An Evaluation of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development and how it could be applied to Grade School

Summary of Theory of Moral Development

The topic of moral development is of fundamental importance in the fields of psychology and education. American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg adapted and expanded upon the seminal works of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to formulate a stage theory of moral development that was more comprehensive than the latter’s initial suggestions (Crain, 2004).

Kohlberg’s theory of moral thinking is viewed as more inclusive and comprehensive in that it makes mention of six stages of moral development, which are firmly grounded on three different levels of growth. In contrast, Piaget’s theory only makes reference to two processes of moral development. It is the purpose of this essay to summarize Kohlberg’s theory, and thereafter analyze how the theory can be applied to grade a school.

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Kohlberg used a sequence of dilemmas such as ‘Heinz steals the drug’ analogy to evaluate the moral reasoning capabilities of children aged between 10 and 16 years.

The explanations received from the subjects assisted the psychologist to develop his theory, which holds that moral reasoning, the foundation for moral behavior, has six exclusive developmental phases, each more comprehensive at answering to ethical dilemmas than its precursor (Crain, 2004).

Expounding further upon the earlier works of Piaget, Kohlberg established that the progression of moral development was fundamentally concerned with justice, not to mention that this process continued throughout a person’s lifespan.

Under level one, also known as pre-conventional morality, Kohlberg developed two stages – obedience and punishment orientation, and individualism and exchange. In stage 1, the child is of the opinion that some powerful authorities dictate the rules to be strictly followed without question.

According to the child, breaking the rules is met by unfavorable consequences. In stage 2, the child become aware of the fact that there exist many right views relating to a particular decision and that different people shares diverse viewpoints. This demonstrates that the child has developed some sense of right behavior, otherwise known as the concept of fair exchange (Craig, 2004).

The second level – conventional morality – consist of phase 3 and 4 of Kohlberg’s theory. In phase 3, the conventional morality phase, people believe that individuals should always leave up to the expectations as formulated by family and society, and should always have good motives and exhibit good interpersonal feelings in their behavior, devoid of unfair practices.

In stage 4, individuals strive to maintain the social order in the society as a whole. Emphasis is laid on obedience of laid down laws, respect of authority, and adequate performance of one’s core tasks in a concerted effort to maintain social order (Craig, 2004).

The third level – post-conventional morality – also consists of two stages depicted as Social contract and Universal principles. Here, individuals are more concerned, not with maintaining the community for its own sake, but with developing principles and norms that will make their lives better in the society through emphasizing basic rights for all and democratic processes (Craig, 2004).

Application of Theory to Grade School

According to Kohlberg’s theory, it is clearly evident that students in both elementary and high schools functions at different levels of responsibility and discipline. As such, school administrators must never expect the students to achieve the same level of responsibility and discipline.

According to McEwan (1990), the rates of development through the levels of Kohlberg’s theory vary from student to student, but the development from one level to another is the same in spite of differences in sex, race, localities, or culture. This way, the model can be used to grade schools, especially in school discipline and educational achievement.

The personal reward orientation level in Kohlberg’s theory is particularly important in grading students. For example, a teacher may come up with a rule that stipulates how marks will be deducted for assignments received after the due date. Such a rule, according to the model, may apply differently to different students who did the same mistake of failing to turn in their assignments in time depending on the reasons and justifications given (Lawrence Kohlberg, n.d).

The theory empowers a teacher in such a scenario to justify her decisions depending on the excuses given by students, and may give full credit for a student who failed to submit his assignment on time for the reason that he was sick, while taking points off another student’s assignment for the reason that the student could not concentrate on the assignment as her boyfriend had left her. This way, fair play in grading is ensured.

A teacher may also utilize the social contract orientation stage, under Kohlberg’s post-conventional level, to appeal to students to exercise proper behavior and equal participation in classroom activities as this will go a long way in deciding the type of learning that will take place and the grades that the students will be able to garner (Lawrence Kohlberg, n.d.).

It gives the teacher the authority to set and implement laws and procedures in school to ensure the individual rights of all students are protected, respected, and upheld.

Such an arrangement will always have an impact on school performance as students who fail to abide by the principles of social contract orientation will always achieve low grades, while those who abide by the rule are expected to achieve good grades (McEwan, 1990). As such, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development has obvious ramifications if applied to grade schools.

Reference List

Craig, W.C. (2004). Theories of Development. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Lawrence Kohlberg: Applying Kohlberg’s Model for Discipline in Schools. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14 2010 <>

McEwan, B. (1990). Judicious Discipline. Democracy and Education, Vol. 4, Issue 3, p. 37-40


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