Moral Development and Education

Robert Coles, one of the world’s most respect scholars on the inner workings of children, has explored the dimension of morality in several of his works (1986, 1997). His studies suggest that the moral lives of children are very rich and begin developing in infancy as they learn about good and bad, how to behave and be through interactions with others and observing behavior. Our morals are greatly affected by our social environments. In the important and influential early years, that environment is largely the parents and immediate family. As children become socialized and enter schools, more and more of their moral character is open to the influence of peers and society.

As in any aspect of holistic education, the early years with the parents and in the family can have a great impact on cognitive, social, emotional and moral development. Though aspects of each of these faculties are influenced by inherited qualities from genetic endowments, they are shaped, realized and developed through interaction with the environment. In our present society, it seems the moral aspects of child rearing and education are less emphasized than in the past, leaving children less well equipped to deal with the challenges of life and living. Because of its neglect in the early years, schools and educators are often left with the task of compensating for faulty, poor or missing early training. In the absence of moral education and modeling, young people are strongly influenced by the examples they see in the media and among their peers to form their moral frameworks and worldviews.

Education influences both individual and collective moral development. What takes place in the classroom can either encourage or discourage the ability and desire to seek truth and serve the greatest good. Education is a moral endeavor (Goodlad, 1990), as is life. The classroom is saturated with moral meaning (Hansen, 1995). Teachers are to create a moral environment in their classrooms where justice and caring prevail (Tom, 1984). Educational leaders, administrators and teachers are to be models of moral intelligence, exemplifying the virtues they seek to engender in others (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Goodlad, Soder, & Sirotnik, 1990; Lennick & Kiel, 2005).

Though teaching about values and integrity are necessary, they are not sufficient in helping one develop a moral system. Research has shown that instruction alone is ineffective (Colby & Damon, 1992; Damon, 1988; Hartshorne & May, 1928, 1929, 1930; Lickona, 1983). Hartshorne and May found that many children who knew the right kinds of behavior in hypothetical situations failed to practice this behavior in real-life and that children who went to Sunday school or belonged to the Boy and Girls Scouts were just as dishonest as children who were not exposed to similar ethical instruction (1928, 1929, 1930). A review of research since their landmark studies confirms their basic finding (Lickona, 1976).

Seeing moral lives and having moral values integrated into daily thoughts, feelings and actions is essential. Developing morality is a daily practice that extends throughout a lifetimDamon states,

Children’s morality, therefore, is a product of affective, cognitive, and social forces that converge to create a growing moral awareness. The child begins with some natural emotional reactions to social events; these are supported, refined, and enhanced through social experience. In the course of this social experience, the child actively participated in relations with peers and adults, always observing and interpreting the resulting interactions. From this web of participation, observation, and interpretation, the child develops enduring moral values. (1988, p. 119)


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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