Kohlberg and Conduct

Posted on May 6, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Student Moral Development

It is rather easy to see how Kohlberg’s theory of moral development relates to student conduct. As a conduct officer I would say one of my highest aspirations is to help students develop more complex ways of making decisions. If I walk out of a meeting with a student with the impression that he is only willing to change his behavior to avoid further punishment (Kohlberg’s Stage 1), I can’t be satisfied with my effort. I would far prefer a student who realizes that he has entered into a contract with the university and in exchange for providing him with a safe, supportive environment for him to pursue his education, he has agreed to abide by the student conduct code (Kohlberg Stage 4). I realize that not all students are at a place to think at the level of a Kohlberg Stage 4, but Kohlberg said that moral development can only happen when a student is exposed to higher levels of thinking and it is this exposure that I am giving to students when they walk through my door.

Vs. Moral Development as it relates to the Conduct Code itself

While an individual student’s moral development can be analyzed to no end, I think it is equally important to analyze the moral development stage being used to create the student conduct code. If we want students to think at a high level we must create our rules and regulations with the highest stages in mind. A student at a low level of moral development makes choices solely based on whether or not he will be punished. Some might argue that colleges make rules at this level. After all, if universities don’t uphold federal (drinking age), state (drug possession), and city ordinances (noise) then they face having federal aid pulled as well as loosing donor and government support. These are huge punishments and so the university acts accordingly. However, I would argue that any university that is striving towards increased moral development among its student body must also be operating at a higher moral order when it creates a student conduct code. At Kohlberg’s stage 4 an institution must make decisions based on upholding laws established by society and carrying out the duties to which it has agreed to complete. Universities are therefore not only upholding laws established by society out of fear but because if these rules are followed students will have the opportunity to study, learn and live in an environment that is safe, supportive and will yield a high quality education. Ultimately conduct officers are responsible for ensuring that the university is able to carry out the duties it has to its students.

Follow up Questions:

In a conduct hearing what kinds of questions would help expose a student to Kohlberg’s higher stages of moral development?

Would a conduct system that was built on Kohlberg’s lower stages-based in fear and individual concern for the self look intrinsically different than those built on higher stages-based on upholding laws and duties?

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2 Responses to “Kohlberg and Conduct”

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Interesting thoughts. I agree with your assertion that theory in practice should aspire to help students achieve a later or culminating developmental stage. You are likely reading Marcia Baxter Magolda this term. The research she conducted to develop her cognitive-structural theory showed that students in her longitudinal study rarely reached “contextual knowing”, the pinnacle of her model, during the college years. However, the pedagogy she developed to accompany her theory, constructive developmentalism, aspires to move students towards contextual knowing while they are in undergraduate classrooms.

Kerry, congrads on being the first one to post on my blog! I think that you bring up a very interesting point about Baxter Magolda admitting that students hardly ever reach her highest stage of knowing. Maslow and Kohlberg also created theories where the highest levels of development were rarely, if ever seen in an actual human being, which begs the question, are student affairs professionals being asked to strive for unreachable goals? I think that the answer to this question may reside in the adage of meeting students where they are. I can’t simply expose students to higher levels of moral thinking and expect them to make the leap from Stage 1 to Stage 4 overnight. But I can ask them questions and try to get them thinking about things in different ways or at least help them realize that other people see things in different ways. The end game can never be the pinnacle of any particular stage model; instead the goal should be to support and initiate slight changes that result in further process as a whole.


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