the teaching of strategies designed to improve memory, and so forth. All these things are of course important, but they will not lead to an accommodative transformation of cognitive moral patterns. Nor is it possible to succeed in achieving a higher level in a short space of time. It is imperative, moreover, to be aware that transformations such as these can be brought about only against the background of development theory and a transformational grammar appropriate to it, involving a constant process of critical arguments. Some knowledge of the transformation of cognitive moral judgment is therefore required if others are to be successfully stimulated to achieve a higher level, and it must also be recognized that human beings are perennially disinclined to take steps to transform and improve their patterns of behavior (to make progress). Knowledge of equal complexity but different in nature is required for the task of creating shared norms, or when a competency to act is aimed for (see later).

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2. Complexity Through Situated Moral Learning

The foregoing suggests that moral education in situated contexts is a complex and multidirectional phenomenon; that it can provoke a network of suggestions for action, that norms play a role and that justifications are required. If, however, as is currently the case in the USA, a single method is widely regarded as the only correct one, or if teachers subscribe to a single method (e.g., the character education approach, or development-oriented education), then this will inevitably lead to false causal assumptions concerning the antecedents and the consequences of the education in question. When Lemming (1997, p. 47) asserts that the character education movement is eclectic ‘both in terms of its psychological premises and its pedagogical practices,’ we may counter by stating that whatever system of education has precedence, practice is always eclectic, and that up to now there has been too little research devoted to untangling the separate strands of simultaneous effects. One result of this debate, in the late twentieth century, is that there is no longer just one type of moral education and a pedagogic method appropriate to it. We are attempting rather, to reach different goals at the same time in a consciously differentiated manner, and to stimulate a corresponding learning activity.

But how can we create a synthesis of all these forces? How can we postulate a moral education, which will enable and produce the complex formation of moral sense in a young person? What are the minimal preconditions, and what is the indispensable core of moral education?

3. The Triforial System Of Moral Education: A Theory

The approach involving three core elements, all of which work at the same time, is designated as ‘triforial’ because the term suggests that the core elements have something in common, namely their foundation, their support, and their actualization of a moral structure. Based on three-arched windows, a ‘triforium’ permits different things each to be supported in a different way. A triforium is a kind of gallery in the interior of Romanesque and especially Gothic churches, consisting usually of triple-arched windows running under the roof space of the transept and nave. Despite all the problems of borrowing analogies, the concept of a triforial structure can readily be transferred to the realm of moral education, where the tripartite arched positions signify the three core elements, the structure they support, and the general formation to which the three core elements lead (cf. Klafki 1991). Why do we speak of this ‘three-fold’ or ‘triforial’ moral education and its accompanying three-fold pedagogic practice (in which the figure of ‘3’ is used to describe the mere minimum of the many links which are always present in educational modes of action). Here, the problem is formulated in a negative triforial manner:

(a) Moral education is more than a training in weighing up adversarial positions. Although such experiences in critical reasoning stimulate moral judgment, they do nothing more. The moral judgment is merely a precondition for moral action.

(b) On the other hand, one can also say that education designed to foster character and inculcate values simply represents an attempt to influence pupils through persuasion, and as such it often remains blind and unreflective. This can readily be demonstrated through examples of secondary values such as cleanliness, punctuality, discipline, precision, and so forth (see Hoffe 1992). These values must always be linked back to higher values ( justice, solicitousness, objective neutrality), otherwise they threaten to become fragile, dangerous, or even fundamentalist. An extreme example would be the carrying out of genocide in the name of ‘exactness’ or ‘precision.’

(c) If we simply stimulate moral action, however, then we must always deal with specific situations and use our intuition. But intuitions are frequently unfair, crude, and lacking in regard for others. Thus, sentiments and story telling alone would be one-sided.

Each one of these approaches falls short, either because we lack empathy, or fall victim to a false belief, or to blind action. We are courting the danger of being ‘quasimoral,’ of thinking and interpreting in a quasimoral manner. A deeper analysis shows that a theory alone only sets its sights on one extreme, and thus the central goals of a comprehensive moral education cannot be achieved. We are therefore in need of an overall theory, which will enable us to combine different goals in the proper manner. Different methodical or rather pedagogic modes of acting must be integrated within this theory in different ways. Instead of pursuing just one of the goals indicated above therefore we need a triforial theory of moral education which will permit at least three central technological frameworks of conditions. Figure 1 shows these three fields, which intersect with each other.

