Teaching Morality: The Kohlberg Chart

-by Jack M. Jose


I knew the lesson wasn’t my most riveting work. In fact, I cannot remember what I was teaching that day. But, however dry the material, I was still shocked when a student suddenly got up from her chair by the door and quickly walked out of the classroom.

“Did she just …?” I asked, gesturing toward the door. A couple of students nodded affirmatively. “Do you suppose she knows that I saw her?” I joked. This elicited a little laughter, and I took a deep breath before I attempted to resume the lesson. On the surface I remained calm, but underneath I was experiencing a fierce internal battle. I still had a full class, so I had to keep teaching, but a student had just walked out of class. Out of MY CLASS! I wanted to find her and bring her to justice! No, I NEEDED to bring her to justice!

Barely a minute after I had resumed teaching, she walked past my door, from left to right. That was bold! In between points of my lesson I quickly, and very publicly, wrote out a Saturday School form, with her name in all capital letters, with sharp angles visibly demonstrating the peaks of my frustration and valleys of my despair. I had barely gathered myself before she walked past again in the other direction! I was going to lose my cool! To be so blatant. To essentially DARE me to catch her! I got to a natural stopping point in the lesson, with students working quietly at their desks, and stormed toward the hall, just as she re-entered. Through clenched teeth I asked, “Where were you? You think you can just walk out?”

The next couple of sentences are lost to history, but I am afraid that I may have already gotten to the point of threatening specific consequences when she interrupted me. “Mr. Jose. That teacher from down the hall, the really heavy English teacher?” (I knew which denotation of ‘really heavy’ she was using – she didn’t mean ‘prompting deep thoughts’ – but I could address her poor manners later.) “She was walking past when she spilled her coffee, and then dropped a pile of papers. I had to help her.”

But I had her cornered. I could see through her little story. “Then why did you go past my door two times?” I held up a pair of fingers to reinforce the multiplicity of her offense. Then, in two syllables: “tuh-wice?”

“Mr. Jose,” she sighed. Frankly, a bit patronizingly. “Okay, I broke a rule.”

Now she was starting to see it my way!

I waited for her admission of wrongdoing. “I went into the boys rooms to get some paper towels to help her clean it up. It’s just … it’s just so much closer than the girls room. There wasn’t time.”

Well … now everything changed. I was in a bit of a quandary. Here was a student who had indeed broken a rule. But who had acted in accordance with perhaps the highest impulses given to us – she had broken a rule to help another person. And a teacher at that – she’d broken a rule to help one of my brethren! I looked down at the puny and ill-intentioned form in my hand, thought hard about the waste of a triplicate form, and ripped it in half.

“And why didn’t you say something as you left?”

“You were in the middle of a sentence, I didn’t want to interrupt.”

It was years later that I encountered Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Kohlberg worked from Jean Piaget’s framework suggesting that a child develops cognitively in a predictable pattern. Piaget demonstrated that a child moved from a concrete operational stage to a formal operational stage. In this last stage, a person can understand abstract concepts such as morality and virtue.

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Kohlberg researched how morality progressed in individuals, and found that there was a similar, predictable progression. Kohlberg described the stages as demonstrated in the chart below, along a continuum. These are most simply described by the primary motivation that prompts the individual to act.

Kohlberg's Chart of Moral Development could be displayed in your classroom.
Kohlberg’s Chart of Moral Development could be displayed in your classroom.

The first two levels, which together he called “pre-conventional” to suggest they happen before adolescence, were acting to avoid a consequence, and acting to get a fair deal for yourself.  In the “conventional” stages, a person would be seen to act to gain someone’s approval or to act in strict accordance with societal (or classroom) rules. Finally, in the “post-conventional” stages, one might act out of respect for moral rules or to act from an internalized code of what is right or wrong.

One implication of these stages is to suggest that a person might be guided by the conventional goal of pleasing others, and in doing so might break a moral law, blind as he is to the other motives of his behavior. Calling these “stages” suggests that they happen in a particular order over time, with a person eventually arriving at the highest level. However, it is not simply a function of age. A child can’t necessarily move up the ladder simply with the passage of time.


Instead, we are called to guide and push each other through these stages of development. At school, we have a particular responsibility to assist students to progress toward the highest level.

Stop asking someone to “do me a favor and …” as a way of asking them to follow a rule.

We know our goal. In our society, where we value justice, truth, and independence, we want every person to be guided by post-conventional motives. A society full of people who do the right thing because of an internal belief in doing what is right is an unimaginable utopia.

So how do we push students up the ladder from one step to the next?

