Moral reasoning at a loss for young children

Jean Piaget is well known for his work on developmental stages in children. Some of his work has reemerged in my practice as an educator. What caught my attention were his ideas influencing the development of moral reasoning in children.

One of Piaget's observations in the 1930s asked children of age 10 or 11 to distinguish between the acts of accidentally breaking 15 glasses on a counter versus intentionally breaking one glass. Though the younger age groups drew their moral values on measuring the consequence, the older children reasoned that intent is an equivalent or greater malice.

Out of my own morbid curiosity, I would occasionally ask my high school students the same or similar moral dilemma, "Which act is worse, a child who accidentally breaks 15 glasses, or a child who intentionally breaks one glass?"

Most of my students (14-15 years old) believe the accidental destruction of 15 glasses is the worse of the two situations. The older students I teach (16-18 years old), with a few rare exceptions, argue otherwise that to intentionally break one glass is worse.

Have we regressed in our moral development from the 1930's? Granted, many of my students are not the most highly educated, but neither is a 10-year-old. Have we lost our foothold on the moral development of our youth?

A child of 12 in the 1930's can calculate that intention can outweigh consequence while a student of greater maturity today is incapable of distinguishing the two.

I often wonder how these stages of development that we spend so much time learning about and ultimately ignoring in the real world have changed because our society has evolved. Perhaps the work of Piaget needs revisiting.

Though I know that my observations are informal and do not warrant the immediate attention of the child psychologist, it raises the question as to how we address the moral development of our youth.

We as a society excessively worry that schools are underperforming and that students are not passing their standardized tests, and yet there are other issues to address that are of equal significance that are ignored.

I suppose it raises another moral dilemma: Do we educate our children at the expense of their moral development or do we reestablish the focus of education to produce graduates of high moral character while reducing the emphasis of standardized education?

I anticipate that some would argue that holding students to high academic standards does produce graduates of high moral character, but, as an educator, I disagree. I look at this issue not as a fundamental issue of education, but as an issue of inconsistent family practice.

I suppose my biggest question from personal observation is how can educators be held accountable for the academic development of students without having parents be held accountable for the moral development and motivation of their children?

Stephen Lee is a Rutgers College alumnus from the class of 2007. He is a New York City Teaching Fellow, and a high school Genetics and Physics Teacher in Bronx, N.Y.

Stephen Lee

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