Moral Education Research Paper

The judgment circle contains moral analyses, moral justifications and a progressive stage-by-stage anchoring of moral thinking. At a given stage we can understand and elaborate the respective cognitive and knowledge-based arguments. The value core (circle 2) contains value knowledge, the intuitive knowledge deriving from moral customs and the respective specific moral culture. This is where moral convictions and moral group identity (unconsciously internalized, or consciously derived form direct participation) come into play. The action circle (3) contains forms of prosocial, moral, and participative behavior. Qualities required here include moral courage, moral sentiments, but also moral performance and the ability to deal in moral terms with concepts of law and justice.

In Fig. 1, we placed particular emphasis on the intersections of the core elements. Intersection 1 relates to content interpreted in a stage-specific manner, e.g., children’s narratives are interpreted from the viewpoint of their belonging to a certain stage. Kohlberg’s stage 2 stresses the morality of exchange (‘you will get something only when you do something for another person’). Conversely, value judgments and culturebound moral contents enter into the judgment and modify it. Intersection 2 emphasizes the necessity of combining judgment with action. This is the point at which the hiatus between judgment and action becomes apparent. A whole range of models illustrating this connection is available (see Moralisches Urteil und Handeln, Garz et al. 1999); more and more variables are being investigated to establish their effect on prompting action, including, for example, stage-level, strength of will, extent of obligations, etc. Moral culture possibly constitutes an important variable affecting moral action (Intersection 3), although there is admittedly a relative lack of research in the area. The subjective acceptance of value responsibility is determined through internal and external pressure against, or for, a certain moral or prosocial course of action. In the absence of a counter-pressure, which resists the direct will, we cannot speak of the acceptance of value responsibility (see Oser 1999, pp. 168–219). The overlapping process represents the moral self of an individual (Damon and Hart 1982). The moral self combines judgment, knowledge (consent), and action in a balanced manner.

It would now be possible to describe the triforial theory from the viewpoint of various aspects of educational theory, such as: (a) different goals, (b) diverse sources of moral thought, (c) a model of moral transformation (moral pedagogy), (d) negative moral thought or behavior, and (e) the measuring of morality. However, due to space restrictions, this cannot be elaborated on here.

4. Historical Aspects Of The Structuralist And Developmental Approach To Moral Education

The change in the development of moral educational psychology during the last four decades of the twentieth century, is obvious: Up until the 1960s, the teaching of morals was regarded either as the moralization of the relationship between decisions and actions, or as the formation of conscience. Kohlberg (1958), influenced by Piaget and Symbolic Interactionism, presented a dissertation, which became the starting point for a paradigmatic change. From then on, morality was no longer viewed primarily in terms of conscience or as an internalized emotional state, but rather as highly rational constructions and justifications of potential decisions and actions, justifications, each of which can possess a specific quality.

Kohlberg was aiming to develop a detailed genetic epistemic structure of morals. His work produced the stage-by-stage approach to moral development, a theory which he himself has improved at least three times: Stage 1: reward and punishment morality; stage 2: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth morality; stage 3: good boy–nice girl morality; stage 4: rights and duties morality; stage 5: principles and social contract morality; stage 6: morality of principles held to be universal or based on communicative ethics, together with the assumed ideals of optimal conditions for potential decision-making and taking action.

What then is the significance of this stage structure from the educational point of view, given the fact that it has also been well proven, longitudinally (see Colby et al. 1987). This especially relevant question leads to the catch-phrase ‘development as the aim of education,’ which has played a considerable role both in research and in the specifics of practical intervention (Kohlberg 1981, 1984). In this view, education means stimulation of development towards the next higher moral stage. Yet, posing this question in no way implies an uncritical acceptance of Kohlberg’s stage theory. There are in fact numerous criticisms, such as the assumed general over-orientation towards justice (see Gilligan 1982, 1983), or the criticisms claiming that the lower stages are less egocentric than Kohlberg had assumed (Keller 1996). Critics have argued that Kohlberg failed to observe, fully, the specificity of the social, moral or personal area (Shweder et al. 1987, Turiel 1983, Nucci 1981). The nature of the higher stages has been called into question (see Reichenbach 1996; for earlier criticism, e.g., on measurement problems, see Oser 1981).

(a) Much of this critical debate ignores the fact that Kohlberg conceived of his developmental theory as a ‘theory of competence.’ In describing competence theories, we are not so much concerned with asking how people form judgments in concrete situations, but rather with the question of how the highest and qualitatively best kind of judgment a person can make, is produced in a variety of general, mostly decontextualized, situations.

(b) It is also frequently overlooked that Kohlberg constantly stressed the limited scope of his scheme. The moral development theory of Kohlberg is in fact powerful precisely because its area of applicability is clearly circumscribed, and in its scope is both highly controllable and comprehensible. The structures are abstract and therefore highly transferable ‘creations.’ They indicate the extent and nature of the reversible thinking, which people can produce as justifications for their deeds and intentions. The higher the stage, the closer the judgment is to universal principles, the more adequate it is in terms of philosophical theories, and the more the subjects are able to think reversibly in the spirit of the Golden Rule.

