“With great power comes great responsibility.” Uncle Ben, Spiderman
No one can deny that our gifted students have great power. They may be intellectual powerhouses, grasping concepts years ahead of peers. They may be emotionally sensitive, becoming aware of issues such as mortality at an early age. They may be leaders of people, showing leadership qualities from the very beginning.
At school we equip them with academic armaments. But how do we teach them how to use the power? How do we teach them to become moral, socially engaged leaders?
Kohlberg’s Levels Of Morality
- Avoiding punishment.
- Seeking reward.
- Pleasing others.
- Obeying laws, maintaining order.
- Understanding that compromise is necessary, and laws may need to be changed to help the greater number of people.
- The abstract idea of justice is most important. This means laws and authority must be disobeyed when they are unjust.
These levels are a fantastic way to discuss students’ motivations and help them to see how their thinking compares to others.
I actually began by discussing philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. I printed out a couple images of them (from Wikipedia) and quotes regarding morality. I showed my students a copy of the painting Death of Socrates. We discussed how Socrates chose to drink hemlock and die rather than escape from prison or deny his own teaching. This painting provides a great starting point to discuss motivations and responsibilities.
I then introduced a situation with a moral decision:
There’s a person at school with a copy of an upcoming test.
I asked for some possible actions and we settled on “telling the person to stop.”
Then we began brainstorming why someone would tell that person to stop.
- because cheating is wrong
- because I don’t want others to get higher grades
- because I don’t want the principal to come talk to the class
- because that person is hurting their own future
- because I don’t want a friend to get in trouble
Next, I asked students to consider which motivations were most selfish and which were the most honorable. We discussed the idea that an action can have different motivations with different levels of morality.
Running Through The Halls
I then introduced the levels of morality as developed by Kohlberg, illustrating them with the idea of running through the halls at school.
- You might walk, but only when I’m watching if you’re operating at level one. You just don’t want to get punished.
- You might walk, but expect to receive something in return. Perhaps if you don’t get a reward, you’ll drop down to level one.
- Perhaps you walk, and your motivation is to be liked by your teacher. You want to be a good student. But do we want to spend our lives just trying to make others like us?
- As we approached level four, I explained that this is the level that I expect my students to be working towards. At this level, students don’t simply obey the rule at school, but they understand the reason behind the rule. They don’t need me to remind them, or reward them, or even watch them. They realize that running through the halls is dangerous and the rule protects them.
- Level five I introduced as a secret level that few people ever reach. At this level, students might question if a rule is working. Perhaps it has become outdated or needs to be strengthened. They might form a group and approach a teacher to change the rule. Students at level five are improving society, not simply obeying.
- Level six is a super secret level that almost no one operates at. At level six, students develop a personal code of ethics. This is an abstract idea that supersedes society’s laws when the two come into conflict. Rafe Esquith uses To Kill A Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch to teach his students about level six. At this level, students are concerned with justice and the idea of understanding others’ perspectives. If the law is harmful to even one person, a level six student would disobey society to protect that person.
A day or two discussing morality isn’t going to be a magic pill. It must become part of your class culture. Students must use it in their daily interactions with each other (just wait until students start pointing out each others’ low levels of morality – then you’ve got a whole new issue to deal with!).
My master teacher utilized a weekly “class meeting” in which students discussed ways to improve their classroom. This meeting was completely student run, with the teacher sitting in the back and intervening only when necessary. I now see that these students were working at a level five morality at least once a week.
Equipping students with an understanding of social responsibility is no easy task, but a half hour a week may be enough to set them along the right road. Consider incorporating projects that encourage students to “become part of the process” and solve authentic problems.