Moral Education and Pluralism

By Mal Leicester; Celia Modgil et al. | Go to book overview

14

Schemas, Culture, and Moral Texts

DARCIA NARVAEZ AND CHRISTYAN MITCHELL

In the midst of teaching, teachers make a dazzlingly quick series of judgments about what to do next or how to respond to unforeseen eventualities. These intuitive and immediate judgments are based not on calmly reasoned discussions that occurred months before but on viscerally felt, “gut” instincts concerning which actions best fit certain situations. They are informed by recollections of similar situations experienced in the past. Even as we react to a situation, we are scanning our memories for incidents that felt like the ones we face and that might provide some guidance on how to respond. This process occurs almost instantaneously so that reflection is perceived as concurrent with action.

(Stephen Brookfield, The Skillful Teacher, 1990)

Whether it's presidential dalliances, Taliban rulings, Teletubbies, altercations in the former Yugoslavia, individuals differ in their interpretations and evaluations of socio-moral events. Such moral conclusions vary according to the background knowledge and experience the interpreter brings to the situation. What are the factors that lead to these radically different understandings? What brought the Rev. Jerry Falwell to “besmirch” the reputation of the Teletubby, Tinky Winky? A cognitive psychological interpretation would be that Falwell has a general knowledge structure, or schema, for homosexuality (which he condemns) that Tinky Winky evoked (carries a purse, has a triangle on his head, and so must be gay).

“Schema, ” refers to a general knowledge structure in the mind, formed by repeated experience, and evoked by stimuli in the environment (Bartlett 1932). Repeating patterns in the world are encoded in memory as chunks of information, or schemas, that save repeated processing of previously experienced material. Over time, toddlers learn that an object with four legs, a seat and a back is a chair and is used for sitting. This knowledge is automatized so that older children don't even think about the usage of such an object but automatically use it appropriately. What schemas do is enable the perceiver to identify stimuli quickly, fill in information missing from the stimulus configuration, and provide guidance for obtaining further information, solving a problem, or reaching a goal. Schemas are tacitly and automatically invoked, working “behind the scenes.” The major tenet of schema theory is that people simplify reality by storing knowledge at a molar, inclusive level, rather than squirreling away, one by one, all the original individual facts of experience (Taylor and Crocker 1981, Fiske and Taylor 1991) for which there are not enough hours in the day!

Recently, our research in moral judgment has demonstrated the effects of schemas on moral decision-making. Rest, Narvaez, Bebeau, and Thoma (1999) have revised and reformulated Kohlberg's (1984) theory into a neo-Kohlbergian theory using three schemas instead of six stages to refer to developmental change. Research with tens of thousands of subjects using the defining issues test (DIT) indicates that individuals change over time in their preference for these global moraljudgment schemas (personal interest schema, maintaining norms schema, postconventional schema). Evidence for the existence and developmental sequence of these schemas is provided by means of seven validity criteria (see Rest et al., 1999). Among these are demonstrated relations to behavior.

Taylor and Crocker (1981) provide one of the most thorough descriptions of schemas in the social domain. They list seven characteristics (in italics

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