An important question for educators to ask involves the distinction between “shaping” students’ behaviors and promoting their moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg (1967, 1984), a developmental psychologist, developed a hierarchical schema of moral development through which he believes children evolve. . . .I don’t know if I buy completely into Kohlberg’s theory. But “premoral” sounds like just the right word for PBIS. Why are our schools modeling and encouraging this “morally bankrupt” way of thinking?
Thomas (1992) explains that in the first stage of the Preconventional [or Premoral] Level, referred to as the Obedience and Punishment Orientation, a child judges whether an action is good or bad based on whether it results in a punishment. Doing the “right thing” is equated with avoiding punishment. This judgment does not involve the human meaning of the act, just its consequences. The second stage of the Preconventional Level is referred to as the naive instrumental level. This stage involves actions based on what “pays off” for the child, not on a sense of justice or loyalty. . . .
The second level of moral development in Kohlberg’s schema is the Conventional Level and involves conformity to the expectations of the family, group, or nation. The third level is the Postconventional Level, in which moral behavior is first defined in terms of individual rights but advances toward universal principles of justice.
Behavior modification is the systematic enactment of the Premoral Level of development. This is particularly problematic in light of Kohlberg’s beliefs about how moral development is fostered. . . . Kohlberg theorized that the environmental aspects affecting children’s moral development are “(1) the child’s opportunities to learn social roles and (2) the form of justice in the social institutions with which the child is familiar” (Thomas, 1992, p. 503).
The behavior modification systems commonly used in schools, according to Kohlberg’s schemas, do not involve moral reasoning at all. Drummed into students’ heads all day is the morally bankrupt message of “behave and you’ll be rewarded.” If the form of justice in social institutions affects moral development, as Kohlberg has suggested, then classrooms provide promising opportunities to promote moral development. In particular, a classroom culture that is based on the concept of a community has the potential to promote moral development that involves rights and responsibilities, as well as relationships between the individual and the group. We are deeply concerned by the long-term impact of classrooms that operate on premoral principles.