Moral development: forming a sense of rights and responsibilities
Morality is a system of beliefs about what is right and good compared to what is wrong or bad.
Moral development refers to changes in moral beliefs as a person grows older and gains maturity. Moral beliefs are related to, but not identical with, moral behaviour: it is possible to know the right thing to do, but not actually do it.
It is also not the same as knowledge of social conventions, which are arbitrary customs needed for the smooth operation of society. Social conventions may have a moral element, but they have a primarily practical purpose.
Conventionally, in a particular country, motor vehicles all keep to the same side of the street. The convention allows for smooth, accident-free flow of traffic. But following the convention also has a moral element, because an individual who chooses to drive on the wrong side of the street can cause injuries or even death. In this sense, choosing the wrong side of the street is wrong morally, though the choice is also unconventional.
When it comes to schooling and teaching, moral choices are not restricted to occasional dramatic incidents, but are woven into almost every aspect of classroom life.
Suppose that a teacher is teaching reading to a small group of eight year olds, and the students are taking turns reading a story out loud. Should the teacher give every student the same amount of time to read, even though some might benefit from having additional time? Or should the teacher give more time to the students who need extra help, even if doing so bores classmates and deprives others of equal shares of “floor time”? Which option is fairer, and which is more considerate?
Simple dilemmas like this happen every day at all school levels simply because students are diverse, and because class time and a teacher’s energy are finite.
Embedded in this rather ordinary example are moral themes about fairness or justice, on the one hand, and about consideration or care on the other. It is important to keep both themes in mind when thinking about how students develop beliefs about right or wrong.
A morality of justice is about human rights or more specifically, about respect for fairness, impartiality, equality, and individuals’ independence.
A morality of care, on the other hand, is about human responsibilities or more specifically, about caring for others, showing consideration for individuals’ needs, and interdependence among individuals.
Students and teachers need both forms of morality. In the rest of this module, a major example of each type of moral developmental theory is explained.
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