Educating for moral development

Gurveen Kaur

The aim of moral education cannot be anything other than the moral development of the child. Moral Science or Value Education has, so far, concentrated on teaching moral values instead of focusing upon the moral development of the child. What we need therefore is a paradigm shift in our understanding of what constitutes moral education and how it is to be imparted.

The focus must shift from teaching moral values to assisting or supporting the moral development of children. It is imperative that we realize that teaching about moral values is not an effective way of realizing our aim. Knowing about moral values and being told what constitutes a good life does not incline or enable one to take ethical decisions or resolve moral dilemmas that one faces in life. Teaching moral values may serve to acquaint but does not suffice to support the moral development of the child.

The need for moral education cannot be over-emphasized. The complete lack of moral embarrassment at the lack of work ethics, the lack of accountability and the pervasive corruption in our public life, the local and global escalation of violence, all mirror the moral state of our society. The equanimity with which we accept the increasing disparity between the quality of life of the privileged and the under-privileged is matched only by the total lack of sensitivity towards inequality between individuals in different communities. The levels of violence that we unthinkingly accept, and also indirectly support, point to a desensitization and dehumanization that bears evidence to our moral depravity as individuals and as a nation.

Despite the pressing need of the hour and urgency of the matter, this is something that modern education and schools have fought shy of under a variety of pretexts. Therefore we have a situation now where what was earlier done badly has now been totally neglected.

If we wish to pull ourselves out of this moral vacuum, we need to take up moral education with seriousness and commitment. In fact even to ensure the very survival of life on this planet, it is imperative that we recognize the importance of moral education and give it due place in the curriculum.

The problem is that when teachers urge children to be ‘good children’, it often means listen-to-what-I-say-and-do-as-you-are-told. Teachers tend to label the obedient, compliant child as the ‘good child’. It becomes restricted to merely identifying obedient, rule-followers and/or high academic achievers as ‘good children’. It often means those who always give acceptable or respectful answers. This is counter-productive for it conveys to children that honesty is less important than the acceptability of the answer/behaviour. Others tend to equate the academic achiever with a “good child”, when it is not necessary that every academic achiever is a morally good person.

Moral development should be assessed not in terms of obedience or compliance but the struggle towards a commitment to honesty, forthrightness, integrity, authenticity, keeping one’s promises, not stealing, not cheating or hurting or infringing upon the rights of others in any manner … and so on.

Teaching of moral values has meant exhortations about desirable behaviour. Teachers think that their task as moral educators is to moralize, preach or lecture – which serves only to make children “tune-off” or to tune us out and “pull down their shutters”. This has led to hiding one’s real feeling, desires, thoughts and convictions and the common phenomenon of paying mere lip service to moral values and ideals but no real commitment to them. For most teachers beyond compliance and obedience there is no sense of “being good”. It has also often meant suppression and denial of ‘undesirable’, ‘unacceptable’ feelings and desires.

The other problem is the tendency among teachers to have rules for everything, which makes it impossible for children to do anything without tripping over a few ‘don’ts’. “Don’t talk in class”, “don’t leave things lying around…”, “don’t neglect homework”, “don’t shout in the corridors”…and so on. These rules fall in the category of what could be called trivial or, at best, situation- appropriate rules. It is important to distinguish between moral values and rules that are regulatory – necessary for smooth functioning of the class or school. Often importance given to regulatory rules at the cost of the real moral values undermines the teaching of moral values.

What is moral development?
Moral development can be defined, as the ability to face moral challenges and dilemmas in an informed, authentic manner that is in consonance with ethical values – and to do so freely and voluntarily. The task of moral education is support the moral development, that is, to provide the base to enable the person to make self-determined, moral choices that are purely voluntary choices.

A sound way to distinguish between a good-moral person and an obedient – compliant person would be that, in the first case a person, on doing anything wrong would feel guilt or remorse and not because of the fear of being discovered or punished but because one sees oneself as culpable or blame-worthy, whereas the second type of person could, without a guilty conscience do wrong if he was so instructed or did not fear punishment/consequences.

The distinctive character of moral education is that it introduces a new dimension. It points to:

  • The desirable beyond the possible
  • The moral imperative beyond the expedient and the convenient
  • The ‘ought’ and ‘should’ beyond the ‘must’
  • A consideration of the well-being of others beyond self-interest and self-centredness.

