Cognitive Development, Cognitive Enablers

The Role of Abstract Cognitive Enablers on Moral Development

At one time moral development was one of the central missions of higher education. Somehow, this part of the role of higher education got lost. Education was separated from religion, morals became ethics, and what was lost was the responsibility of higher education to bring goodness to society. Education has become valueless as far as instilling in students what makes citizens, and people in general, good people.

Our society, as a whole, should have moved away from black and white or good and bad as the way to understand the world. However, too many in our society see the world that way, and the need for having values that build a better society is greater than ever before.

We know that our institutions of higher education have failed to teach abstract cognitive enablers. Almost half of the students show no improvement in their concrete cognitive enablers (reading, writing, numeracy, and problem-solving) let alone any development in abstract cognitive enablers. Forty percent of graduates demonstrate no development in cognitive enablers with another 50% showing narrow development in abstract thinking that is only occasionally used because abstract thinking is hard work. Even those who learn some abstract cognitive enablers (including many of the faculty members at many institutions), because of the problem of transference in learning, their advanced cognitive enablers that have been learned have been learned in subject silos and are not transferred to other domains. Our broad liberal arts education that was initially designed to teach abstract cognitive enablers skills across a wide variety of subjects in order to overcome the problem of transference is a thing of the past. This leaves the vast majority of our society, educated or not, operating most of the time at a concrete operational stage of thinking. Formal operational thinking is out of reach for most adults in our society.

What does this lack of learning have to do with moral development?  The progression through the cognitive stages of development maps closely to the progression through the stages of moral development.

Moral Development

Cognitive Development





2 Follow rules when it is in their immediate interest. What is good is what brings pleasant results. 3 Use symbols to represent the world around them. Tend to be egocentric and struggle to see things from the perspective of others. Think about things in very concrete terms.
3 Moral actions are those that live up to the expectations of the family or other significant groups. “Being good” becomes important for its own sake. 4 Begin to thinking logically about concrete events. Thinking becomes more logical and organized, but still very concrete. Begin using inductive logic, or reasoning from specific information to a general principle.
4 Moral actions are those so defined by larger social groups or society as a whole. One should fulfill duties one has agreed to and uphold laws, except in extreme cases. 5 Begins to think abstractly and reason about hypothetical problems as abstract thought emerges. Begin to think more about moral, philosophical, ethical, social, and political issues that require theoretical and abstract reasoning. Begin to use deductive logic, or reasoning from a general principle to specific information.
5 This stage involves acting so as to achieve the “greatest good for the greatest number.” The teenager or adult is aware that most values are relative and laws are changeable, although rules should be upheld to preserve the social order. Still, there are some basic absolute values, such as the importance of each person’s life and liberty.

Approximate Percentage of Adults in Stage

Approximate Percentage of Adults in Stage

2-3 1% 3 2%
3 15% 3-4 16%
3-4 70% 4 65%
4 11% 4-5 15%
4-5 3% 5 2%

The conventional, or concrete, level of cognitive development puts law and order as the most important aspect of moral development. If something is legal, it is right. If something is illegal, it is wrong. The world is largely black and white – right and wrong. When we look at the world around us, this is the state that we find ourselves in. If we look at the table below, we can see that fewer than 15% of adults ever move beyond the black and white stages of moral development

What is wrong with this? Rules are rules, laws are laws, black is black, and white is white! If we look at history, politicians, and people of influence take advantage of this to manipulate and control masses of people. If laws define right or wrong, conformity is the rule. Follow the leader, and if the leader views a change in the laws or norms of society, the vast majority of people will fall in behind and do whatever they are asked to do. Why is this a problem?

Laws can be changed and leaders can normalize behaviors that are morally or ethically wrong. Jews can be targeted and vilified. Tutsi’s can be exterminated. Blacks can be bought and sold like livestock. Indigenous people can be forcibly sent to residential schools. Unarmed black youths can be killed without repercussion. Coloured people can be denied property rights or any voice in society. Islam can be targeted. Christians can be removed. Genocide in Myanmar. These things are not just things of the past but are things of today.

Even more terrifying is where this is leading us. Having abdicated any responsibility to teach abstract thinking skills, higher education has removed itself from being able to contribute to building a better world. We can design a smaller smartphone. We can build bigger bridges. We can put smileys on the top of a coffee. We can watch the inside of the body in real-time. We can train people for jobs. We can do all kinds of things.

But, we can’t stop the horrors that surround us. We can’t prevent another Holocaust. We can wring our hands and say “never again” but have nothing more than prayers to offer when mass murders become as commonplace as automobile accidents. If our laws say something is right or our leaders agitate for the unthinkable, the vast majority of people – across the globe – shrug, raise one eyebrow, and go back to sleep because this is all their thinking allows.

Teaching abstract cognitive enablers isn’t a luxury that we should reserve for a few. It isn’t a nice add-on to a degree. It isn’t a perk of going to a good school. It is (or should be) the core of higher education.

Real education shouldn’t be about job training – we don’t even know what jobs we are training for anymore. Education shouldn’t be about “the student experience” – whatever that is. Education shouldn’t be about cramming and passing tests.

Education should be about learning to think.

Imagine a world where higher education resulted in thinking? Given the numbers of people in our developed societies who have and are obtaining higher degrees, we would have millions, even billions of adults who could engage in abstract thinking and engage in higher-order moral reasoning. People don’t think of other options than the immediate response that is easy and natural if there are no abstract cognitive enablers. Violence is easy. Hatred is easy. One-sided views are natural. Following along is the way to go. Not thinking is the order of the day.

Are colleges and universities responsible? Not completely, but they have to accept the part they have played in shaping the world we live in. One more publication or one more grant application has put us where we are. These are the current values of most of those in higher education. Teaching students to think gets in the way of teaching content and research.

I don’t see any way we are going to change the established order. The only way forward is to separate teaching and research with the primary goal of teaching is teaching students to think. The content has to be there in order for learners to have something to think about, but the content will take care of itself.

We can do this. All we have to do is decide. We know how people learn. We know how to teach abstract cognitive enablers. We can change the world.

We can change the world for the better. We have to change the world for the better. The current trajectory is unthinkable. We have to pull together and change the world.

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