- About the Program
Discussing dilemmas challenges students to develop a comprehensive method of thinking about ideas that are at the crux of cultural values and beliefs. It is through this type of broad-based thinking that citizens can best exercise their rights and responsibilities, and, most important, that students can realize their full potential as human beings.
Discussing dilemmas challenges students to develop a comprehensive method of thinking about ideas that are at the crux of cultural values and beliefs.
Elena, a 14-year-old girl from a village in Eastern Europe who has lived in New York for two years, has asked for asylum in the United States. Her parents want to return to their native country, where Elena is committed to an arranged marriage to a 30-year old man whom she has not met.
The girl says that she does not have any feelings for the man and believes that he will rape her after the ceremony, as she saw happen to other girls in her village. The parents express love for Elena but believe she is overreacting to a long-standing cultural tradition that they wish to honor. They say American values have corrupted her.
The judge rules in favor of the parentsâ€™ right to follow a standard cultural practice of their homeland and refuses the request for asylum.
During the past six months of this dispute Elena has lived with her aunt and uncle, who do not want her to return to Eastern Europe. They have a chance to take her to Canada where, they have learned, she can receive asylum.
Should Elenaâ€™s relatives take her to Canada? Why?
Moral dilemmas, such as the situation described in â€śArranged Marriage,â€ť draw teachers and students into a dialogue by the paradoxes they present. A well-constructed moral dilemma engages students in reflective writing, thinking, and discussion of ideas that are at the crux of cultural values and belief systems. Dilemmas pose essential questions about competing claims, asking one to choose between the greater of two goods or, conversely, the lesser of two evils. The provocative nature of dilemmas makes them naturally motivating to students who, in my experience, enthusiastically engage in meaningful debates about the issues raised. Considering the case of Elena, we see a family torn over competing cultural values and interfamilial relationships. In addition, significant legal matters are involved, including international law, rights of citizens of sovereign nations, parental rights, child welfare, kidnapping, and contempt of court.
In order to fully involve students in a dilemma discussion, teachers should take several preliminary steps followed by a carefully framed questioning strategy designed to help students analyze and expand their reasoning. The instructional plan requires a flexibility that allows the teacher to be responsive to the unique reflections that students develop in response to the issues raised by the dilemma.
First, the sources for dilemmas can be found in secondary school course content, especially social studies, literature, and science (Galbraith and Jones 1976). In addition, current societal issues offer compelling dilemmas as do the social circumstances of studentsâ€™ lives. There are several points in an instructional design when dilemmas can be presented effectively. A dilemma can begin a unit of study igniting studentsâ€™ interest in a new topic. Additionally, the issues raised can help students establish frames of reference with the ensuing content. For instance, prior to examining 19th-century India, the following dilemma regarding the practice of suttee prompts students to wonder about the cultural values used to support and then to ban this practice.
The Funeral Pyre
Giri, a local magistrate, is arguing with his older brother, Rajesh, who has just told him that their mother is planning to commit suttee, the ancient Hindu practice of a widow joining her deceased husband on his funeral pyre. Some in India believe that a woman who does this is to be revered as a goddess. However, the practice of suttee was outlawed in 1829. Giri believes that he must stop his mother in order to uphold the law and because he loves her and does not want her to die in this way. Rajesh says that he wants to allow her to join her lifelong mate because he loves his mother and wants to honor her wish. She confided in Rajesh that a life at home dependent upon her sons, without her husband, is not worth living.
Should Giri intervene to stop his mother from committing suttee? Why?
Dilemmas may also be used during the study of a topic at a point when it can be instructive to introduce competing claims. For example, if the subject is the American Civil War, a dilemma that illustrates the divisiveness in a family that included members fighting on both sides of the conflict would be meaningful. Another use of dilemmas is as a concluding exercise that allows students to apply their understanding of a time and place. Here they may be asked to assume the roles of various key characters in a dilemma, making an informed case for each of their positions on the issues raised.
Well-written dilemmas contain several essential components (Arbuthnot and Faust 1980). Each dilemma must seem real even if it is hypothetical. The dilemma must also be relevant and appropriate for the maturity and experiential levels of the students. Each dilemma requires a central character that needs to choose an action. Dilemmas are not designed for creative problem-solving but for decision-making with a primary focus. Therefore, the central figure in the story must feel a definite conflict between competing claims. Although dilemmas need to be open-ended, raising numerous issues or questions, they require focus on a key ethical issue such as social norms, civil liberties, life, property, authority, contract, sex, or truth. The final element needed for a dilemma is a â€śshouldâ€ť question. Each dilemma ends with a specific question asking what the central character should do in the situation presented and why this course of action seems right.