At Gamble, we have decided on several intentional actions to foster a sense of commitment to the higher motives:

Move past Level 1, Stages 1+2:

  • Stop providing punishments or threats of punishments to address every undesirable behavior. It is easy to reach for the Saturday School slip for every transgression. However, this does not promote a sense of the action’s impact on others, nor does it provide replacement behaviors.
  • Start using a wide range of responses to misbehavior, allowing for a written or verbal explanation of every misbehavior. Perspective matters, and it is important to take the child’s perspective into consideration. Then make sure that every incident results in re-teaching the desired behavior.
  • Start teaching the desired behavior in common situations: how lines form, how to react when someone drops something in the hallway, when you think someone is mad at you, when you disagree with a teacher’s decision, etc.
  • Stop using external rewards. No more stickers for homework completion. Hopefully you will never hear a staff member at Gamble bargaining with a student to get good grades for pizza, or to behave for lunch on Tuesday, or to come in from outside in return for a treat. It is relatively simple to end this practice in your own classroom. These reinforce the lowest levels of moral development. Just stop. [A note: in certain situations, a defined contract with clearly stated rewards and consequences, over a clearly-defined period of time, might be necessary to help a student form a framework for improved classroom behavior.]
  • Start emphasizing that doing the work, or having excellent attendance, is its own reward. The community is better because they are there, and we are thankful for their presence. Their hard work and contribution is important to the group.

Very publicly, wrote out a Saturday School form, with her name in all capital letters, with sharp angles visibly demonstrating the peaks of my frustration and valleys of my despair.

Move past Level 2, Stages 3+4,

  • Stop comparing one student’s behavior or grades to another student’s. This sort of norm referencing of behavior can serve to mask the true benefits of good behavior: when we all agree to a certain code of behavior, predictable good things happen. When we all agree not to litter, our grounds stay clean, for instance.
  • Stop saying someone is “good” or “bad.” Even when the person is not present. These terms are nebulous at best, and damaging at worst. This language suggests that whatever needs the student was trying to meet are not as important as the rule or norm they broke. In schools we have students who come from every imaginable set of home expectations. Labeling someone “bad” based on observed loud behavior in the hall is a tragic and damaging over-reach.
  • Start providing reinforcement for positive behavior, and correction of misbehavior, by pointing out the social benefits of the desirable behavior. Instead of saying, “You guys are being good,” say, “When you walk through the halls this quietly, the students who are working in other classrooms can keep concentrating.” At Gamble we use a technique called “Describe, Label, Praise” where, instead of saying “great job” we practice describing what was observed, give it a title, and then praise it. For instance, “I saw you stop and help someone pick up their papers in the hall, that is very considerate. I sure like going to a school with helpful student like you.”
  • Stop asking someone to “do me a favor and …” as a way of asking them to follow a rule. While this may be effective in the short term, ultimately we want students deciding to do what is right whether or not we are present to be pleased or displeased (or favored) by their actions.

Move into Level 3, Stages 5+6:

  • Start asking questions about moral issues and the value of individual rights and freedoms. Discuss important documents in history: Hammurabi’s Laws, the Constitution, various religious texts including passages from the Bible, the Quran, the Sutras, and the Talmud. Allow exploration of why societies developed these types of rules for themselves. Want to know more about how to do this? Read about how to do Socratic Seminar.
  • Start utilizing apologies and restitution as ways to address misbehavior. Though these are consequences of a sort, they are intended to prick the conscience and provide the opportunity to reflect and grow. Think of conscience as a muscle. To exercise it, though, the teacher must help create a situation in which they truly understand where and why they were wrong, and issue a sincere apology.
  • Stop allowing questionable behavior to go unchecked and unquestioned. Ask a child who threatens or jokes about immoral behavior to explain the comment, and reflect on who might be affected if they were to act on that thought.
  • Start being willing to rip up the Saturday School form when a student explains a legitimate reason for leaving your class in the middle of a lesson.

The process of moving students up through these stages is not in the Common Core, nor in the expectations of future employees. It is definitely not on the AIR or ACT tests, nor the State Report Card. However, there is no argument that these are the most important lessons we can impart to our students. Spending time in class engaged in these questions does not take away instructional time. Ultimately it is an investment in the moral growth of students. This is an investment that you will realize pays great dividends over and over again.

I want to work in a school, and live in a world, where students feel empowered to step out of class to help someone without repercussions. Where those in authority can determine the right time to act, and where they have the right and the opportunity to take no action at all – to rip up the Saturday School slip.

What do you do in your classroom to encourage kindness, cooperation, and moral choices?