Moral Education

Updated on Apr 18, 2011

Every society is concerned about fostering moral character in children and forming responsible citizens. Controversy often accompanies these interests because adults do not always agree about what moral character is or how to cultivate it. Does a person with moral character support societal traditions, much like a tribal leader does, or challenge them, as did Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr.? What exactly do children need to learn in order to be engaged citizens? Further, do children develop moral character through exhortation or through lived experience? Questions like these are debated.

The debate over defining moral education is often pitched between two seemingly opposed perspectives: traditional character education, focused on the development of specific kinds of virtuous traits and habits (Narvaez, 2006) and rational moral education, which focuses on moral judgment and reasoning regarding justice and fairness. The integrative ethical education model (IEE) described below embraces both traditions. IEE defines moral education as the development of moral expertise, which requires both virtue, as intuitions and skills, and moral cognition, as reasoning, imagination, and understanding.

History of Moral Education 

The practices of contemporary moral character education can be traced to ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Lapsley & Narvaez, 2006; Nucci & Narvaez, in press). The Socratic emphasis on virtue emphasized the mind, particularly philosophical thinking and reasoning. Socrates's own pedagogy—known as the Socratic method—used successive questions to guide students from ignorance to understanding. Knowing what is good was considered the sufficient condition for individuals to be considered good and virtuous. The Socratic emphasis on right thinking and reasoning echoes throughout the philosophy of his student, Plato, in his The Republic in which Plato seeks to define justice.

Aristotle's teachings and philosophy emphasized the practice of good actions, not only reason, as a means to living a life of virtue. With the tutelage of mentors and moral exemplars, Aristotle came to believe that the virtuous life is attainable through the practice of specific habits and virtues. Aristotle's philosophy of virtue laid the foundation for contemporary paradigms of character education.

The moral philosophy of early Greek thinkers, coupled with Christian theology, morality, and practice, provided a social and educational foundation in European and American societies from the Middle Ages to modern times. The intersection of moral philosophy and religion was especially evident in colonial U.S. schools; indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, U.S. schools aimed to develop students with good character through reading Bible stories and exhortations, what is considered traditional character education.

In the twentieth century, the explicit Protestant Christian theology of education became less congruous with the religious identity of many new immigrant citizens. Teachers could no longer rely on the assumption of a single universal religious identity as the foundation of moral formation. At the same time, theoretical and empirical challenges were levied against moral character education in general. Among many provocative findings, the early work of Hartshorne and May, in Studies in the Nature of Character (1928–1930), concluded pessimistically that little if any universality or transfer of character existed across situations and general incongruence was demonstrated between moral knowledge and moral action.

Empirical challenges to moral character education and a changing social landscape precipitated a general decline in the interest and application of traditional character education in schools in the mid-twentieth century. The study of moral character education in many ways shifted to the psychological arena as issues of personality or values. Values clarification became a way for educators to discuss values without advocating any one in particular.

In the widespread move against behaviorism in psychology, Lawrence Kohlberg brought the developmental work of Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896–1980), to the United States. Inspired by Piaget, Kohlberg (1984) spawned the cognitive development approach to moral education as a counterweight to traditional character education and its collection of virtues. Kohlberg was concerned about the conventional condemnation of people such as Martin Luther King Jr., who were viewed as common criminals breaking the law. Kohlberg saw that civil rights demonstrators had a higher moral purpose in breaking the law, but he wondered how to prove that was true.


Kohlberg examined the moral development of a cohort of boys through childhood and adolescence. Looking for underlying patterns, he presented his subjects with moral dilemmas and perceived a three-level, six-stage progression in their thinking over time, moving from preconventional thinking to conventional to post-conventional (Preconventional level: 1. avoid punishment, 2.  Prudence and Simple Exchange; Conventional level: 3. Interpersonal Harmony and Concordance, 4. law and order; Postconventional level: 5. social contract, and 6. universal moral principles). Kohlberg proposed that with age and experience, each person moves from simple to more complex notions of moral reasoning, some moving farther up the stages than others. Each stage is more adequate than the previous one to solve complex moral problems. Kohlberg's basic theory was validated around the world, although there is some controversy about the nature and universality of the higher stages.