(c) Another fact often ignored is that Kohlberg himself raised numerous questions, such as: ‘What is the relationship between intelligence and morals?’ ‘How does judgment relate to action?’ ‘What role is played by emotional elements under real conditions?’ ‘Is principled thinking also possible at the lower stages?’ ‘Is moral judgment better described in categories of a soft or hard stage concept (Kohlberg 1981, 1984)?’ Kohlberg was unable to provide answers to many of these questions (see Kohlberg 1995).

Kohlberg established early on, that people in the same age group could reason at different stages in terms of his scheme. It was his student Moshe Blatt (Blatt and Kohlberg 1975) who—on the basis of this finding—successfully attempted to stimulate pupils to attain the next stage upwards. In his study, and much research that followed, it was shown that an adversarial relationship between two values (the selection of the first disadvantages the second), discussed in an open atmosphere, plus the so-called plus-1-convention (confrontation with arguments from a stage or half a stage higher than one’s own (see Turiel 1966, Berkowitz 1981)), were adequate for attaining higher stages. This possibility of stimulation provoked a host of intervention studies of uneven quality, which were carried out with various age groups and under different conditions. In 1985, Schlafli et al. published the first meta-analysis, which demonstrates that high quality interventions (i.e., studies with controversial discussions of dilemmas) realized in a medium time span of about 3 to 4 months are especially effective.

All these studies proceed from the a priori assumption that the stimulation of development constitutes the most important goal of moral education.

5. The Judgment–Action Hiatus

Leading on to a higher stage has the advantage of providing the opportunity to arrive at a judgment level, which is in fact less egocentric, more complex, based on principles, and of greater autonomy. Since higher stages, however, represent nothing other than reversible competence judgments, an exclusive concentration on the structure of moral judgment means than many other things belonging to human morality are not given due attention. The judgment action connection, for example, is largely unexplained, as are questions regarding the acceptance of responsibility, training in empathy, dealing with ‘immoral’ behavior, actions expressing regret and emotional moral sensitization. The question of curricular content remains especially unsolved in this theoretical frame. However, at the end of the twentieth century, research has been published nearly on every one of these fields.

From the educational point of view, moral actions and the acceptance of moral responsibility are necessary constituents for the development of a moral self. It must be asked what is achieved by developing a higher judgment without, at the same time, encouraging moral courage, providing moral knowledge and learning to perform moral actions. Kohlberg himself already started out on a path that was decisive for the future of moral education, namely the contextualization of stimulations for the higher stages and together with this the creation of a moral universe for children and youth. This is in keeping with the ‘situated learning movement,’ which Kohlberg’s work also anticipated. Moral learning can thus be fully integrated learning, when the acceptance of responsibility occurs within contexts and for contexts (Lave and Wenger 1989), otherwise the moral judgment is not capable of transfer and remains simply a judgment. The central idea of situated learning is that the learning situation itself determines the conditions within which acquired knowledge can later be applied (Fischer et al. 1994). In the case of situated learning, action is—so to speak—that part of the problem-solving process, which converts a set of given requirements into knowledge of appropriate action. Thus, people learn how to proceed in order to solve moral problems, and this in turn activates the process of accepting responsibility, which enables moral performance.

The one-sided approach of the Kohlberg early years in practical education needs to be integrated in a more comprehensive model of moral education in which judgment, action and sentiment are connected together in real content based situations.

6. The Round Table Model

‘Realistic’ discourse (Oser 1999) is the term we use to designate the basic model of learning and teaching developed in the spirit of the situated learning movement. It is a model within which the primary aim is not to attain the next higher stage, but which attaches central importance to finding a practical solution acceptable to everyone. It is a dynamic model geared horizontally towards action (and not oriented vertically towards a reversible judgment).

The second element is that the teacher warrants that everyone at the table will have the right to speak and to participate in the process of problem-solving and decision-making. Third, this presupposes that pupils are ‘reasonable’ and ‘capable of responsibility,’ even though they may appear to be ‘lazy,’ ‘cheeky,’ and ‘stupid,’ in other words appear superficially, to be irresponsible. The fourth and final point is that the solution must be put into practice and it must be accepted, that for the moment the approved solution is considered the best, and it will hold up over the following days and months, even though better solutions might be theoretically possible.

The basic principle of this model of moral education is that the frictions of everyday life in a school provide moral learning opportunities. Kohlberg (1981) identified three different kinds of moral education:

The first is the technological approach to imparting values, in which it is believed that a value can simply be implanted into a child. This approach fails on account of the danger of indoctrination. The second example is the so-called romantic approach, which just aims to make children consciously aware of values that have always been present. This approach fails because of the problem of arbitrariness or at best, on account of its relativism. The third approach, the progressive approach, is based on developmental psychology and aims to stimulate the progression to a higher stage within the scheme.

