Moral Development in our Classrooms

Recently, I was reading Rafe Esquith’s book “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire”. Rafe, an award winning teacher from Los Angeles, California, teaches 5th graders from a community of poor and immigrant families. Most of them live in poverty and few speak English as their first language. But students from his class, The Hobart Shakespeareans perform unabridged plays by Shakespeare and go on to attend the finest universities in the country.

In his book, Rafe speaks about the famous Kohlberg’s Six levels of Moral Development and how they can be adapted to the classroom.

Level I : I Don’t Want to Get in Trouble

Most students start at Level I. They walk in a line, finish their homework and sit quietly because they don’t want to get in trouble with the teacher. Fear is the main driving force in such a classroom. But what happens if the stern teacher is not present? Do the students still follow the rules?

Level II : I Want a Reward

Show them the carrot! “Do all the maths problems and you will get a star on your face.” “Help one of your friends and you will get a Superstar card.” I can remember one incident when a girl asked me, “Sir, what will the winning team get?” I said, “Nothing” Then she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “I don’t want to do it then.” It is really important that the children understand that proper behaviour is expected, not rewarded.

Level III : I Want to Please Somebody

Children have this inherent desire to please adults. Be it their parents or teachers. They want us to feel good about them. In my class, there were some children who would start speaking in English the moment they saw me because they knew it made me happy. But then again, what about when I was not there?

Level IV: I Follow the Rules

Many classes are based on rules. I had a rule in my class that said, “Be Nice to All”. The children followed this rule religiously in the classroom. They waited for their turns to speak, they did not fight, they shared resources. But then why did I find them hitting each other during recess, why did they laugh when somebody fell down? Is it because my rule was just that: a rule to be followed in a classroom when I was there, nothing more than that. The rules never get reflected in the real lives of children.

Level V : I Am Considerate of Other People

Empathy is difficult to teach, even to adults. We regularly find people speaking loudly on their phone in public places or behaving rudely with waiting staff in restaurants. Rafe’s students speak in whispers not because they fear their teacher but because they don’t want to disturb the neighbouring class, they are quiet and well behaved during field trips to museums not because it’s some rule, but because they are considerate of other visitors.

Level VI: I Have a Personal Code of Behaviour and I Follow It

The most difficult thing for a child is to have a personal code of conduct. He does not base his actions on fear, or a desire to please someone, or even on rules because he has his own set of rules. He does things because they are right, whether anybody is watching or not. A good way to teach children to have personal codes is to have them identify such codes from famous characters, either fictional or real.

It’s time we started moving our classrooms from a culture of fear( Level I) to a culture of “doing right, no matter what”( Level VI).