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How to teach children morals

Michael Hand

Schools in England are legally required to promote the moral development of pupils. Unfortunately though, there is little agreement on what this involves. Most people recognise that morality is important and needs to be taught – but when it comes to saying what it is and how to teach it, the consensus soon breaks down.

The past few years have seen some major developments in the area of “values education”. In 2014 the government issued guidance to schools on promoting the “fundamental British values” of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance. And since 2015 it has invested around £10m in grants to support character education projects, aimed at helping children to be “well-rounded, confident, happy and resilient”.

But, whatever the merits of these initiatives, they have little to do with the teaching of morality. Indeed, one reason for the general confusion about moral education is that moral values have not been clearly distinguished from values of other kinds.

Someone who fails to value democracy certainly gets something wrong, but the failing is not a moral one. And the character traits the government champions – grit, resilience, confidence, ambition – are no doubt necessary for survival in unforgiving economic times, but they are hardly requirements of morality.

What are moral values?

In my new book I argue that to have a moral value is to subscribe to a standard in a particular way. A standard is a rule specifying something to be done or not done. Subscribing to a standard involves intending to comply with it, being in the habit of complying with it, and feeling bad about failing to comply with it.

A person subscribes to the standard “do not lie”, for example, when they try not to lie, tend not to lie, and regret the lies they tell.

Schools should play a role in passing on common morality. Pexels

Subscribing to a standard counts as moral when it has two further features. First, the subscriber not only tries to comply with the standard themselves, but wants everyone else to comply with it too. Second, they see violations of the standard as deserving of punishment or condemnation.

The stability of human social groups depends on people subscribing to at least some standards in this way. At the very least, people must be committed to not killing or causing harm, stealing or extorting, lying or cheating, and to treating others fairly, keeping their promises and helping those in need. These standards make up the core of common morality.

How to teach them

Schools have a role to play in passing on common morality to the next generation. To do this, they must provide two kinds of moral education.

The first is “moral formation” – cultivating in children the intentions, feelings and habits of moral subscription. This involves giving children moral guidance, rewarding them for doing right and punishing them for doing wrong, as well as modelling good conduct and modelling appropriate reactions to the conduct of others.

From the experience of having their behaviour regulated, children learn to self-regulate. And by emulating the moral reactions of others, children learn to react in those ways themselves.

Children must develop moral intentions, feelings and habits. Shutterstock

The second kind of moral education is “moral inquiry” – engaging children in discussion and reflection on the nature and justification of moral values. Teachers must ensure, by explicit intervention or gentle steering, that moral inquiry brings to light the justification for common morality. It is vital that children come to understand what morality is for and why it demands the things it does.

Of course, alongside the task of passing on common morality, schools must also help children to pick their way through the minefields of moral controversy. Many moral standards are fiercely contested and it is not for schools to decide whether or not they are justified. Here moral inquiry should take the form of open-ended exploration, with the aim of equipping children to form their own considered views.

Promoting the moral development of pupils is difficult, but the challenges it poses are not insurmountable. Ensuring children subscribe to common morality, and understand the reasons for it, is a task schools must not shrink from – society depends on it.

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Michael Hand does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Birmingham provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.