Can we teach children to be moral

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Moral behaviour means different things to different people. For the purpose of this essay, morality means treating ourselves and others with respect. Empathy, compassion and a sense of justice are central components of this kind of moral behaviour. Babies are born neither intrinsically or extrinsically bad. Children learn behaviours and values from their environment – mainly from their parents, but also from siblings, other relatives, peers, teachers and increasingly, the media. Children learn from watching how other people behave, from having conversations with adults about behaviour, and from their own experience. While parents have an enormous influence on a child’s values and behaviour, we mustn’t underestimate the influence of teachers as well.

(1) Schools are tasked with creating knowledgeable individuals of good character. Intentionally or unintentionally, all schools teach values. Any school that condones cheating, racism or sexism, whose teachers are unfair, and which is not a caring institution will have an adverse effect on its children that parents must struggle to overcome. On the other hand, schools can foster and encourage students to become ethical people – people of good character. The classroom is a professional environment for learning, and character must be explicitly taught therein. Teachers can use the classroom both as a forum for direct instruction and as an opportunity to lead by example. Every student spends more than 180 days each year in school. Since they are there to learn, it would be wrong to allow this opportunity for moral instruction to slip away.

Children naturally look to their school to provide them with important knowledge. It is all too easy for children to assume that information not taught in school cannot be very important. While it is recognised that parents have a responsibility to teach values, in our society, they can use all the help they can get. So in practical terms how can we teach children to be moral?

(2) Within the classroom we as teachers can follow the following step-by-step plan for teaching students the seven critical virtues they will need to do what is right and resist any pressures that may defy the habits of good character.

1. Empathy – Identifying with and feeling other people’s concerns.

* Foster awareness and an emotional vocabulary

* Enhance sensitivity to the feelings of others

* Develop empathy for another person’s point of view

2. Conscience – Knowing the right and decent way to act and acting in that way.

* Create the context for moral growth

* Teach virtues to strengthen conscience and guide behaviour

* Foster moral discipline to help students learn right from wrong

3. Self-Control – Regulating your thoughts and actions so that you stop and act the way you know and feel is right.

* Model and prioritise self-control to students

* Encourage students to become his/her own self-motivator

* Teach students ways to deal with temptations and think before acting

4. Respect – Showing you value others by treating them in a courteous and considerate way.

* Convey the meaning of respect by modelling and teaching it.

* Enhance respect for authority and squelch rudeness

* Emphasize good manners and courtesy

5. Kindness – Demonstrating concern about the welfare and feelings of others.

* Teach the meaning and value of kindness

* Establish a zero tolerance for meanness and nastiness

* Encourage kindness and point out its positive effect

6. Tolerance – Respecting the dignity and rights of all persons, even those beliefs and behaviours we may disagree with.

* Model and nurture tolerance from an early age

* Instil an appreciation for diversity

* Counter stereotypes and do not tolerate prejudice

7. Fairness – Choosing to be open-minded and to act in a just and fair way.

* Treat students fairly

* Help students learn to behave fairly

* Teach students ways to stand up against unfairness and prejudice

There are various ways in which we can teach morals, we can teach by example. (3) One of the surest ways to help students turn their moral reasoning into positive moral behaviour is to teach by example. Teaching students respect by respecting them is certainly one way to teach by example. But teaching by example goes beyond how we treat our students. It has to do with how we treat others as adults, and how we treat and talk about others e.g. other members of staff. We as teachers can teach respect for all persons by the examples we set.

(4) Even though it is extremely important to teach by example, it is not enough. Students are surrounded by bad examples. They need our words as well as our actions. They need to see us leading good lives, but they also need to know why we do it. For our example to have maximum impact, they need to know the values and beliefs that lie behind it. Children’s books can be helpful in illustrating values. Moving stories that are told through television shows or movies can also open the conversation about morality. News stories, movies, TV shows, books, and daily life events can be used as a platform for talking about moral issues within the classroom. Worship, study, and celebration of their religious faith together also can promote moral development.

It is still not enough, however, to set a good example and tell students what we think, important as those things are. We as teachers also have to teach them to think for themselves. For example when a student does something wrong just don’t demand that they stop their behaviour. Instead we as the teacher should ask “how would you feel if someone did that to you?” This approach gives the student a chance to reflect on whatever they did and how they would like it done to them. There are two very important moral lessons here. First, take the time to think. Second, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Neither of those things come naturally to children. We as teachers can help their moral development by giving them constant encouragement to stop and think and to take the viewpoint of others into consideration. Children who think about and discuss moral issues make better headway through the stages of moral reasoning than children who don’t.

(5) Many people would argue though that morals cannot be taught in school because what’s right for one person may not be right for another and because there are hundreds of different religions and beliefs, teaching morals might offend someone without meaning to. This point is true but teaching morals within the classroom is not about having the teacher push their view into a student’s face. When we talk about teaching values in the context of school, we mean core moral values, which are universal, not culturally specific, and not discriminatory against people from different backgrounds. If you speak to parents from any culture or background, they don’t want their kids to lie; they don’t want their kids to cheat and steal; they don’t want their kids to be disrespectful or to harm other people. Even though these values seem elementary, a lot of young people have to struggle with them. And they need guidance in that struggle from adults they respect, us teachers.

Children are capable of a great deal. Every student has feelings of empathy and feelings of responsibility, no matter how troubled the background or how problematic the behaviour. Every student has capacities; we as teachers simply need to figure out what they are. We can find out what they can do, what their strengths are, and what their virtues are, and then build on them. This is not to say that the work we give the students is a magic formula but we ought to think seriously about hat students can accomplish. If we as teachers give them something productive to do – something that brings out their talents, which challenges them and gives them responsibility – we can go a long way towards true character education.

In conclusion then to answer the original question “Can we teach morals?”, yes we can. The whole idea of a school sitting on a hill, which is separate from the parents and the community, is not the wisest approach to communicating values to students. On the contrary, schools should embrace their role as a partner with parents in teaching morals; we can take responsibility for teaching core moral values leaving the parents to build on these and furthermore teach culturally specific values.

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