Unit 0: Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Rafe Esquith, middle school English teacher & author of Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire, teaches his students ethics through texts & through discussion of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development.   He’s adapted Kohlberg’s levels into something a middle schooler or high-schooler can relate to. Here’s Esquith’s channeling of Kohlberg:

Level 1: “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Level 2: “I want a reward.”
Level 3: “I want to please someone.”
Level 4: “I follow the rules.”
Level 5: “I am considerate of other people.”
Level 6: “I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it.” 

Not all of his students reach level 6–which is also known as the “Atticus Finch Moral Compass” level–but they do make it up to level 5.

He moves his students away from a stick (level 1) and carrot (level 2) reward system by the end of the year.  He discourages the kids from doing their work to please their parents or for him (or some other charismatic boss).  He actively encourages them to think, to question what rules are for.  Far from making his young students into a bunch of subversives, this effort is the basis for getting them to see why anyone might benefit from reaching level 5, and why being considerate is clearly essential if they are going to reach a point where they can ask themselves “What would Atticus do?”

  • Here’s a shorter document with the HOW TO USE THIS IN YOUR ELA CLASSROOM broken down for you.
  • Read the linked excerpt (chapter 2) from TLYHOF and from Franzen’s Kindle (thus, not a total copyright breach) to consider how you can use texts, film clips, and hypothetical situations to engage your students in a discussion of their behavior choices in your class this year.  In the past, Delta teachers have posted the 6 stages on the classroom walls to return to throughout the year to help justify moving away from (or back to) incentive-systems over time & to prompt discussions of morality as they connect to the texts Ss read over time.  Excerpt is linked here.

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