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Teaching ethics: the role of the classroom teacher.

Children's character or moral development, what I refer to as ethical development, has been an important and controversial topic in schools for many years. Educators agree that it is vital to renew our emphasis on teaching for character development (Leming, 1993, 2000; Narvaez, 2002). Schools face an important challenge, doing their part in preparing children and youth to be responsible, productive adults. Educators differ on how they should teach character development, however, and on who should be responsible for teaching it. Many believe ethical development is the responsibility of counselors or parents. Although counselors and parents are undoubtedly the primary guides for children's ethical development, teachers are in a key position to directly influence students. Let's look at past work and current practice with the idea of strengthening our own role in the ethical development of our students.

In 1993, Leming called for the development of a "grand theory" of character education, and research based on that grand theory, as the crucial next step in the future of character education. His review of research going back to the 1920s found techniques that didn't measure change or improvement in conduct. His findings were threefold. First, didactic methods alone, such as teacher exhortation, pledges, codes, and stories that were read but not discussed, were ineffective in promoting moral conduct. Second, simple development of a student's abilities to think and reason about moral conduct also was not enough. Third, programs that focus on the student alone and exclude participants in the youth's social environment do not work.

Drawing on Aristotle, Emile Durkheim, John Rawls, and Lawrence Kohlberg, Leming (1993) identified a theoretical perspective that posits three levels of development related to the formation of character. At the first level, rules are external to the child and behavioral conformity is ensured through discipline and self-interest. The next level consists of rules embodied in social groups, and compliance with the rules is the result of a youth's desire to gain acceptance within that group. At the highest level, rules are interpreted in terms of self-chosen principles. In this perspective, moral problems are conceptualized differently, depending on developmental age and education (e.g., Kohlberg, 1984; Rest, 1986). Transformation in individuals occurs in terms of how they see their obligations to others. Constructivist theory suggests that understandings change as individuals construct new views of and responses to the world based on their experiences (Narvaez, 2001). If we follow this theoretical path, then, what kind of experiences must we provide? Two avenues currently used to address this need include classroom character curriculum and community service learning.

Classroom Character Curriculum

William Bennett (1995) is prominent among those who claim that reading good literature or "character stories" teaches children how to live. Narvaez (2002) suggests that this view is grounded in the following outdated assumptions: "1) reading is passive; 2) every reader 'gets' the same information from a text; 3) readers 'get' the information the author intends; 4) themes are readily accessible to the reader; and 5) moral messages are just another type of information conveyed in a text" (p. 157). Research conducted by Narvaez and colleagues (Narvaez, 2002; Narvaez, Bentley, Gleason, & Samuels, 1998; Narvaez, Gleason, Mitchell, & Bentley, 1999) shows that labeling a complex set of behaviors with one word like "respect" or "loyalty" does not help a child understand what it means. Adults may understand because they have extensive life experience to build on. Therefore, the simplistic strategy of directly teaching ethics does not work.

A more complex way of addressing ethical development through curriculum is exemplified in a collaboration between teachers and researchers called Ethex. This curriculum, which has been implemented in the Minnesota Community Voices and Character Education project (Anderson, Narvaez, Bock, Endicott, & Lies, 2003; Narvaez, Endicott, Bock, & Lies, in press), seeks to provide clear guidance on what should be taught and how to teach it. Based on moral development research, four concrete ethical behavioral processes guide the selection of curricular focus as teachers attempt to determine what to do. The first is Ethical Sensitivity and includes activities that help students assess how their own actions affect others, become more empathic, and expand their ability to interpret situations accurately. The second process is Ethical Judgment, which concerns the choice of actions to take. Reasoning and decision-making skills, consequences, as well as a sense of fairness and reciprocity and how that drives decisions, are all examined. The third process, Ethical Motivation, compares how competing values influence choices. Activities promote helping others, conscience building, valuing and learning from traditions, leaders, and cultures. The last process is Ethical Character, which addresses the ability to be strong and act morally in the face of adversity. Perseverance, delaying gratification, cultivating courage, and becoming a leader are all avenues to building character (Narvaez, Endicott, & Bock, in press). Teachers already do some of these activities with students. The Ethex curriculum promotes intentionally addressing all four areas.

