Academic journal article Journal of Thought

The Role of Authentic Communication in Moral Development and Transformative Education: Reflections on a Case Study

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

The Role of Authentic Communication in Moral Development and Transformative Education: Reflections on a Case Study

Article excerpt


In 2005, this author undertook a case study of a moral education/community development program in a public high school in North Carolina. Given a long-standing interest in transformative education, (1) and reports received of the program's remarkable success in promoting moral motivation and a profound sense of community among high school students from normally estranged racial and socioeconomic groups, I sought to understand the transformative experiences program participants reported having and how the program's curriculum and pedagogy might be promoting such transformation. The resulting case study became my dissertation, to which the reader interested in more of the study's details than are included in this article may refer (Cotten, 2009).

Data collection for this study began in the fall of 2005 when the program's founder invited this author to observe a number of workshops (i.e., the core of the educational experience the program provided). At approximately the same time, I also became acquainted with and increasingly interested in psychologist Mustakova-Possardt's (1998; 2003; 2004) research on the development of "critical moral consciousness" (CMC). I was especially interested in the unusually holistic characterization her theory provides of how moral motivation and critical consciousness develop in people who dedicate themselves to social service. My study of the program thus came to focus on two research questions: (1) Could the transformations some of the program participants reported experiencing (in their senses of identity, responsibility and agency, and ways of relating to others) be usefully understood as instances of CMC development? and (2) If so, how might the program's curriculum and pedagogy have contributed to this development?

Analysis of data collected from field observations and interviews with selected participants revealed that a majority of those interviewed appeared to be developing CMC at the time of their interviews. Furthermore, by and large, these participants regarded their participation in the program as having either been the primary cause of, or as having significantly contributed to, the changes in moral consciousness they reported experiencing. Further consideration of these findings led to the conclusion that the participants' experiences in the program of what I term authentic communication, in this case regarding a moral problem directly concerning and affecting them, apparently stimulated their development of CMC.

This article's purpose is to explicate this finding and reflect on some of its implications. Before doing so, the two sections that follow introduce relevant aspects of Mustakova-Possardt's theory of CMC, describe some outstanding features of the program, and present a few noteworthy accounts of participants' experiences. Subsequent sections describe the case study's methodology and discuss its central finding, that experiencing authentic communication regarding an issue of moral concern amplified participants' moral motivation and stimulated their development of CMC. The remaining sections further explore the nature of authentic communication in light of insights from Martin Buber and Parker J. Palmer, examine features of the program's pedagogy that may have fostered such communication, and consider implications for promoting transformative education.

Mustakova-Possardt's Theory of Critical Moral Consciousness

For Mustakova-Possardt (2004), "critical moral consciousness" (CMC) refers to a kind of consciousness or mode of being characterized by "integration of moral motivation, agency and critical discernment" (p. 245) and a corresponding "deepening synergy between mind, heart and will" (p. 258). This kind of consciousness, Mustakova-Possardt (2003) argues, has likely always characterized that minority of people who stand out across diverse socio-historical contexts as unusually "independent and original thinkers" (p. …

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