According to Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, 20th century psychologists who are famous for cognitive and moral development theories, acquisition, assimilation, and application of moral values take place alongside the development in cognition. In other words, as an individual matures intellectually, he or she becomes more capable of moral reasoning, implying that one’s quality of thinking, rather than his or her chronological age is a better predictor of moral reasoning and related capabilities.
Qualitative changes that take place in one’s sense of moral values are contingent upon his or her development in cognitive functions. In this sense, understanding cognitive functioning would enhance our understanding and improve our approach to helping students to develop as morally responsible individuals.
Like everyone else, I studied in a system where moral values were taught once in a week (50-minute period) in a class called “moral education.” Although I looked forward to the classes mainly because the textbooks contained interesting stories of heroes who display excellent qualities, I felt that everyone in the class would have liked to have more of moral education classes. Because of time limits and other reasons, the subject was considered to be less important and failing in it wasn’t a big deal.
In addition, the manner in which the subject matter was delivered was far from being effective. Teachers either read or lectured the stories and asked us what lesson(s) we could generate from them. Somehow, we were expected to become passionate about certain moral values by learning them in an inert manner. Unfortunately, we missed out on seeing how moral values permeate every aspect of life. We were not allowed the opportunities to explore moral principles as they relate to other subjects taught in the school. The importance placed on the subject was evidently discouraging.
Brain-friendly values classes
If meaningful connections of facts and ideas are important to effectively learn subjects like science, social studies, and math, the same applies to learning and assimilating moral values. To make values education meaningful, it should not be isolated from the rest of the subjects and the overall experiences at school and life. Ideally, moral values should be the inspirational force behind every teaching and learning that transpires in the school. Values education should not be considered as a non-core (or elective) subject scheduled once in a week. Rather, it should be integrated systematically to reflect real-life application and meaning across the board.
Moral reasoning is momentously enhanced by providing opportunities to learn and transfer moral values within appropriate real-life contexts. The following strategies could be used to teach moral values in any subject through an integrative model:
- Presentation of moral dilemma followed by discussion/dialogue about possible solutions, consequences for different decisions and accompanying actions, and reflection about real-life application (e.g. Discussion about ethics in scientific research)
- Debate about moral issues – debates help students to prepare for morally challenging situations before they actual encounter them, hence preparing them to be ready with unyielding moral decisions – this prevents individuals from giving in to the pressures of the moment, the reason responsible for most white collar crimes by highly educated professionals (e.g. “Should we continue manufacturing luxury cars?” – in the context of our moral responsibility to preserve energy for future generations)
While utilizing these strategies, a teacher should ensure that:
1. students’ behaviors are separated from ‘who they are’ preventing the teacher and students from becoming judgmental about each other’s moral decisions
2. an unconditionally accepting classroom environment is created to facilitate genuine and open discussion/dialogue
3. he or she shares personal experiences to encourage students to do the same and increase authenticity in learning moral values