The fourth approach, the discourse approach, was not seen by Kohlberg. He did, however, outline the above-mentioned model of a situated learning environment, which reflects features of the discourse approach and which has now been developed further and is known by the name of ‘Just Community.’ The discourse model thus represents a kind of basis for the ‘Just Community School.’ The positive approach of the former comes to fruition in this context. Basically, the Just Community School is nothing less than a school-wide ‘Round Table.’

7. The Just Community School

Kohlberg’s idea (1986) that schools could be self-regulating communities, in which the very regulations themselves would provide opportunities for moral learning and the construction of a value system, is a concept which relies on the participation of everyone. This process can be produced only through a comprehensive transformation of the school and can be understood only by means of quality indicators such as those provided by basic research in the field of social and moral development.

In a Just Community School all of the pupils and teachers come together, either at regular intervals or when required by events, in order to solve school-related conflicts in a democratic manner; or to consciously change and shape aspects of school life, including standards and general school culture. The very center of this process is the forum, in which contentious questions are clarified and proposals for change put to the vote, and where every act of voting always implies an important setting of standards within the system of that particular school.

All of these structural devices support a range of principles which enable the formation of social and moral sensitivity in the individual within the group, and which do so in a way superior to other methods.

(a) First of all there exists the permanent possibility of ‘putting oneself into the shoes’ of others, for assuming different roles, for defending positions. This in turn provides the social flexibility required in order to reach a nonpartisan decision.

(b) The second principle is ‘development as a goal of education.’ People attain a higher stage through controversies provided at every level of school life, genuine and contrived, and through discussion of dilemmas, relating to particular fields of study and school events in general. This is where the modalities of a stimulated cognitive imbalance become applicable.

(c) A third principle is that of identification through participation. Decisions become relevant when there is emotional involvement with them. Only those who participate and jointly decide can truly feel responsible for what is to be done.

(d) The fourth principle consists in overcoming the judgment/action hiatus. Basically the action to be decided upon is placed before the judgment (one thinks first of all of solutions and then looks for ways of justifying them), as is customary in, e.g., parliamentary procedure.

(e) The fifth principle finally relates to the reality of life itself. Through the process of co-determination, school-life becomes an authentic entity.

The model of the Just Community School presented here is relatively widespread in the USA, where it has had a longer tradition, but it has already been established in various models in Germany and Switzerland, in a modified and reconsidered form.

8. Outlook

One of the first questions to be raised, concerns the communitarism, which can be glimpsed in this model and which indicates that morality emerges differently in each society, that therefore different sources and principles are involved and that hence a degree of relativism must be admitted to. This is indeed true of the process we modeled of the ‘Round Table.’ Admittedly, we refrain from saying what does not constitute moral content, but simply state how morality comes into being. But this weakness can be countered by arguing that teachers inject their own opinions into the decision-making process, and that this provides for a certain shaping of content. Nor did the developmental model devised by Kohlberg (1995) deal adequately with the universal core of morals. This may not be a satisfactory response, but it does point to a debate which has not yet taken place on the relationship, between the teaching of ethics and a fully integrated intervention such as is represented by this model.

A second criticism is that the model is totally incapable of shedding light on the judgment action conflict. What is happening is only a social remoulding of what has been decided through the ‘Round Table’ system. The Just Community, it is assumed, offers no mediation between insight and action. What we have here basically reflects the model of the free market with its optimization of individual and group prosperity, behind which a kind of contract comes into being along the lines of the rational-choice theory. The children and teachers, the argument portends, are doing all these things not from a sense of good will in itself, but merely in order to achieve a better quality of life in school. This argument too needs to be aired thoroughly. At this juncture, it can only be pointed out that educative action is always purpose-driven, and that schools, which develop their own laws, will always ‘abuse’ the very creation of these laws for educational purposes. This seeming ‘abuse’, however, is attributed to the law of preserving and furthering culture, and is thus supported from the point of view of social theory.

A third criticism is directed at the incompleteness of moral education in itself. The Just Community meetings do not address the formation of conscience or changes of heart or the desire to atone for something; nor do they deal with emotional contributions to the arguments. The aspect of negative morality is missing with its insistence that only those who have made moral errors can act in a moral manner. Aspects such as these must indeed be integrated and built into the model. Conversely, it can be argued that feelings can contribute to the overcoming of cognitive conflicts only when they are actually in use. And the ‘JC’ is the only form of organization that in practice, lays claim to feelings, and it does so with neither bigotry nor hypocrisy.


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