Many of us have long forgotten those theorists that we learned about in our undergraduate developmental psychology courses. If this is the case, then you probably don’t remember much about Lawrence Kohlberg. I find myself thinking more and more about him and his work on moral development as I structure my classroom. What he says about “moral” development can have serious implications on how we choose to “manage” behavior in our classrooms. (For a quick summary of Kohlberg’s ideas, see this site, especially the flow chart.)
Kohlberg offered a theory that people move through stages in the development of reasoning. The lowest level of this reasoning is found in people who do what is right in order to avoid punishment. The next level in this continuum is doing what is right to get a reward. In classrooms, we may be tempted to stagnate children in these stages. We can get the desired behavior (compliance) by using rewards and punishment, but students may never move to a higher level of moral reasoning. These higher levels are what we desire for society. They contain things like law and order mentality, social contracting, and universal ethical principles. It is at these highest levels of reasoning that society can best function. (e.g. it is much better that we come to agree on a universal ethical principle that murder is unjust rather than relying on rewards and/or punishments to deter people from murder.)
Are rewards and punishments inherently wrong? According to Kohlberg, these stages are ones we all must progress THROUGH–meaning that at some point we all make decisions based on avoiding punishment or gaining rewards. You might compare these lowest two levels of moral development to training wheels. They are a support that we need for a little while, but they are not the goal. As soon as they can be removed, they should be. Our goal shouldn’t be to set up rewards systems for extended periods of time. The goal should be to get rid of them as soon as possible and move our students forward on the continuum.
It may be worth reflecting on Kohlberg’s ideas as you set up your classroom community for the year. Will you be committed to ethical principles of equality, respect, and fairness, or will you keep kids at the most basic levels of rewards and punishments?