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Ethics and childhood: possibilities for preschool ethical development

An early childhood ethics education research program supported by the Rock Ethics Institute and Penn State Social Science Research Institute aims to introduce dialogue- and activity-based ethics education programming in early childhood classrooms.
An early childhood ethics education research program supported by the Rock Ethics Institute and Penn State Social Science Research Institute aims to introduce dialogue- and activity-based ethics education programming in early childhood classrooms. Centre Daily Times, file

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State.

In the contemporary educational realm, a more positive approach that focuses on the ethical capacities and possibilities for growth that young children already possess can be beneficial. This approach can serve as a basis for collaborative and constructive ethics education. My current research project — Philosophical Ethics in Early Childhood — serves as one example of this approach and is being implemented in local and international preschools.

Longstanding concerns of childhood and education

In her 1954 essay, “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt provides us with an account of the need for education, noting that at birth, children are “new” to this world.

There is a natality inherent to childhood such that each child represents an unprecedented possibility. In response to this newness, educators provide the child with an understanding of the world he or she has inherited, the traditions he or she will be asked to take on and the institutions that long precede his or her existence.

It is with a similar understanding — one that aims to bring the child into the traditions and prescriptions of the adult world — that philosophers and psychologists have often discussed childhood ethics education.

Plato argues that education is a “process of attraction,” through which children should be led by adults to accept the law and predefined moral standards. Lawrence Kohlberg, a founder of what we now refer to as moral developmental psychology, contended that the adult educator must bring the child “from the shadows of the cave” into the light of justice and moral knowledge.

In this process, the adult is active and the child is largely passive. However, as with any culturally dominant conception — these images of education and the child can blind us to alternative possibilities.

Considering positive possibilities

What happens when we conduct ethics education with children that does not start from an assumption — no matter how well intentioned — that children are deficient or lacking and in need of completion by the educator?

Philosophical Ethics in Early Childhood, an early childhood ethics education research program supported by the Rock Ethics Institute and Penn State Social Science Research Institute, aims to do just that by introducing dialogue- and activity-based ethics education programming in early childhood classrooms.

We’re striving to better understand preschool children’s (ages 3-5) ethical understanding while also exploring the effectiveness of philosophical discussion for fostering ethical development in early childhood. To date, PEECh has been introduced to teachers and preschoolers in a State College preschool, and is now being implemented in Lewistown and Verona, Italy.

A key contention of our research is that children, from a young age, possess robust ethical concerns and convictions. As William Damon notes in “The Moral Child,” “morality is a fundamental, natural, and important part of children’s lives from the time of their first relationships. It is not a foreign substance introduced to them by an outside world of people who know all the answers.”

Children not only consider issues of right and wrong — they care about fairness, the inclusion and exclusion of peers and their own personal well-being — they are happy to discuss how they feel.

Indeed, it is a relative strength of children (when compared with many adults) that they are capable of excitement and rich, imaginative engagement when presented with opportunities to discuss ethical dilemmas and scenarios. In PEECh, we and our partner teachers conduct these discussions on a weekly basis through drawing, games and literature.

In creating this curriculum, our team focuses on building on the ethical concerns that children already possess, as opposed to introducing wholly new concepts and ideas.

In this sense, our education and research project departs sharply from a dominant conception of education and seeks to capitalize on ethical agency as developing, but robustly present, in early childhood.

Through our pilot research, we have seen promising results. PEECh students demonstrated significant developments by showing increased verbalization during interviews coupled with a decrease in irrelevant or “I do not know” answers; increased use of justification terms (i.e., “because”) to support answers to ethical questions during interviews; increased emotion recognition in response to questions calling for empathy and perspective-taking; and increased perspective-taking as seen in interview responses and classroom observations.

These findings, although limited and based on pilot data, provide evidence for the benefits of PEECh for ethical development and increased ethical understanding in early childhood. The next iteration of this study will increase our understanding of PEECh-related impacts and, with it, possibilities for child-centered ethics education in our preschools.

Michael D. Burroughs is associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State and a senior lecturer in philosophy. He is also vice president of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization, a nonprofit organization that supports philosophical education in pre-K—12 schools.

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