Kohlberg’s 6 Levels of Moral Development: what motivates our students and ourselves

A few years ago I worked at an outstanding outdoor science school in southern California and had the privilege of moving into a program coordinator position. At the time, I had no idea what this position would entail.  None of us really did.  We were in need of inspiration to get us started for the year.

After speaking to our boss’s wife, a brilliant and motivated local teacher, she directed us to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith. You may have heard of him. Just a few of his honors include the 1992 Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, A Sigma Beta Delta Fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, Oprah Winfrey’s “Use Your Life Award”, and he was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire. If you would like to read one of his New York Times Bestsellers, check out There Are No Shortcuts or Lighting Their Fires.

Rafe Esquith
Rafe Esquith

This man writes of truths that have a place in every classroom (inside or outside). For example, the simple aspect of building trust among your students, rather than fear, is crucial to establishing a working system within your class.

Teach Like Your Hair

Esquith also devotes a chapter of his book Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire to Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development. As my reading began, I felt that this concept transcended not only every aspect of teaching, but also our everyday involvement with other human beings. These levels are so beautifully simple, yet require a lifetime of work to accomplish. Please read on for a brief summary of Kohlberg’s Six Levels.  As you read through these six levels, take a moment to ask yourself a few questions:

What are my motivations for some of my decisions, actions or behaviors?  How can I work up towards the sixth level?  How can I create a teaching environment that encourages students (of all ages) to aspire towards the sixth level?  

Are you eager to know what these are yet? Then read on…

Level 1 – I don’t want to get in trouble.

Students often learn as soon as they enter the world which behaviors will receive punishment, and which will not. Their primary motivations for doing their homework, staying quiet, or doing what they are told stem from the desire to stay out of trouble.

Level 2 – I want a reward.

Why do we work? Is it for the money, or an intrinsic motivation or passion for what we do? Why do students complete their homework? Is it for the gold star or pat on the back for a job well done or that 4.0 G.P.A?

Maybe it’s because they realize that the concept will apply to their life.  During this stage of development, humans ask “What’s in this for me?” As Equith states, “teachers are especially guilty of enforcing” Level 2 thinking. “We have learned that if children are rewarded for good behavior, they are more likely to repeat behavior we deem acceptable.”

Level 3 – I want to please somebody.

As children grow up, they begin to look for ways to please those around them. From their parents to their teachers to their friends, they look up to them and ask “Look at this! Is it good?”  We live in a praise-addicted society.  Why don’t we ask our children, “What do you think?” What could our classes look like if our students took pride on their own work, rather than seeking approval from others? This is also the stage in which social norms become important. The “good girl” and “good boy” complex begins to hold more weight and children’s rewarded behavior changes accordingly.

Level 4 – I follow the rules.

Law and order are important during this stage of development. As teachers, we begin the week or the school year by laying down the rules and threatening students to follow those rules. Sometimes there is an explanation for why those rules are important. But, more often than not, we expect our students to follow the rules, solely for the reason that we are supposed to follow the rules for rules’ sake. However, the more invested your students are in creating the “laws of the classroom,” the more apt they will be to follow. Their involvement in this process is important to encourage student buy-in.

Level 5 – I am considerate of other people.

This stage is rare for both children and adults to reach. As Esquith states, “If we can help kids achieve a state of empathy for the people around them, we’ve accomplished a lot.” Think to the person who talks on his cell phone in a restaurant, or stands in the middle of the street looking at a map, blocking the way. Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we took those around us into consideration in how we treated one another?

Level 6 – I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it OR the Universal Ethical Principles Stage.

Esquith equates this level with Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. Helping students (and adults!) develop their own moral code is important to their development as a person. This is the level people reach when something is done well, or a good deed is performed, but that person is not in need of external adoration or compliment. This level is when you do something because it is who you are. In a world full of catty characters on MTV and glorified athletes on ESPN, we could all use the lessons taught by Atticus Finch.

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These levels of moral development have stuck with me, even three years later. I continue to teach about them with clients or students, and strive to develop my own personal code of behavior. It’s a difficult process! With this, I invite you to look into your own motivations, as well as think about this concept as you create your own teaching environment.

If you would like to gain a little wisdom from Rafe, check out this video.

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