Community Service Learning

Sprinthall, Hall, and Gerler (1992) conducted research to determine whether moral development could be promoted or taught through service learning. They worked with three groups of high school students: a control group, a group of students who volunteered to help in the gym, and a group that went to the middle school to conduct groups for kids whose parents were divorcing. The last group met regularly for support and discussion about the difficult problems the kids and the leaders encountered. Pre- and posttests showed that the control group's moral development did not change and the helpers without support and discussion showed only some movement in the positive direction; the divorce group leaders showed statistically significant growth in an area in which growth is hard to see--moral judgment development.

Leming (2001) reports on a similar study of community service learning, designed to determine if a special reflection, which included decision making with an emphasis on the ethical nature of community service, was more effective than service learning activities alone, or no active service learning. Results similar to those in Sprintball's research were found, with students receiving the special reflection component making greater advances on all three dimensions of adolescent identity formation (agency, social relatedness, and moral-political awareness) than the other two groups. Students became more systematic in their ethical reasoning and more likely to consider situations and issues from an ethical point of view (Leming, 2001).

Help for Implementation

It is not merely the teaching of a moral story or sending students out to do community service that helps them to grow in more complex and beautiful ways. They also develop as a result of the intentional and explicit meaning making that only the teacher, who has daily and intimate contact with the students, can provide. Narvaez (2002b), in a presentation to the White House Conference on Character and Community, suggests three things: "(1) Educators must take on the responsibility of intentional character skill instruction instead of a hit-or miss approach, (2) Educators must provide authentic learning experiences based on levels of apprenticeship, (3) Educators must arrange learning experiences in a variety of collaborative community contexts." How do you take whatever great literature you find and use it for intentional ethical development? What kinds of questions could you raise for discussion with a group of students who are doing community service activities? Resources are available to assist you in addressing these questions. Narvaez, Sprint-hall, and Leming are only three of the many researchers who have much to say to teachers in this area.

I challenge you to provide this level of education for the students in your classroom. Can you create a safe place for your students that allows them to move outside of their comfort level and also challenges them to think outside of their current level of experience?


Anderson, C., Narvaez, D., Bock, T., Endicott, L., & Lies, J. (2003). Minnesota community voices and character education: Final evaluation report. Roseville, MN: Minnesota Department of Education.

Bennett, W.J. (1995). The children's book of virtues. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development: The nature and validity of moral stages. New York: Harper and Row.

Leming, J. S. (1993). In search of effective character education. Educational Leadership, 51 (3), 63-71.

Leming, J. S. (2000). Tell me a story: An evaluation of a literatute-based character education programme. Journal of Moral Education, 29(4), 413429.

Leming, J. S. (2001). Integrating a structured ethical reflection curriculum into high school community service experiences: Impact on students" sociomoral development. Adolescence, 36(141), 33-45.

Narvaez, D. A. (2001a). Moral text comprehension: Implications for education and research. Journal of Moral Education, 30(1), 43-54.

Narvaez, D. A. (2002b). Does reading moral stories build character? Educational Psychology Review, 14(2), 155-171.

Narvaez, D.A. (2002, June). The expertise of moral character. Paper presented at the White House Conference on Character and Community, Washington, DC.

Narvaez, D., Bentley, J., Gleason, T., & Samuels, J. (1998). Moral theme comprehension in third grade, fifth grade and college students. Reading Psychology, 19(2), 217-241.

Narvaez, D. A., Endicott, L., & Bock, T. (in press). Who should I become? Citizenship, goodness, human flourishing, and ethical expertise. In W. Veugelers & F. Oser (Eds.), The positive and negative in moral education. New York: Peter Lang.

Narvaez, N. A.,with Endicott, L., Bock, T., & Lies, J. (in press). Foundations of character in the middle school: Developing and nurturing the ethical student. Chapel Hill, NC: Character Development Publishing.

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Mitchell, C., & Bentley, J. (1999). Moral theme comprehension in children. Journal of Education Psychology, 91(3), 477-487.

Rest, J. (1986). Moral development: Advances in research and theory. New York: Praeger.

Sprinthall, N. A., Hall, J. S., & Gerler, E. R. (1992). Peer counseling for middle school students experiencing family divorce: A deliberate psychological education model. Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, 26(4), 279-294.

Susan Halverson is Assistant Professor, Counseling Education, Graduate School of Education, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon.
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Title Annotation:Issues In Education
Author:Halverson, Susan
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Previous Article:Rethink, revise. react: using an anti-bias curriculum to move beyond the usual.
Next Article:What's a parent to do?: phonics and other stuff.

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