In order to stimulate moral reasoning development beyond that promoted by everyday experience, Kohlberg and his students developed the dilemma discussion method. The classic example is the “Heinz Dilemma” in which Heinz, a man of modest means, cannot afford the costly cure for his dying wife. Unable to appeal to the druggist or secure the necessary funds, Heinz breaks into the pharmacy and takes the medicine to save his wife. After the dilemma is presented, students take a position on whether he should steal the drug, and then they participate in small and large group discussions about the reasons for one action or another.

In his later years, Kohlberg and colleagues (Power, Higgins & Kohlberg, 1989) focused on a true-to-life cognitive developmental method, the just community, modeled on some features of the Jewish kibbutz. Implemented in schools and prisons, emphasis was placed upon developing adolescents' ties to community expectations (concerns of Stages 3 and 4) through democratic decision making of community rules (concern of Stage 5). Although an extremely demanding method, the “just community school” approach leads to increased trust, obedience, and loyalty among students, as well as moral stage growth.

Newer Approaches 

Newer generations of empirically derived approaches to moral character development developed in the late 20th century. Three are briefly described.

Child Development Project. The Child Development Project (CDP) was founded in the late 1970s as a comprehensive, systems-based approach for fostering positive and pro-social development of elementary-aged children. The CDP focuses on the home and classroom community as the formative contexts for moral character development. Similar to Kohlberg's just community model, the intentional democratic structure of the CDP classroom promotes a sense of belonging, cooperation among peers, and sharing of values. A core theoretical component of the CDP is that participatory membership in a caring community, engagement in trusting interpersonal relationships, and collaborative learning experiences provide the necessary curricular and pedagogical foundation for pro-social development.

Teachers and parents become models and guides for the students, provide scaffolding for complex activities and concepts, and support students in their collaboration with peers and development of pro-social skills. CDP curricular materials engage the cognitive, behavioral, and affective components of pro-social development through supportive relationships with an adult, positive interactions with peers, experiences of perspective taking, understanding of values, and discussion of moral issues (see the Web site maintained by the Developmental Studies Center).

Students who participated in CDP demonstrated increased pro-social behavior, increased sense of school community, improved self-concept, and other positive outcomes (e.g., Battistich, Solomon, Watson, & Schaps, 1997). Most notable among the many positive findings was that sense of community was positively related to several key variables of interest such as conflict resolution skills, academic engagement, and concern for others.

Building Assets. It is widely accepted that parents are the primary moral educators of their children. Moral education and formation is more robust, however, when the moral instruction of the parents and family structure are resonant throughout the community (e.g., school, business, media). The Search Institute is a non-profit organization that promotes community-based positive youth development by deepening relationships and asset building. A list of forty positive assets (e.g., family support, adult role models, caring, peaceful conflict resolution) represent the internal and external values and competencies needed for healthy development and fundamental moral education (see the Web site maintained by the Search Institute). Greater numbers of assets are related to fewer risk behaviors. Through Search Institute programs, young people work with peers and adults in the community to deepen relationships, affirm the positive development of youth, and create and uphold institutions that promote an environment and experience that support positive and moral growth. This model has been linked with positive cognitive, affective, and behavioral change—such as increased moral action—in diverse contexts and communities (Benson, Leffert, Scales, & Blyth, 1998).

Social and Emotional Learning. Moral education occurs across diverse contexts (e.g., home, school, work) and through a variety of methods (e.g., direct instruction, experiential learning, counter-examples). But what are the underlying requisite skills for successful engagement in these moral contexts and activities? Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a theoretical and empirical domain that accentuates emotional intelligence as a suite of necessary skills for successful development. The SEL framework affirms the primacy of parents as moral educators and the importance of asset building within the community for successful development but focuses on specific social and emotional skills for life success. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was founded in the 1990s to further explore how academic achievement skills are related to skills necessary for succeeding in life, both the private sphere of family and the public one of work. When children are emotionally and socially competent (e.g., self aware, respectful of others, able to manage conflict) they are better prepared to make moral and ethical decisions, to engage the moral messages of the community and to build assets from them (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). Emotional competencies provide the necessary intrapersonal and interpersonal foundation for successful moral judgment and action. Additionally, when SEL skills are taught in schools, students demonstrate increased engagement with learning and academic achievement.

