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  • Principles of Development and Developmental Change Underlying Theories of Cognitive and Moral Development
  • Patricia M. King (bio)

My introduction to moral development came when I participated in a new program on values clarification being introduced in the public school system where I taught. I was excited to learn more about teaching values, and then astonished that a program on values was intentionally designed to be value-neutral. Shortly thereafter (and not by coincidence), I was enrolled in a graduate class in educational psychology that helped me put this program and my reaction in perspective. One influential reading criticized values clarification as an educational end. Aptly titled, "Development as the Aim of Education," it opens with this sentence:

The most important issue confronting educators and educational theorists is the choice of ends for the educational process. Without clear and rational educational goals, it becomes impossible to decide which educational programs achieve objectives of general import and which teach incidental facts and attitudes of dubious worth.

(Kohlberg & Mayer, 1972, p. 449)

I found this framework refreshing in its explicit value orientation and was intrigued by the idea that educational practices should be informed by knowledge of development. This article also served as my introduction to John Dewey's progressivism "with its cognitive-developmental psychology, its interactionist epistemology, and its philosophically examined ethics" (p. 449). Dewey's work unabashedly linked educational purposes with development, and epistemology with ethics. To this day, I am grateful to Lawrence Kohlberg and Rochelle Mayer for providing a clear summary of the major tenets of a developmental perspective, a vision about the role of development in education, and for vividly illustrating the practical and ethical implications of one's choice of educational purposes.

The following year I read Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme by William G. Perry, Jr. (1970). This book (and the weekly study group it inspired) provided many opportunities to explore the nature of development in educational contexts, and in particular, development among college students. Perry's astute observations about development and the circuitous routes it sometimes follows captured my imagination; I especially appreciated the candor with which he described the many challenges of mapping and describing changes in students' worldviews, and his ability to do so without sacrificing the complexity of the process.

I mention these pivotal experiences as a way of introducing the source of my interest in cognitive and moral development and explaining why I find them hard to separate. Although I acknowledge that it may be an artifact of coincidental timing in my education combined with readiness on my part that I see so many connections between cognitive and moral development, I think educators have much to gain if they take a more holistic view, and follow the lead of other scholars who [End Page 597] work from an holistic perspective (e.g., Baxter Magolda, 2001, 2009; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Kegan, 1994; Mentkowski and Associates, 2000; Mirriam & Clark, 2006). Throughout, I will discuss cognitive and moral development as aims of education, with special consideration to higher education contexts.

In approaching the task of writing on such a broad topic as cognitive and moral development, I decided to put development in the foreground and the domain in the background. I did this both for practical and theoretical reasons. Cognitive development encompasses a great many theories, constructs, and approaches, including intelligence, scientific problem-solving, metacognition, motivation to learn, learning styles, brain research, and many kinds of cognitive activities. Similarly, the study of morality is also a broad domain, including character development, empathy, altruism, and spirituality, among others. Including all of these constructs was well beyond the scope of this article.

Instead, I chose to use developmental principles as the lens through which to review several theories of cognitive and moral development. (Because most of these approaches are well known, I provide only brief descriptions here. I am assuming that readers will be readily able to obtain detailed information about each model to examine for themselves how they illustrate each principle. However, I also wish to point out that relying on brief summaries will not be sufficient for this purpose.) I also made this decision for...


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