Moral Development: Theories and Evidence

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Moral Development: Changing Theories and Evidence

Darcia Narvaez, University of Notre Dame

Moral development has been traditionally viewed as the inculcation of cultural values and moral practices as if the child is largely a passive recipient (hence lectures and rote memorization). Piaget (1932/1965) revolutionized development theory by documenting how individuals construct their understanding of the world through shifting understandings that are modified by experience in interaction with maturation (e.g., working memory increases through childhood). Countless studies have shown how individuals are active learners, not passive tabula rasa, applying what they know to incoming information and often getting it wrong if the information is too advanced for or culturally different from their current knowledge (e.g., Bartlett, 1932). In short, individuals learn by actively constructing knowledge about the world from experience. Understanding develops initially as tacit knowledge which sometimes can be accessed explicitly (Keil & Wilson, 1999).

But this does not say enough. Vygotsky (1935) emphasized the relational aspects of learning, how learning is scaffolded by those with more experience. Parents do this with their children, for example, when teaching them to dance they hold them first, then have them stand on their feet to learn the steps or the feel of the music, giving the child more and more independent control of the action. Knowledge is built as the learner internalizes the actions and voice of the mentor for particular situations until she can perform on her own (Rogoff, 1990). Thus knowledge, especially explicit understanding, develops within a guided context.

In a way these two perspectives align with contemporary cognitive science’s understanding of learning (see Hogarth, 2001, for an extensive review). Learning involves both the deliberate conscious system (explicit knowledge) and unconscious implicit systems (tacit knowledge). The deliberative or conscious mind can learn and access theory and apply rules and procedures (“top down”). But most of learning in life takes place without consciousness from multiple systems keeping records of events and associations in implicit systems. The implicit mind (adaptive unconscious or intuitive mind) learns effortlessly from everyday experience about what works to help meet one’s goals (“bottom up”; Reber, 1993). It appears that most of human behavior is governed by implicit rather than deliberative systems (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999), although one must distinguish seat-of-the-pants intuition from well-education intuition (Narvaez, 2009).

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