The question arises: how should moral values be taught that they ensure the person’s autonomy and moral growth?
During the early stages, moral growth is less a consequence of teaching and more a provision of loving, caring, secure environment where important and the reasonable needs are met. The child needs to experience the world as a safe and secure place to form a positive image of the world. They also need to be provided a consistent environment. Children need encouragement, reassurance and support and not to be shamed or scolded. Rules must be kept to a minimum but consistently and firmly insisted upon. Primary schools need to provide, in addition to the above, an intellectually and socially stimulating environment that enables competence through activity (but not competition). Encouraging initiative, supporting the desire to do things independently and applauding success are most important. There is a tendency to ignore and/or neglect the link between the emotional development (that is only possible in a nurturing environment in the early years) that is essential for a positive personality and moral maturity.

Very young children should not be subjected to long, rational explanations or moralizing sessions. Children respond more readily to suggestions or explanations based upon considerations of the feelings of others rather than the rationality of the rule.

Teaching moral values at this tender, formative stage is more about setting up the classroom as a place where one experiences and internalizes sensitivity and fairness as the norm, so that its opposite is later seen and recognized as an aberration and as unfairness. Their early classroom experiences are formative. It is important they experience the values we wish them to internalize.

Even the few rules that are necessary could be made in consultation with the children at the beginning of each school year so that they appreciate the need for them and do not see them as unnecessary, authoritarian impositions. Non-negotiable rules (an example is beating or deliberately hurting someone) should be clearly set out. Part of moral education is about helping children understand rules and their rationale, and treating situations (of disobedience) as occasions for learning about the basic rules of social living. Teachers should understand that children break rules in the process of rediscovering rules and not always as deliberate rule flouting.

It is very important for the teacher to understand where the child is coming from and to distinguish between disobedience and failure to comply (could be situational inability or psychological) and to address the situation accordingly. Treating failure to comply as intentional disobedience or the tendency to treat even an occasional lapse as habitual, deliberate rule breaking is often counter-productive. It often makes an unintentional, occasional offender into a deliberate and repeated offender. Every situation needs to be handled very sensitively and appropriately with the focus on effecting correction and not inflicting punishment. The value of disobedience for the teacher is that it is an indicator that something has not been understood internalized or something else that needs attention.

The importance of disobedience is that the child is testing out that particular value – it is a moral experiment, as important as the scientific experiments – and often it is these rule-breakers who have tested out the rules who become genuine rule-followers. When teachers set up clearly a few rules and follow them impartially but sensitively, the children test them out initially but then they tend to rely upon the teacher’s word and do not feel the need to negotiate them every time – like we do not test out the rule of gravity every time.

Trust in the children is conveyed by not only how the teacher deals with the children but also by how the equipment, books, teaching-learning material is laid out and accessed. Locking everything up or the need to take permission to touch anything contains a “hidden message” that children are not (to be) trusted. Often this distrust conveys to the child the idea of the impossibility of unsupervised accountability.

From the early stages, children must be put in touch with their feelings and helped to identify and name them. Denying feelings leads to inauthentic behaviour. The non-acknowledgement of desires – however undesirable and unacceptable and their suppression cannot lead to authentic action. Nor can the imposition of values by coercion, moralizing, exhortation. Teaching moral values is a journey through several stages. Recognition of one’s desires – desirable and undesirable – is the first step, only then after consideration to act upon those that are desirable.

Within a classroom honest answers must be appreciated over ‘acceptable’ answers. Respecting the child when s/he gives an honest answer instead of a conventional answer or when s/he expresses an opinion different from the majority inculcates the courage to speak up, stand up for her/his convictions. Going over-board may encourage disagreement or eccentricity for the sake of being different.

Even teaching values through stories, should be through situations of conflict or dilemma rather than direct, over moralizing, sermonizing or preaching.

Emerging from primary school to middle school and through secondary school, children need strong support and reassurance in their move towards independence and evolving a clear, strong identity. These needs of the child towards moral maturity and independence are not always recognized and sufficiently supported. There is a tendency among adults – parents and teachers – that while overtly it seems like a suggestion or advice/guidance, it pushes subtly but inexorably towards the conclusion the adult feels is right.

As children grow older, the adult’s role is to advise, suggest and even guide but NOT coerce or push towards any particular decision. Such interactions undermine the self-esteem, self-worth and independence of the young adult and stunt the moral maturity towards independent decision taking and confidence in one’s decisions.

