Facilitating Moral Development in Beginning College Students
Academic skill development remains important to beginning college students, but in these days of terrorist attacks, ethnic strife and campus-based shootings, is it enough? This session describes an innovative pedagogical activity in Unity College’s first-year seminar that integrates instruction in critical thinking with moral development and respect for diverse positions on controversial issues.
Students are assigned to teams of four and required to research a controversial topic and lead the rest of the class in a discussion that explores multiple sides of the issue. Topics are selected to ensure that diverse perspectives are uncovered, including firearms on campus, immigration policies, gay marriage and privacy rights under the war on terror.
The entire class is given four articles to read in preparation for the discussion, and the presenters are expected to research additional articles on their own. In class, the presenters cover diverse positions on the issue, grounded in published articles. Each member of the group may state his or her personal opinion, but only after a balanced presentation of the different perspectives.
Following the presentation, the discussion is opened up to the rest of the class. Presenters then become responsible for managing the wider discussion, which includes trying to ensure that opinions are grounded in the readings and that the discourse remains respectful.
The content encourages students to examine their own value systems – the primary vehicle for continuing moral development in young adults. It also involves examining positions that are quite new to them – a foundational principle of higher education. Finally, it is empowering in the sense that students experience support and respect for their positions, provided they are thoughtful and credible.
The activity, originally designed by colleague Dr. Aimee Phillippi, may in some small way help prepare students for their role as thoughtful, moral citizens of a changing and challenging world.
Keywords: Critical Thinking, Higher Education, Moral Development
James J. Horan
Professor of Developmental Studies, Unity College