After identifying the point at which a dilemma is to be used in the curriculum and composing its content, the teacher should design the instructional plan for engaging students in reflective thinking. There are several options for presenting dilemmas in the classroom. Students should begin with a prewriting exercise to start the reflection process in which the teacher asks them to focus their writing for 3 to 5 minutes on the general topic addressed in the dilemma. For â€śArranged Marriage,â€ť they might be asked to write about how much influence parents should have regarding who their children marry. Then the teacher calls on volunteers to read those opinions. Next, the teacher presents the dilemma in a written, oral, or, if available, video format. After hearing, seeing, or reading the dilemma, students write their responses to the question posed. In their responses they should specifically identify the central character(s), competing claims, ethical issues, action to be taken, and reasons for that action. The teacher should tell the students that this assignment will be shared in the classroom. A variation on the writing format is to use a triple-entry notebook with three columns. After students write their responses in Column A, the teacher asks them to exchange their notebooks with a peer who comments on their response in Column B by agreeing or disagreeing and by asking questions. Then, in Column C, students write a reflective response to the comments they received.
After using either writing format, the teacher divides the class into groups of 4 to 5 students and assigns the roles of timekeeper, recorder, spokesperson, contrarian, and leader. Each group listens to all responses and discusses the differences and similarities noted. If everyone has the same answer to the question posed by the dilemma, the contrarian then takes the opposite view and makes a case for it.
During the small group discussions, disagreements and challenges usually arise. It is important that the atmosphere for these discussions be respectful and open. Students should feel comfortable enough to explore various ways of thinking about the issues raised in the dilemma story.
The teacher leads the next phase of the discussion, introducing a series of questions that require students to reflect more deeply and broadly on their initial responses. Each small group reports its findings. As differences and similarities begin to emerge, the teacher introduces questions that challenge the positions taken and that promote more student-to-student interaction. The basis for this questioning strategy is derived from the work of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, and others who have contributed to an extensive body of literature on moral reasoning and the use of dilemmas in the classroom (Gilligan 1982, Lickona 1976, Piaget 1932, Reimer and Hirsch 1983). Piaget and Kohlberg have posited that there are developmental stages in moral reasoning. Piaget observed that children see right and wrong from two viewpoints: heteronomous and autonomous. Initially, children base morality on a strict adherence to rules and obedience to authority. Then, after sufficient social interaction, children develop an autonomous view in which rules are considered critically and applied selectively in order to seek mutual respect and cooperation. It is at this point that intent is considered, whereas in the prior stage only the size of the wrong mattered.
Kohlberg extended Piagetâ€™s findings in a long-term study of a male cohort that began in the 1950s. He concluded that there are three levels of moral reasoning, each divided into two stages. At the preconventional level, similar to Piagetâ€™s heteronomous stage, individuals give reasons for â€śdoing rightâ€ť based on avoiding punishment, obeying authority or serving oneâ€™s own needs in a quid pro quo fashion. At the conventional level, the need to be a â€śgood person,â€ť to care for others and to maintain rules or laws that support these values, begins to prevail. A second stage at this level starts to see morality based on maintaining the social system through obedience to the law. At the postconventional third level, people begin to see right from wrong influenced by the viewpoint of universal moral principles. Individual rights, life, and liberty are paramount. Principles of justice, the equality of human rights, and respect for the dignity of human beings are the bases for moral decisions.
Although some of Kohlbergâ€™s research has been criticized, especially his crosscultural studies and the gender bias in his male cohort group, there is support for his belief that we develop our moral reasoning over time through interactions with others in efforts to resolve conflicts, either hypothetical or real (Kurtines and Grief 1974, Rest 1973, Turiel 1965). This development appears to be stage-based in that students seem to understand and prefer arguments given in the general stage of their own reasoning or one stage above. They reject arguments from a stage below. Empirically supported consequences for a questioning strategy in the classroom point to helping students to explore their present stage of reasoning more broadly and to challenging them with questions from the stage above their present position. When this type of questioning about the thinking behind dilemma decisions is done regularly, students have shown measurable advances in their dominant stage of reasoning (Blatt and Kohlberg 1973; Colby, Kohlberg, Fenton, Speicher-Dubin, and Lieberman 1977).
