ASSESSING QUALITIES OF MORAL CLASSROOM CONVERSATIONS IN THE DOMAIN OF CITIZENSHIP EDUCATION: A Virtue Ethical Approach

By Willems, Frank; Denessen, Eddie et al. | Journal of Character Education, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

ASSESSING QUALITIES OF MORAL CLASSROOM CONVERSATIONS IN THE DOMAIN OF CITIZENSHIP EDUCATION: A Virtue Ethical Approach


Willems, Frank, Denessen, Eddie, Hermans, Chris, Vermeer, Paul, Journal of Character Education


It may be argued that, from a virtue-ethical perspective, three aspects of a teacher's role in moral classroom conversations are of primary importance: (1) encouraging students to be morally reasonable, (2) stimulating the students' emotional involvement, and (3) guiding students toward a normative ideal of virtue. This study sets out to explore the possibility of recognizing these elements in moral classroom conversations about citizenship education so as to assess the quality of such conversations. The qualitative analysis of teacher utterances in four moral classroom conversations indicates that this is indeed possible. The outcome of the study also warrants an assumption that quantifications of teacher utterances can be used to compare larger samples of moral classroom conversations and to investigate relationships with other variables.

INTRODUCTION

Ever since the early 1990s, interest in citizenship education has been on the rise among political and educational theorists in the Western world. It is commonly recognized that one of the goals of citizenship education is to develop certain attitudes that enable citizens to contribute to the quality of society. Such attitudes are usually called civic virtues. Some of the major civic virtues in Western liberal, democratic, multicultural society are justice (safeguarding the rights of others), tolerance (allowing other citizens to express their views and choose their conception of the good life, even if one does not agree with them) and solidarity (relating to, and taking care of, fellow citizens). These three qualities, which may be seen as core virtues of citizenship (Willems, Denessen, Hermans, & Vermeer, 2012), are also central to this study.

Viewing citizenship in terms of virtue is consonant with another recent trend. The virtueethical approach to moral education has been drawing increasing attention over the past few decades. Virtue ethicists have claimed that their portrayal of the moral person is a robust and lifelike one, particularly because it takes emotions and motives into account (Carr, 2006; Steutel & Carr, 1999; Van der Ven, 1998).

One of the basic assumptions of a virtue-ethical approach is that children need to realize the meaning and significance of the virtues (Kupperman, 1999; Sherman, 1999; Sprod, 2001). High-quality classroom conversations about moral issues are probably the most appropriate and promising means of stimulating such insights at school (Farr Darling, 2002; Skillen, 1997; Sprod, 2001). In this article we shall identify the characteristics of moral classroom conversations and analyze, in terms of these features, four conversations about a citizenship subject. Our goal is to determine whether these characteristics can indeed be recognized in lessons given by teachers, and whether they can be used to assess qualities of the lessons.

A NORMATIVE FRAMEWORK FOR MORAL CLASSROOM CONVERSATIONS

Before presenting our empirical research, we propose to identify those characteristics of moral conversations that, according to the theory of virtue ethics, have a potential to stimulate the development of virtue in students.

The content of a moral classroom conversation is always a moral issue: an issue with a potential for helping or harming someone, including oneself. Since virtue ethicists emphasize the importance of student involvement, it seems best to discuss moral issues arising from lifelike situations that are actually related to students' perception of their environment, rather than abstract moral dilemmas (Sprod, 2001). For example, children might be asked to imagine an encounter with a Muslim girl being bullied by two boys because of her headscarf. This situation (which relates to civic virtues such as justice, tolerance and solidarity) may be so presented that students can imagine it happening in their own school or home environment, or relate it to experiences of their own. Starting from such a situation, students may be challenged to find the solution most appropriate to themselves as moral persons. …

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