Kohlberg's moralising and its revival - character education
The Nazis and the Holocaust led Lawrence Kohlberg to focus on the moral dimension of education. Drawing on the Socratic interest in values and virtue, and John Dewey’s view of education as the development of the individual, he saw education not as moral instruction but as the development of moral judgement and behaviour. His inspiration was Piaget’s stages of development, which he applied to the moral development of children and adults. His theoretical work was matched by practical recommendations around the concept of a ‘just community’. These could be schools, professions, social groups, even prisons.
Three types of educational theory
For Kohlberg there are three movements in educational thinking:
2. Cultural transmission
Romanticism’s formative figure is Rousseau and this movement sees the child as a natural learner, with institutions that often inhibit their progress. Cultural transmission, the transfer of knowledge and values from one generation to the next, attempts to preserves cultural capital. He saw focus on the psychological aspects of learning, especially behaviourism, as well as the use of technology, as typical of this movement. Progressivism, exemplified by William James and John Dewy, sees education as an important contributor to society, it’s cultural and democratic dimensions. Kohlberg was a ‘progressive’.
Six stages of moral development
Building on Piaget’s (now discredited) stages of development:
Level 1 - Preconventional
1. Punishment and obedience orientation
2. Instrumental relativist orientation
Children think and behave egoistically, acting on potential consequences, such as punishment. This self-interest can then develop into a more instrumental outlook, where you see how others may help you promote your own interests, as in receiving rewards for good behaviour.
Level 2 - Conventional
3. Interpersonal concordance orientation
4. Society maintaining orientation
Adolescents mature into this stage by obeying society’s rules but without much reasoned reflection. Wanting to be liked or respected by others makes one behave in ways in which groups approve. Recognition of the ‘good’ and ‘bad in relation to adherence to the law also emerges.
Level 3 - Postconventional
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
At this level, individuals use their own ethical principles to make judgement and do not simply adhere to external norms. There is a recognition of diversity of moral perspectives and the resolution of moral issue through democracy or other mechanisms of agreement. This may move on to higher levels of abstraction about moral principles, such as justice and rights, where individuals see themselves as like others in mutually agreed action.
Individuals move through these stages, none are skipped, we hardy ever go back, we can hold back but not accelerate stage development. He used Piaget’s notion of changing schemata, mental constructs that make sense of experience, that determine the limits of moral reasoning. New experiences are either assimilated (integrated without major change) or accommodated (new schemata created).
New stages are more complex and high-level. Cognitive disequilibrium forces change as new experiences cause cognitive conflict. The conflict is resolved by the creation of new cognitive schemata.
In addition to drawing upon theoretical ideas from Piaget and John Rawls, he researched the hypothetical stages using Moral Judgement Interviews (MJI) where moral problems are presented and the reasoning, not conclusions, studied. Interviews were conducted every three years over twenty years and, he claims, confirmed his six-stage theory. Further research across forty countries also conformed, he claimed, its cross-cultural validity.
These six stages of moral development were highly influential and teachers were encouraged to use teaching tactics appropriate to these stages, curriculum recommendations were made and a real movement emerged around staged moral development.
The basic idea that moral reasoning lies at the root of or plays the primary role in moral behavior is rejected by many intuitionists. Many came to see Kohlberg’s interpretation as no more than that, the ‘interpretation’ of basically intuitive moral judgment. Subsequent research showed that both Paiget’s and Kohlberg’s stages were wrong, so wrong that the very idea of the Kohlberg framework had to be adjusted. However, the adjustments proved so extreme that the framework had to be abandoned in favour of other possible approaches. Elliot Turiel thought that the moral development process was also massively fuelled by social convention. There was an amusing interlude when Carol Gillighan took a huge gender swiped at Kohlberg in her book "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development" (1982). She made the reasonable point that his research had only involved males and that Kohlberg was simply reinforcing stereotypical male character traits. She had a point but simply replaced Kohlberg with another set of character traits around a morality of care. It had all gone to pot. There is also the tricky issue that multiple stages can be observed in the same individuals.
Kohlberg’s developmental psychology, as applied to the moral sphere, brought an important, dynamic dimension into moral education. Yet, like many staged processes, it proved to be too rigid and has crumbled somewhat due to subsequent research. The role of institutional education in the teaching of ethics remains problematic, as religious pressures and the roles of other agents, such as families, peer-groups and the media play important roles.
Morph into character teaching
More recently the moral issue has changed into n interest in ‘character’ education. In practice, deep, political roots of moral and character education really lie in conservative worries about cultural and moral decline. Every older generation has its views that the world is going to the dogs and that we must bring back some golden age of high character (usually theirs) to tame this feral, new, non-conformist generation.
In the US the character education movement is often pushed by conservative and religious sources that see the creep of liberal values as equivalent to moral decline. The religious lobby, in particular, has been successful in pushing this agenda. The most recent Federal example was G. W. Bush, who saw it as essential component of educational policy. In the UK we have an entirely different, and hugely influential stream of thought that comes originally from Thomas Arnold and the public school system. Let’s call it the ‘playing fields of Eton’ complex, but anyone who has experience in the UK system knows exactly what this is. With a hugely disproportionate number of politicians and civil servants coming from a public-school background, this tradition is stronger in the UK than almost any other comparable nation. There is constant pressure to see the state system as dysfunctional and if we could only take some of the magic dust from the private schools and scatter it down upon the teachers in the state system, all would be well.
Character as a subject
The Dfe talks of “the teaching of character as a separate subject”. However, there is no evidence for this at all. In fact there is plenty of evidence to show that this type of teaching has no effect whatsoever. The teaching of character and values, if they can be ‘taught’ at all is a bold claim.
Let’s start with the big one, certainly the one with the biggest title, ‘Efficacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children’ a report from the Social and Character Development Research Program (2010). It looked at seven SACD programs and 20 student and school outcomes, all on social and character development and concluded that school-based character education programs produce no measurable improvements in student behaviour or academic performance. This was an astonishing result from a large and well designed piece of research. In fact there are no peer-reviewed studies that support the idea that character teaching has a positive, measurable effect.
Character as conformity
Character and conformity are easily confused. Far from shaping ‘character’ in schools, we should be doing the opposite and encouraging students to question these norms and become autonomous learners, able to distinguish between moral inculcation, based on assumed social norms, from more open tolerant approaches to education. It is by no means clear that the character traits of teachers is the right model or that teachers know what character traits are and how to teach them.
Character and schools
In fact, character education has been a feature of many totalitarian, religious and repressive systems, as character is moulded to match particular ideologies. In the US this of often a route for conservative, religious education. In China, the Confucian system, which is strongly character driven, pushes students towards a highly conformist, non-critical form of rote learning. In Islamic states a strictly conformist and literal form of the Koran is used to shape character. Private schools with a narrow socio-economic group is likely to promote character in terms of that group. In truth, unless a school system is truly secular (and arguably even then) character education reflects the cultural norms of that school. In the UK, with the rise of faith schools, this has already caused considerable problems.
When a politician talks about ‘character’, my heart sinks. It’s like Jimmy Saville taking a line on sex education – he’s an expert of sorts, just the wrong sort. Politicians love to meddle in educational practice, in a way they would never in say, medical practice. That’s because they think of themselves as ideals and whatever ‘they’ experienced in education must be good for the rest of us. This explains their obvious disengagement from the voters and blindness when it comes to judgments on the role of character in education, even the world at large. Let’s put this rather odd ‘C-word’ back where it came from, in the files marked ‘bad theory’, ‘old-school thinking’ and ‘political conceit’.