At one time moral development was one of the central missions of higher education. Somehow, this part of the role of higher education got lost. Education was separated from religion, morals became ethics and what was lost was the responsibility of higher education to bring goodness to society. Education has become valueless as far as instilling in students what makes citizens, and people in general, good people.
Our society should have moved away from black and white or good and bad, however, too many in society see the world that way and the need for having values that build a better society is greater than ever before.
We know that we have failed, in our institutions of higher education, to teach higher order thinking skills. Forty percent of graduates demonstrate no improvement in higher order thinking skills with another 50% showing a few skills that are only occasionally used because thinking is hard work. Even those who are taught some higher order thinking skills (including many of the faculty members at many institutions), because of the problem of transference in learning, the higher order thinking skills that have been learned have been learned in a subject silo and are not transferred to other domains. Our broad liberal arts education that was designed to teach higher order thinking skills across a wide variety of subjects in order to overcome the problem of transference is a thing of the past. This leaves the vast majority of our society, educated or not, operating most of the time at a concrete operational stage of thinking. Formal operational thinking is out of reach for most adults in our society and we (higher education) must take the blame.
What does this lack of learning have to do with moral development? If we look at Kolberg’s moral development stages, these tie in directly to the stages that underlie Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. From Boyd & Johnson’s “Lifespan Development" (or pretty well any introductory developmental psychology text), we can see that the stages from the two separate traditions map onto each other very well (level of cognitive development beside the stages of moral development), along with a description of behaviors expected at each stage.
The conventional, or concrete, level of cognitive development puts law and order as the most important aspect of moral development. If something is legal, it is right. If something is illegal, it is wrong. The world is largely black and white – right and wrong. When we look at the world around us, this is the state that we find ourselves in. If we look at the table below, we can see that fewer than 15% of adults ever move beyond the black and white stages of moral development.
What is wrong with this? Rules are rules, laws are laws, and black is black. If we look at history, politicians, and people of influence take advantage of this to manipulate and control masses of people. If laws define right or wrong, conformity is the rule. Follow the leader, and if the leader views a change in the laws or norms of society, the vast majority of people will fall in behind and do whatever they are asked to do. Why is this a problem?
Laws can be changed and leaders can normalize behaviors that are morally or ethically wrong. Jews can be targeted and vilified. Tutsi’s can be exterminated. Blacks can be bought and sold like livestock. Indigenous people can be forcibly sent to residential schools. Unarmed black youths can be killed without repercussion. Coloured people can be denied property rights or any voice in society. Islam can be targeted. Christians can be removed. Genocide in Myanmar. These things are not just things of the past but are things of today.
Even more terrifying is where this is leading us. Having abdicated our responsibility to teach higher order thinking skills we have removed ourselves from being able to build a better world. We can design a smaller smartphone. We can build bigger bridges. We can put smileys on the top of a coffee. We can watch the inside of the body in real-time. We can do all kinds of things.
But, we can’t stop the horrors that surround us. We can’t prevent another Holocaust. We can wring our hands and say “never again” but have nothing more than prayers to offer when mass murders become as commonplace as automobile accidents. If our laws say something is right or our leaders agitate for the unthinkable, the vast majority of people – across the globe – shrug, raise one eyebrow, and go back to sleep because this is all their thinking allows.
Teaching higher order thinking skills isn’t a luxury that we should reserve for a few. It isn’t a nice add-on to a degree. It isn’t a perk of going to a good school. It is (or should be) the core of higher education.
Real education shouldn’t be about job training – we don’t even know what jobs we are training for any longer. Education shouldn’t be about “the student experience” – whatever that is. Education shouldn’t be about cramming and passing tests.
Education should be about learning to think.
Imagine a world where higher education resulted in thinking? Given the numbers of people in our developed societies who have and are obtaining higher degrees, we would have millions, even billions of adults who could engage in higher order thinking and understand higher order moral development. People don't think of other options than the immediate response that is easy and natural if there are no higher order thinking skills. Violence is easy. Hatred is easy. One-sided views are natural. Following along is the way to go. Not thinking is the order of the day.
Are we responsible? Not completely, but we have to accept the part we have played in shaping the world we live in. One more publication or one more grant application has put us where we are. These are the current values of most of those in higher education. Teaching students to think gets in the way of content and research.
I don’t see any way we are going to change the established order. The only way forward is to separate teaching and research with the primary goal of teaching is teaching students to think. The content has to be there in order for learners to have something to think about, but the content will take care of itself.
We can do this. All we have to do is decide. We know how people learn. We know how to teach higher order thinking skills. We can change the world.
We can change the world for the better. We have to change the world for the better. The current trajectory is unthinkable. We have to pull together and change the world.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.