Cognitive Enablers, Thinking & Learning

Moral Development and Higher Order Thinking Skills

Yesterday I wrote about deductive reasoning, the last of what would be thought of as higher order thinking skills. As well as the challenges I highlighted there, one aspect of not being able to engage in higher order thinking deserves further attention – the effect that it has on moral development.

Piaget assumed that all people, when they reached adolescence, would progress naturally from his “concrete operational” stage to the “formal operational” stage of cognitive development. The formal operational stage is when the fully functioning brain is able to acquire and use higher order thinking skills. However, as I have written about in previous articles, we know that not all (in fact a minority) of adults reach a formal operational stage of cognitive development. This is because the abilities that define this stage of cognitive development do not emerge naturally, but must be taught, and in our content/test, content/test, content/test, world of education today, there is no room for teaching anyone how to think.

Moral development relies directly on the ability to reason, with Kolberg’s moral development stages tied neatly to Piaget’s cognitive development stages. What this means, is that the majority of people do not move beyond a concrete operational stage of moral reasoning. Here is a table outlining the stages of moral development.

Concrete operational thinkers don’t progress beyond stage 4 in their moral development. And, as the next table shows, there are few adults who progress beyond Stage 4 in their moral reasoning.

Why is this a problem? If you read the description of stage four moral development, you can see that there is little thinking involved. At this stage, people simply follow the rules. Right and wrong are defined by the law, and the highest moral authority is the government of the day. Whatever laws are passed defines the morality of the day for the vast majority of people.

Think of Nazi Germany, and the laws they passed targeting a group of people. With stage four moral reasoning, because it is written in law, it is the right thing. Institutional racism or bigotry become, not only okay but right, because they are legal. Simply looking out on the events of today, and you can see the same thing happening again, both in North America and in parts of Europe.

Because of the failure of education to train people to think, there is an inability to engage in moral reasoning that will stop the current wave of problems we see coming toward us. If what is on the horizon actually happens, we have to face the fact that we, as educators, have been complicit in shaping the society that would allow this to happen. By our narrow focus on content and testing, we have not taught our students to think. Maybe getting training for a job is important, but in light of current events, knowing how to think and engage in higher order moral reasoning has to have some kind of priority.

As one of the most powerful forces shaping society today, we need to do better. We need to break out of the memorize and regurgitate model of education and teach people to think. In the age of information abundance, we don’t need to focus exclusively on content, and yet, for all the innovations in education over the past 25 years, that is still our predominate model. When are we going to really engage in meaningful discussion to fix what is broken?

Are we going to find ourselves in a situation in the near future repeating Never Again?

One thought on “Moral Development and Higher Order Thinking Skills

  1. Pingback: How do we develop Cognitive thinking? – Evidence Based Learning

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