At this point there is need for a separate class after the children reach the age of twelve. The teacher must create space for (1) acknowledging all feelings, desires, and confusions… in short, to become self-aware, (2) Reflection upon what constitutes one’s individuality/uniqueness in terms of my strengths, weaknesses, interests, values and priorities, (3) Accepting the reality of conflicting desires and conflicting values and the need to learn to resolve them to our own satisfaction. (4) Accepting that there are multiple centres of will/intelligence/agency and each has their own desires, thoughts which must be respected.

The agenda of such a class is training the children in how conflicting desires can be resolved in a personally satisfactory and socially respectful manner. The need to prioritize and based upon one’s priorities to decide accordingly. The more thought through and informed a choice is, the more satisfaction one is likely to derive from the decision. As children grow older teaching moral values becomes an exercise in thinking-through values to their implications and consequences as well as where they are taught to distinguish between the desired and the desirable, between lower order desires and higher order desires and to distinguish between the occasions when one must respond not impulsively but reflectively.

One needs to distinguish between one’s own convictions and beliefs as distinct from the baggage of beliefs and values that we have unwittingly and unconsciously inherited and internalized. Further, a critical reflection and a closer scrutiny of these unexamined beliefs and values helps one take the initial steps necessary to emerge as authentic and less conditioned beings, that is, as defining and self-determined rather than defined and conditioned beings.

We find children growing up unable to withstand peer pressure because they do not have a clear understanding of their own values or identity and insensitive towards others. Children need, not only guidance, but help in discovering themselves and resolving their internal and external conflicts before they learn to do so on their own.

It is, perhaps, not necessary to think of values in absolute terms. Truth is important but it may be wiser not to speak it (if it is not going to harm anyone) because it may hurt another person’s self-esteem. This is not to cover wrongdoing but… Honesty, similarly, is a non-negotiable in most circumstances, but for a starving person who steals a roti…. so values could be taught as the basis or norms of “sensitive, social life”.

A moral upbringing does not mean telling a person how she ought to live but to reflect upon what constitutes a good life and to understand how that alone can lead to a satisfactory life within a society. It becomes a part of moral teaching to acquaint one with different forms of what could be called moral lifestyles, while one may not make that choice for the individual. However, it is important that one is not just acquainted with and understands moral values that would be necessary for a democratic setup but also want to obey and live in accordance with those values.

None of this however can make one choose the moral over the desired. The challenge or task of/for the moral educator is to enable a person to choose the moral over the desired and to learn to behave in a moral manner even if it is not convenient or in the person’s own interest.

This becomes possible only when one can be shown that it is only as a member of one’s community that one’s life becomes meaningful and enriched. First of all there is the satisfaction of the recognition of one’s work in a community. Even the acknowledgement becomes unnecessary when one discovers that one’s work contributes to the welfare of others. That one’s individual well-being and interest is not separate from that of the community. One needs to discover no further reason to behave morally after one understands the joy of life as a member of community and realizes how the self-realization of all others in all their diversity contributes, adds to and enriches the quality of one’s life. Not just in terms of the fruits of their labour but because it leads to better and more enriching interactions that further contribute to one’s growth and further improve the quality of one’s life. It is this understanding that makes it possible for a person to not just to strive for self-realization but move towards securing this right for others who do not enjoy the same freedom.

In brief, the changes required to support moral development are:

  1. Shifting the focus from teaching moral values to supporting moral development.
  2. Due recognition to the role of an initial nurturing environment and emergent emotional stability as essential for moral education.
  3. A dialogical engagement with the child and not an authoritarian prescription, a supportive rather than a judgmental approach. Need for a problem-solving, discursive approach for moral education instead of the lecture method.
  4. In evaluation, independence and authenticity in decision-making should rate higher than unthinking compliance and a caring, sensitive approach should count for more than inflexible application of moral norms.
  5. Recognition of the need for specialized teacher preparation for moral education.

The tendency to stress upon cognitive or intellectual development of the child/person at the cost of her emotional and moral development has a huge social consequence. Today we have a situation where the ‘educated’ are impudent, habitual rule flouters/breakers, totally unmindful of the rights of anyone but themselves because we have restricted the task of education to the cognitive development at the cost of moral education. Cognitive development must be seen as the base for making informed choices and rational decisions, which finds its completion and culmination in the moral education of the child.

The author is with Centre for Learning, Hyderabad. She can be reached at

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