Integrative Approaches. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a renewed interest in reconciling the divergence between traditional character education and rational moral education. Tom Lickona has collected the best concrete ideas and put them together in user-friendly books for elementary teachers. For example, Lickona and Davidson (2006) developed a model for helping high school students to develop both performance character and moral character.

The Integrative Ethical Education model (IEE; Nar-vaez, 2006) provides a broad, research-based framework for moral character development. It outlines an intentional, holistic, comprehensive, empirically derived approach to moral character education. Rooted in what was intuited by ancient philosophers and confirmed by modern science regarding how to cultivate human flourishing, this approach suggests five steps for educators to follow.

Step 1: Establish a caring relationship with each student. One of the most important protective factors against poor outcomes for a child are caring relationships, first, with an adult in the family, second, with an adult outside the family (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). Teachers can provide the one relationship that supports a child.

Step 2: Establish a climate supportive of achievement and ethical character. A positive climate meets the needs of the child and fosters a sense of belonging to the larger group (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Prosocial behavior is nurtured in climates that foster flourishing and the “developmental assets” that support resiliency (Benson et al., 1998). A caring classroom (and school) climate with high expectations is related both to high achievement and to moral behavior (Zins et al., 2004). In a caring classroom, discipline is not punishment but is coached character development.

Step 3: Teach ethical skills across the curriculum and extra-curriculum using a novice-to-expert pedagogy. The four component model (Narvaez & Rest, 1995) provides a functional view of moral behavior. Skills for each of the four components (ethical sensitivity, judgment, focus, action) have been identified. Best practice instruction provides opportunities for students to develop more accurate and better organized representations and the procedural skills required to use them. Children must experience an expert-in-training pedagogy for each skill that they learn. Teachers can set up instruction to help students develop appropriate knowledge by designing lessons according to the following four levels of activities: (1) immersion in examples and opportunities; (2) attention to facts and skills; (3) practice procedures; (4) integration of knowledge and procedures.

Step 4: Foster student self-authorship and self-regulation. Individuals can be coached not only in skills and expertise but in domain-specific self-efficacy and self-regulation (Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach, 2002). The most successful students learn to monitor the effectiveness of the strategies they use to solve problems and, when necessary, alter their strategies for success. Students can learn the metacognitive skills that moral experts have, for example, self-monitoring of attention away from temptations, self-cheerleading when energy flags, and selecting or designing the environment to maximize goal completion.

Step 5: Restore the village through asset-building communities and coordinated developmental systems. Truly democratic ethical education empowers all involved—educators, community members, and students—as they form a learning community together, developing ethical skills and self-regulation for both individual and community actualization. The purpose of ethical behavior is to live a good life in the community. Together, community members work out basic questions such as the following: How should we get along in our community? How do we build up our community? How do we help one another flourish? Each individual lives within an active ecological context in which, ideally, the entire community builds ethical skills together.

The debate over what constitutes moral character education and the proper formation of good citizens continues in the 2000s. Three main categories or genres have emerged as approaches: traditionalist, humanist, and integrationist. The traditionalist genre is characterized by its focus on the development of specific kinds of virtuous traits or habits. Contemporary traditionalist perspectives often focus on a subset of virtues (e.g., Character Counts!). The humanist genre is characterized by the work of the philosophers John Dewey (1859–1952) and Nel Noddings (b. 1929), which focused on the role of experiences and, in particular, the quality of relationships in education and moral character development. Their work is typified by classrooms as democratic, participatory, and caring environments wherein students engage in collaborative endeavors. Finally, integrationists, as the name implies, incorporate traditional character education and rational moral judgment within the context of caring relationships and a caring community. Rational moral education is differentiated from traditional character education by its focus on moral judgment and reasoning oriented toward justice and fairness. Whereas traditional character education is concerned with the explicit formation of specific kinds of character (specific habits), rational moral judgment is concerned with developing the intellectual tools for moral reasoning and judgment. Although these two schools of moral education have been cast as divergent and mutually exclusive, integrative models of moral character education incorporate traditional virtue ethics and moral reasoning exercises within a caring environment for a truly comprehensive model of moral character education (Narvaez, 2006).


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Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., & Wang, M. C. (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.

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