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Educational Psychology: Moral Development and Education

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            Due to concerns about an imminent moral crisis, the issue of moral development and education has gained popularity. Decades’ worth of moral and cognitive development theories have provided various and conflicting approaches to moral education. The question now is which theory or approach best serves the need for effective moral instruction. Other concerns include the effects of culture, society, language, and gender on moral development and education. As a solution, some scholars have promoted the use of an integrated approach to moral education.


            With the impending moral crisis that seems to be sweeping the nation, the issue of moral development and education has never been more popular. During the past 20-30 years, two trends have marked the conduct of the youth: (1) a noticeable increase in destructive behaviour; and (2) an increase in self-destructive behaviour (Wynne and Heiss, 1987). But while not all of the social ills that have been linked to moral education are necessarily moral in nature, much emphasis has nevertheless been placed on the moral instruction of today’s youth.

To effectively address the topic of character education, the issue of programme effectiveness must first be taken into account (Leming, 1993). One way to ensure the proper approach to tackling moral education is to study the available literature on moral development and to examine the approaches that have been used in character education, so that the effective methods may be determined and the differences between the effective and ineffective methods may be accounted for.

There are many different perspectives currently being employed in moral development and education. One of the more popular theories – cognitive development – was proposed by Jean Piaget. Piaget, one of the pioneering minds of the 20th century in the field of developmental psychology, studied the thought processes of young children. He observed that younger children thought, and thus responded, differently from older children, and this conclusion led to his theory on cognitive development. Piaget identified the four stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational (Piaget, 1965). Many of today’s pre-school programmes are patterned after Piaget’s theory, which has also formed part of the basis for constructivist learning.

Lawrence Kohlberg, one of the most famous moral theorists, adapted Piaget’s theory, which views cognitive development as a series of stages in which an individual acquires and incorporates increasing numbers of interacting variables at each stage (Lozzi, 1990).

Kohlberg’s stages of moral development were created to elucidate the progress of moral reasoning. His theory is that moral reasoning, being the basis for moral behaviour, can be categorized into developmental stages. He elaborated on Piaget’s work, and concluded that moral development was a life-long process. Kohlberg’s developmental stages include: pre-conventional reasoning, conventional reasoning, and post-conventional reasoning (Kohlberg, 1978).

            “From Kohlberg’s perspective, moral development is the increasing ability to differentiate and integrate the perspectives of self and other in making moral decisions. This is the product of an interaction between the child’s cognitive structures and the structural features of the social environment. The capability for complex perspective taking and for understanding abstract concepts is associated with advances in moral reasoning. Kohlberg believes that moral development is promoted by social experiences that produce cognitive conflict and that provide the child with the opportunity to take the perspective of others.” (Kohlberg, 1969; McDaniel, 1998 in www.joe.org)

            Kohlberg determined that for moral thinking to advance educationally, certain elements need to be present: “social interaction, cognitive conflict, a positive moral atmosphere, and democratic participation” (Kohlberg, 1969; McDaniel, 1998 in www.joe.org). He also promoted the “Just Community” approach to education which incorporates:

 “equality of the participants, “ownership” of decisions by all group members, and a teacher that advocates mature moral reasoning but who does not present morality in an authoritarian way” (Harding and Snyder, 1991; McDaniel, 1998 in www.joe.org).

  1. L. Selman’s perspective is a cross between that of Piaget and Kohlberg. His model includes four components: “logical reasoning, moral/ethical reasoning, social role taking, and information” (Lozzi, 1990; www.joe.org). He puts much emphasis on learning and experience; social and moral awareness is attributed to an individual’s experiences and stimulus provided by society.

Carol Gilligan is one of the major critics of Kohlberg’s work. In her own writings, Gilligan has put emphasis on the role of gender on moral development. According to her,

“The morality of care emphasizes interconnectedness and presumably emerges to a greater degree in girls owing to their early connection in identity formation with their mothers. The morality of justice, on the other hand, is said to emerge within the context of coordinating the interactions of autonomous individuals. A moral orientation based on justice was proposed as more prevalent among boys because their attachment relations with the mother, and subsequent masculine identity formation entailed that boys separate from that relationship and individuate from the mother.” (Gilligan, 1982; Nucci, 2005 on www.tigger.uic.edu)

However, further studies have suggested that moral development does not necessarily follow the specific gender lines that Gilligan proposed. Recent evidence has shown that “both males and females reason based on justice and care” (Nucci, 2005 on www.tigger.uic.edu). Regardless, there are still some educational approaches that are based on Gilligan’s perspective, and these stress the importance of “empathy and care responses in students” (Nucci, 2005 on www.tigger.uic.edu).

This study focuses on the existing theories and approaches on moral development and education, and the issue of which is the most appropriate approach for character education. The aims of this study are to identify the different theories and approaches to moral development and education in children; to determine the major influences on the development of children’s morals and values; to determine the impact of culture and society on moral development; and to identify the best approach to moral development and education.



            Professor M is a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri – Columbia and has been teaching for 20 years. He also works for the Missouri 4-H Youth Development Program in Columbia, Missouri. He is a 46-year old Caucasian male, married with three children, and is a Roman Catholic.


            The researcher sought consent for this interview and the participant willingly obliged, with the condition that confidentiality will be ensured. During the interview, the researcher asked questions pertaining to the topic and wrote down the interviewee’s answers. A tape recorder was also used to record the interview.

