Stories: An Old Moral Education Method Rediscovered

By Smith, Ruth | Education, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Stories: An Old Moral Education Method Rediscovered


Smith, Ruth, Education


Introduction

Today as delinquency, substance abuse, teen age pregnancies, and general moral decay seem the norm, educators, parents and the public recognize the need for a program of moral education. Nazario (1985, April 6), writing in the Wall Street Journal, depicted the predicament facing educators. Eighty-four percent of parents think schools should offer moral guidance to their students, but teachers are reluctant to offer this service. Afraid of controversy in view of the many divergent views of our pluralistic society, and scorning a one-sided moralistic stance, many teachers refuse to get involved, particularly after years of trying to learn to be values neutral.

The questions of who should teach morality, where it should be taught, and what should be taught have not yet been fully answered. Few educators realize the complexity of the moral issues, or realize their own biases (Paul, 1988). As a result, moral judgements are often a mix of insight and prejudice, truth and hypocrisy. Most people think their beliefs constitute the truth, and fear what would happen if proponents of another belief system would get control of moral education. With every religious or anti-religious factor demanding its rights, educators have been wise to be reluctant to support any particular philosophy of moral conduct despite the acknowledged need for it.

It was not always so in our country. Years ago, moral education in schools was expected (Wynne & Vitz, 1985). Early American textbooks, such as The New England Primer and later, McDuffy's Reader were filled with overt religious and moral platitudes. However, as our nation became more oriented to public rather than church oriented education, the religious basis of education disappeared, and with in the overt teaching of morals.

The first popular attempt to fill the vacuum left by the lack of moral teaching in the schools began in the late 1960's with value clarification championed by Raths, Harmin, and Simon (1966). It was intended to strengthen the child's ability to choose, recognize and act upon his or her values in a neutral environment.

The second widely used approach to reintroduce morals was the cognitive developmental approach following the stage development scheme of Piaget (1965) and Kohlberg (1958). This approach recognizes that some values are better than others, and that as children develop cognitively, they also develop better methods of moral reasoning. Using this concept, moral education involves the presentation of a moral dilemma which is discussed by the children and teacher with the expectation that exposure to a higher level of reasoning creates a cognitive disequilibrium that encourages development.

Critics of the method question that Kohlberg and his supporters have adequately shown that growth in moral reasoning contributes to growth in moral behavior (Damon, 1988). Vitz (1990) also questioned the necessity of the use of abstract reasoning in advancing moral behavior and cites Coles (1986) who found very high levels of moral behavior in children far too young to reason abstractly.

Lockwood, in an early review (Lockwood, 1978, p. 345) of research on values education and moral development theory, summed it up by saying that while values education was "a relatively clear treatment in search of coherent, measurable outcomes, the moral development approach may be characterized as a relatively coherent, measurable outcome in search of a clear treatment that will promote it." Although moral reasoning and values clarification have not been the remedy educators had hoped for, they have served as a catalyst for discussion and research to find more successful methods to develop character in the nation's children.

Among those who advocate a return to old time moral education, Wynne and Vitz (1985) emphasized that moral education should involve all aspects of the curricula and life. Bennings (1988) suggested that both direct and indirect teaching should be included, and Paul (1988) asserted that bias free moral education is neither desirable nor possible.

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