Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Theory-practice and moral education

(Cross-posted at "Smart and Good")

The theory-practice puppy is nipping at my heels today as I begin teaching -- for the second week in a row -- “Children’s and Adolescents’ Moral Development.” That’s the title of a workshop for P-12 educators in my region of Pennsylvania. I’m co-teaching this week with my friend and colleague developmentalist Mary Casey.

The participants in this workshop want “practice,” and eschew theory. But practice is not a how-to manual, and theory is not useless. Pedagogical practice involves socially-framed and contextually-determined, sometimes habituated, sometimes thoughtful, but always particular responses to particular sets of educational circumstances.

Particularity matters when it comes to practice and so does the community of agents within which any practice gets its meaning. And that’s why I can’t simply “deliver” specific actions, or even typical strategies, that teachers can put on the shelf and take down and use when they want to put on a “moral educator” hat. What I can do is coach teachers to richly interpret the circumstances and challenges facing them so that their responses fit – intellectually, emotionally, psychically, relationally, i.e. morally. This is a pragmatist view of moral decision-making and action that relies on the work of Christian theological H. Richard Niebuhr in The Responsible Self, one that is clearly congruent with John Dewey’s understanding of valuation and responsibility.

Interpretation is a complicated process integrating attention, cognition, imagination, anticipation, empathy, and self-understanding. Humans interpret all the time in all sorts of settings, sometimes well, often poorly. Limited or inaccurate or avoidably biased interpretation leads to ill-suited, potentially immoral response. Thorough, grounded interpretation enables fruitful, moral action.

The capacity to interpret well is grounded in experience and knowledge. What practitioners refer to as “theory” is part of that grounding. Aristotle’s emphasis on the role of habit in doing the good reinforces most educators’ intuition that modeling matters and reinforcement of constructive behavior results in “good kids,” focusing them on their own behavior and the internal and external reward for apparently good behavior. Kant’s claim that reason yields a universalizable categorical imperative to be obeyed by the well-oriented will pushes us to look for the principles at work in any circumstance. Piaget’s formulation of stages of cognitive development is really a framework for interpreting student learning, just as Erickson’s socio- crises offer a lens for recognizing some social and emotional forces shaping a youngster’s actions. Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning enable an educator to know how to talk constructively with kids about moral dilemmas. Gilligan’s emphasis on relationships in theorizing moral development introduces gender as a potentially important interpretive element. Noddings’ phenomenological analysis of caring as a relationship rather than an individual feeling calls us to scrutinize relationships as interactive.

It matters not for action that someone can accurately recite the stages or categories or principles and connect them with the correct author – but it does matter which stages and categories and principles frame one’s interpreting, even implicitly. It does matter that educators have a richly-developed theoretical sensibility; it matters that they internalize the habits of interpretation that these theories underwrite. It is here that theory is married to practice and cannot profitably be put asunder.
So I have to do more than tell them what Aristotle or Kohlberg or Noddings say. My own practice as the co-instructor of this workshop must model the ways of seeing and understanding that I deem important for their practice as moral educators – and then I have to catch them trying it out and help them recognize the payoff in understanding that will reinforce their new interpretive framework.

“Theory” and “practice” are analytic constructs, pragmatic products of emphasis and point of view. If I am laboring in the field, practice is my lens. If I am laboring in the laboratory or the library, theory is my lens. But either way, both theory and practice are present in my thinking. Dewey of course knew this and said so on numerous occasions. I have to do more than say so in my workshop this week; I have to find a way to help the teachers who are my students internalize this insight so that it shapes what they see and how they interpret the value of our work together.

Christian theologian Paul Tillich asserted that “Morality is not a subject; it is life put to the test in dozens of moments.” His claim fits neatly with Dewey’s distinction (in Moral Principles in Education) between “ideas about morality” and “moral ideas.” Moral ideas are ideas that move us to action. Moral ideas are our answers to life’s tests. Ideas about morality are the medium through which we talk about and reflect on our frames for interpretation. Those frames are central to moral action, but not, in themselves, enough.

So the theory-practice puppy deserves – and will get – my/our attention this week. But along the way, I’ll be trying to shape a concept of practice that will render the theory-practice puppy toothless.

1 comment:

Kathleen Knight-Abowitz said...

Great post; the theory-practice dualism is connected to some work that Nick Burbules and I have been doing and presented at PES in April ("Situated Philosophy"). Your writing on the topic here is wonderfully concrete and situated in your own teaching challenges. As someone who teaches ethics and moral education to educators who want some solid "answers," I very much related to your comments.

Do you explicitly teach "habits of interpretation" or do you teach the ethical theories and let the habits take care of themselves? I use Nash's (1997) moral brief exercise as a way to provide some useful habits of moral reflection, but wondered if you have other ideas?