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Relevance: a framework for understanding moral development

The article by Saltzstein offered a way to understand how children develop moral beliefs, and especially to understand the change from moral heteronomy to moral autonomy. By imposing controls on the procedures (uniform interviews) and on the selection of participants (particular ages, particular societies or cultures), the researchers eliminated certain sources of ambiguity or variability in children's responses. By framing their project in terms of previous theories of moral development (Piaget’s, Turiel’s), furthermore, they made it easier to interpret their new results in the general terms of these theories as well. In these ways the investigation aspired to provide a general perspective about children's moral development. Providing a framework for understanding, you recall, is one of the major purposes of many professional publications.

But note that the authors paid a price for emphasizing this purpose. By organizing their work around existing general theory and research, they had to assume that readers already had some knowledge of that theory and research. This is not an unreasonable assumption if the readers are expected to be fellow researchers; after all, many of them make a living by "knowing the literature" of psychology. But assuming such knowledge can be an obstacle if the authors intend to communicate with non-psychologists: in that case, either the authors must make more of an effort to explain the relevant background research, or readers must educate themselves about the research. The latter activity is not necessarily difficult (the background knowledge for Saltzstein's work, for example, took me only a few paragraphs to explain in writing), but it must be done to make full sense of research that tries to provide a universal framework of psychological knowledge.

The reader's role: interested observer of children

In conducting and reporting their research, Saltzstein and his colleagues were not presenting themselves as school teachers, nor were they expecting readers necessarily to respond as teachers. As they put it in the first paragraph of the article, they sought to offer "a more contextualized perspective for understanding the development of moral judgments" [p. 37]. Unlike most teachers, they seemed indifferent to recommending how children's moral judgements ought to be fostered. Observation of children was their purpose, not intervention. The meaning of the term "contextualized perspective" was not obvious to Kelvin when he first read it, but eventually it became clearer: they were talking about the importance of distinguishing among types of moral decisions and moral beliefs. They did sometimes note information relevant to teaching—for example, they pointed out that for cultural reasons, teachers in Brazil do not command high respect and therefore compared to American children, Brazilian children may feel less compelled to tell the truth to their teachers. But this comment was not the primary focus of their research, nor did the authors discuss what (if anything) it might imply about teaching in the United States.

Questions & Answers

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da
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Professor
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Source:  OpenStax, Educational psychology. OpenStax CNX. May 11, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11302/1.2
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