When developing a questioning strategy for the classroom, teachers need to prepare a variety of questions that represent multiple stages of reasoning as well as various aspects of the ethical issues involved. They may ask questions regarding the obligations of central character(s), the rights of the individual(s) affected by the action taken, and the consequences of the reasoning used. For instance, in the â€śFuneral Pyreâ€ť dilemma, if a student reasons that Giri, who is a magistrate, should intervene because he might get into trouble with his boss (level 1), then the teacher might raise a question about what a good son would be expected to do in this situation (level 2). On the other hand, if a student reasons that Giri should intervene because itâ€™s against the law to practice suttee (level 2), then the teacher might ask a question about an individualâ€™s right to choose an honorable death (level 3). Also, it is stimulating to student thinking to encourage peer-to-peer interaction by asking specific students to react to other studentsâ€™ reasoning.
When a majority of students take the same position on a dilemma, it is worthwhile to ask â€śwhat ifâ€ť questions that introduce alternative scenarios. In the â€śArranged Marriageâ€ť dilemma, students often argue that Elenaâ€™s relatives should take her to Canada. But what if the betrothed man was 17 years old and a very decent person? What if Elenaâ€™s aunt and uncle are sure to be extradited from Canada and tried for kidnapping? What if Elenaâ€™s parents had previously saved the life of her aunt and uncleâ€™s only child?
In addition to considering a justice orientation for designing questions, Carol Gilligan asserts that another model of moral reasoning is equally important. By listening to womenâ€™s experiences, Gilligan suggests that a morality of care can be used in place of Kohlbergâ€™s morality of justice and rights (Gilligan 2004). Stages of care start with egocentric concern for oneself, move to a conventional concern for others and a denial of self, and then to a post-conventional concern for self and others through relational connections. Questions drawn from this model can raise issues about care and responsibility for all the parties affected by the dilemmas. For example, in â€śThe Funeral Pyre,â€ť a teacher might ask how Giriâ€™s decision could affect his relationship with his brother.
At the conclusion of the question-directed discussion, the teacher asks students to do a final process writing. To prompt their writing, the teacher can ask the students how their thinking was affected by the classroom discussions. Was their original position solidified or not? Does it require editing? They may also be asked to write about the parts of the dilemma discussion that were most and least influential on their thinking.
The more that dilemmas are used throughout a studentâ€™s schooling, especially from the third or fourth grade on, the greater the chance that she or he will develop a comprehensive method of thinking about issues that involve moral or ethical conflict. The methodology proposed here is neither relativistic nor authoritarian. It does not suggest that anything goes, nor does it say that there is only one right way. Rather, it promotes the development of increasingly more adequate responses to difficult dilemmas so that students learn to be more universal in their understanding of the problems routinely faced by individuals in a complex human society. It is through this type of broad-based thinking that citizens can best exercise their rights and responsibilities, and, more importantly, that students can realize their full potential as human beings.
Arbuthnot, Jack, and Faust, David. Teaching Moral Reasoning: Theory and Practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 1980.
Blatt, Moshe, and Kohlberg, Lawrence. â€śThe Effects of Classroom Moral Discussion Upon Childrenâ€™s Level of Moral Judgment.â€ť In Kohlberg, L., Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Center for Moral Education, 1973.
Colby, A., Kohlberg, L., Fenton, E., Speicher-Dubin, B., and Lieberman, M. â€śSecondary School Moral Discussion Programs Led by Social Studies Teachers.â€ť Journal of Moral Education, 1977, vol. 6.
Galbraith, Ronald E., and Jones, Thomas M. Moral Reasoning: A Teaching Handbook for Adapting Kohlberg to the Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Greenhaven Press, 1976.
Gilligan, Carol. In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Womenâ€™s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Kurtines, W., and Grief, E. â€śThe Development of Moral Thought: Review and Evaluation of Kohlbergâ€™s Approach.â€ť Psychological Bulletin, 1974, vol. 81.
Lickona, Thomas (ed.). Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research, and Social Issues. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Piaget, Jean. The Moral Judgment of the Child. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1932.
Reimer, Joseph, Paolitto, Diana Pritchard, and Hersh, Richard H. Promoting Moral Growth: From Piaget to Kohlberg. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1983.
Rest, James R. â€śHierarchical Nature of Moral Judgment: A Study of Patterns of Comprehension and Preferences of Moral Stages.â€ť Journal of Personality, 1973, vol. 41.
Turiel, E. â€śAn Experimental Test of the Sequentiality of Developmental Stages in the Childâ€™s Moral Judgment.â€ť Unpublished doctoral dissertation. New Haven: Yale University, 1965.
â€śWomenâ€™s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society: Carol Gilligan.â€ť http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/gilligan.html (accessed November 28, 2004).
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