            The interviewer began by explaining the motivations behind the study, and then proceeded to ask questions about moral development and education. The questions included: what the interviewee’s views on the moral development of children are, and what milestones of moral development the interviewee have observed and are aware of. Queries regarding the views of the interviewee on (1) the influences on children’s moral development, (2) the impact of culture, society and language on moral development were also asked.


            According to Professor M, moral development and education is one of the more popular topics in his lectures and is a subject that has created much debate among scholars. The issue of which existing theory is most appropriate for moral education is even more problematic. Like Turiel and other Kohlberg critics, he thinks that the processes of moral development are not as simple as the Kohlbergian stage-wise development perspective. He also disagrees with Gilligan’s viewpoint, saying that “the differences in the moral reasonings of males and females are not that clear-cut”. Professor M stressed that most of the theories on moral development contain legitimate observations, and that the best approach to take would be to combine the strengths of the various theories and employ a dialectical approach.

Discussion and Conclusion

            For years, psychologists have tried to understand the fundamental processes of our mental development. The basic questions – how do we judge between right and wrong? – have sparked the most complex debates. Other issues regarding this topic include the existence of the development stages of moral development and the factors that influence moral development.

This study focuses on the existing theories and approaches on moral development and education, and the issue of which is the most appropriate. It aims to identify the different theories and approaches to moral development and education in children; to determine the major influences on the development of children’s morals and values; to determine the impact of culture and society on moral development; and to identify the best approach to moral development and education.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory on moral development has had a great impact on the ways by which current researchers formulate inquiries on the issue of moral development. Meanwhile, Jean Piaget’s ideas are often compared to those of Vygotsky, who considered social interaction as the fundamental source of moral behaviour. Both produced works which have been used to form the foundations of the constructivist theory of learning (DeVries and Zan, 1994). This is rather parallel to the comparisons made between Erik Erikon and Sigmund Freud, theorists on the development of personality.

Regarding the impact of society and culture on the development of morals and values, Vygotsky indicated that cognitive development takes place through social relationships (Donald, et. al., 1997). An individual learns through interaction with others, especially those who already have more knowledge and skills. Thus, a child’s interaction with those around him (parent, teachers, and friends) is essential to his development.

            Attempting to understand moral development has proved to be a very complex venture. No matter how universal the basic processes of moral development may be, certain factors such as culture, society, language and others still have an impact on moral development. Studies have also tried to assess the effect of other factors such as gender and religion on moral development.

As Professor M attested, the theories that have been presented all provide valid ways by which moral development and education may be approached and explained. But are there actual stages that can be generally applied to all individuals? How many stages are there really? Should there be a difference in the stage-wise development of different cultures and genders? Questions such as these lead to the issue of whether there is one specific objective method of measuring moral development.

            Professor M believes that the question of which theory on moral development is right is inconsequential. “What is important,” he says, “is the question of how to elucidate and influence moral development and education while taking into account all the existing knowledge and theories.” The professor believes that the best approach would be to examine each theory, find the commonalities, and sort out the inconsistencies. According to him, a more dialectic approach to the topic will incorporate all the knowledge from the various schools of thought and make full use of each.

            Professor M cites the Child Development Project in San Ramon, California as a prime example of the integrative approach to moral education. Berkowitz (1998; www.tigger.uic.edu) cites James Rest (1985; www.tigger.uic.edu) as “one of the first theorists to attempt a bridging of domains” and Lickona (1983) as “the single most successful writer in the field” who incorporated Kohlberg’s structuralism with other perspectives to come up with his own integrated approach.

Work Cited

Berkowitz, M. W. (1998). The education of the complete moral person. Studies in Moral Development and Education. Retrieved from <http://tigger.uic.edu/~lnucci/MoralEd/articles/

berkowitzed.html> on September 15, 2006.

DeVries, R. and Zan, B. (1994). Moral Children: Constructing a Constructivist Atmosphere in Early Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Donald, D., Lazarus, S,. and P. Lolwana. (1997). Educational Psychology in Social Context: Challenges of development, social issues and special need in southern Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harding, C. G. and Snyder, K. (1991). Tom, Huck, and Oliver Stone as advocates in Kohlberg’s just community: Theory-based strategies for moral education. Adolescence, 26 (102).

Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In D. A. Golsin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Kohlberg, L. (1978). Revisions in the theory and practice of moral development. In W. Damon (Ed.), New directions for child development: Moral development. New York: Wiley.

Leming, J. S. (1993). In search of effective character education. Educational Leaderships, 51, 63-71.

Lickona, T. (1991). An integrated approach to character development. In J. S. Benninga (Ed.), Moral, character, and civic education in the elementary school. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lozzi, L. A. (1990). Moral decision making in a scientific era. In J. C. Kendall and Associates, Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service (Vol. 1). Raleigh, NC: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.

McDaniel, A. K. (1998). Character Education: Developing Effective Programs. Journal of Extension, 36 (2). Retrieved from <http://www.joe.org/joe/1998april/a3.html> on September 15, 2006.

Nucci, Larry. (2005). Moral Development and Moral Education: An Overview. Studies in Moral Development and Education. Retrieved from <http://tigger.uic.edu/~lnucci/MoralEd/overview.html> on September 15, 2006.

Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child. (C. Gabain, Trans.). New York: Free Press. (First published in 1932).

Rest, J. R. (1985). An interdisciplinary approach to moral education. In M. W. Berkowitz and F. Oser (Eds.), Moral education: theory and application. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum.

Wynne, E. and Heiss, M. (1987). Trends in American youth character development. In K. Ryan and G. F. McLean (Eds.), Character development in schools and beyond. New York: Praeger.

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