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Review: moral classrooms, moral children: creating a constructivist atmosphere in early education.

Rheta DeVries & Betty Zan

New York: Teachers College Press, 2012 (2nd ed.)

276 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-8077-5340-8 (Paperback)

Throughout the long history of American education, there have been countless illustrations of reform, growth, and enlightenment but also those of condemnation, decline, and confusion. Jean Piaget has been a monumental player in our ever-evolving field of education. The contribution of his theories regarding sociomoral and cognitive development are of specific focus in this second edition of DeVries and Zan's coauthored popular text, Moral Classrooms, Moral Children. This updated edition continues to strongly encourage a constructivist approach to education by targeting today's diverse student body and teaching forces. DeVries and Zan go into great depth in the description and articulation of constructivist education. They build upon the foundational theories of Piaget to define and describe the process of attaining a sociomoral atmosphere in a community of learners, which is a necessity when attempting to provide a constructivist education. "Our conviction is that all interactions between children and their caregivers/educators and among children affect children's social and moral development" (p. 1). This text provides a moving analysis of how today's youth could benefit morally, socially, intellectually, and psychologically from a constructivist classroom.

One foundational concept that surfaces throughout the book, is the desire to create moral classrooms. Moral classrooms are described as "classrooms in which a particular kind of sociomoral atmosphere supports and promotes all aspects of children's learning and development--moral, social, affective, and intellectual" (p. 7). The sociomoral atmosphere that constructivist teachers speak of is a network consisting of two parts: teacher/child relations and child/child relations. It is said that the teacher initially establishes the sociomoral atmosphere of a classroom. Teachers demonstrate authority selectively and wisely, by refraining from using power in unnecessary and counter educative ways in order to provide opportunities for children to develop self-confidence, as well as respect for self and others.

DeVries and Zan heavily referenced three vignettes throughout the text. Three separate kindergarten classrooms were researched to portray differing types of teacher personalities and the environments these teachers impose upon their students. The "Drill Sergeant" had a consistently cold, distant, and disrespectful attitude; the "Manager" was rarely warm, usually distant, and sometimes respectful and/or disrespectful with children, and the "Mentor" was warm, close, and respectful in her relationships with the children. The sociomoral atmosphere in each of these classrooms was analyzed and viewed in terms of child activity, positive affect, teachers' exercise of power, and peer interaction. The most positive outcomes occurred with the Mentor teacher, followed by the Manager, and finally the Drill Sergeant. The Mentor exerted the "least amount of power over children because she aims to cultivate power in children" (p. 21).

The constructivist concept regarding student interactions is for students to become more able to understand the perspectives of others and to learn cooperation. A second foundational and desirable concept of a constructivist education is the development of moral children. DeVries and Zan describe moral children as those who are contending with issues that concern themselves and/or others in their lives. They attempt to make sense of what is right and wrong, good and bad. Just like adults, children construct their own beliefs and opinions based on the opinions of those around them and the experiences they encounter in their day-to-day lives. "Piaget calls young children 'moral realists'" (p. 29). That is, children view moral rules as senseless if they cannot understand the reasoning behind them.

This text provides detailed steps and suggestions to aid educators in creating a constructivist sociomoral classroom atmosphere. Some of these suggestions include engaging and appealing to children's interests, inspiring experimentation, fostering cooperation, and ways to meet the physiological and emotional needs of the children through various social interactions. The authors state that the cultivated relationship between student and teacher is of the greatest value Teachers who appeal to a child's interests and create a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation will more readily foster the desired "autonomous" morality in a child. Educators are cautioned to refrain from exercising unnecessary external control.

According to the Attachment Theory, the teacher-child attachment is another aspect of their relationship that is paramount for desired growth. "When children are securely attached to their teacher, they are cooperative, confident, and able to seek and accept help from their teacher" (p. 51). However, when children are insecurely attached to their teacher, they are likely to display lack of trust toward their teacher, exhibit conflicting relationships with the teacher, and frequently demonstrate behavior problems in the classroom.

Peer relationships are another vital component in establishing a sociomoral atmosphere. "According to Piaget's theory, peer interactions are crucial to the child's construction of social and moral feelings, values, and social and intellectual competence" (pp. 52-53). Peer relations can lead to the recognition of real reciprocity, which provides the foundation for decentering and perspective taking, both of which are supportive characteristics of moral children. The constructivist teacher influences the peer culture of a classroom by establishing expectations, modeling respectful behaviors, engaging interests, and fostering cooperation through conflict resolution. There are many opportunities for educators to exhibit and facilitate peer interactions and to foster feelings of community, both of which are vital to the moral development of children. Group and activity times are moments in a child's day where much moral learning takes place.

DeVries and Zan go into great detail regarding ways in which student negotiations and shared experiences can support a sociomoral atmosphere, which contributes toward the development of moral children. Negotiations are described as "interactions that occur when an interpersonal dynamic is in disequilibrium" (p. 32), while shared experiences are interactions in which children are in equilibrium, or without tension. Constructivist teachers desire children to be able to use these moments of negotiation and shared experiences to develop mental relationships; an idea originally proposed by Piaget.

The concept of cooperation does not stop with the development of rules or exist only during class discussions, but also is demonstrated during situations involving discipline. Cooperative forms of discipline "(such as engaging children in conflict resolution and discussing with children how to solve classroom problems) offer children possibilities to exercise self-regulation and construct social and moral convictions" (p. 198). When misbehavior occurs, it is easy for most teachers to externally regulate a child's behavior. However, DeVries and Zan encourage teachers trying to cultivate a sociomoral atmosphere, to transform their thinking and questioning of a behavior into deeper understandings of that behavior.

The concluding portion of this book focuses on the affective nature that an entire school community has on a sociomoral atmosphere. DeVries and Zan emphasize that a classroom does not exist in a social vacuum. They also discuss the difficulties in pursuing this type of atmosphere if a school is inconsistent in foundational principles. "The larger school atmosphere may foster or impede the development of the classrooms sociomoral atmosphere" (p. 247). School administration has the ability, just as teachers do for their students, to impose a certain milieu on teachers. For administrators who are wishing to work toward a constructivist sociomoral atmosphere in their building, the authors provide some general principles to follow. These principles include administrators demonstrating a respect for teachers, recognizing the necessity for a paradigm shift, engaging teachers in the long view, and modeling/ explaining constructivist attitudes and practices.

Addressing the moral needs and researching moral development of children is a timely topic. In a world where morals are becoming increasingly diverse and challenged in various ways, it is vitally important to raise our children with a morally developed self, enabling them to more capably make strong and honorable decisions in all aspects of their lives. As an elementary educator, I highly encourage the reading of this text if you are interested in the benefits of creating a constructivist sociomoral atmosphere for your students or in schools as a whole. DeVries and Zan strongly advocate for the importance of a constructivist education, which directly promotes the sociomoral atmosphere that is so very essential in the pursuit of the moral classroom. With this type of construct in place, children are provided the opportunities for social and moral enrichment through ample experiences of social interaction, group discussion, and mental stimulation. Increasingly, today's educators are realizing this to be crucial to the success for our nation's schools and the moral development of our children.

Emily Nygard

University of North Dakota

Grand Forks, ND

Emily Nygard is a graduate student at the University of North Dakota. She will be graduating in August 2012 with a Masters in Elementary Education and pursuing her career as a first grade teacher in the Moorhead, Minnesota Public School District.
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Author:Nygard, Emily
Publication:Teaching and Learning
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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