Moral development and education is a topic of interest to educators and parents as they are faced with social problems in their communities. Research on how children develop a sense of morality through adulthood has been conducted by several scholars in the field of psychology, including Jean Piaget.
At the onset of his career, Jean Piaget was a biologist who studied molluscs. However, he soon became interested in the development of knowledge and thinking, and his interest drifted to human behavior and learning. He developed many theories about how infants and children learn about their environment, naming each stage as they progressed in their development. Piaget was also one of the first psychologists to specifically outline a theory of moral development. He began by studying the way children interact and play with one another, identifying the different rules they applied and their beliefs about what was right and wrong. Piaget also gathered information by interviewing children about acts like stealing and lying, noting the differences in children of different ages. His resulting theory identifies two distinct stages of moral development.
Stage 1: Heteronomous Morality
In the first stage of moral development, children follow strict rules and are completely obedient to authority. Piaget states that this occurs in younger children in part because of their cognitive development. For young children, rules are seen as inflexible things that do not change, which Piaget calls moral realism. Children in this stage are also judge how wrong a particular action is by its immediate consequences; negative consequences or punishment is seen as an automatic response to breaking a rule. Piaget also noted that social relationships between adults and children also supported this stage: adults have a natural authority over children of a young age, and power and rules are handed down without discussion.
Stage 2: Autonomous Reality
As children begin to learn new things about the world through their interactions with other children and adults, they progress into the second stage of moral development. In this stage, Piaget states that children learn how to critically evaluate rules and apply them based on cooperation and respect with other children. Children begin to learn to take the perspective of others in this stage. Intention is also an important concept in this stage. Children begin to judge how wrong an action is by the intention of the perpetrator, and punishment is adjusted accordingly.
Application of Piaget's Theory
Based on his findings, Piaget suggested that schools focus on providing students with opportunities to develop and practice specific skills to aid in their moral development. He purported that children would learn best by situations that required cooperative decision making and problem solving with other children. Piaget believed that this method would be more effective that simply indoctrinating children with norms and rules.