Progress in Education Can Be Shown: The Case of Moral-Democratic Competence

Some time ago, Diane Ravith wrote in an article “that in the land of American pedagogy, innovation is frequently confused with progress, and whatever is thought to be new is always embraced more readily than what is known to be true. Thus, pedagogues, policymakers, thought leaders, facilitators, and elected of cials are rushing to get aboard the 21st-century-skills express train, lest they appear to be old-fashioned or traditional, these terms being the worst sort of opprobrium that can be hurled at any educator.”

In her update, Diane Ravitch makes an interesting addition: “If I were to revise the article, I would change its tone to acknowledge the value of the ‘maker-movement.’ This is a deservedly popular activity in which children make things with their hands, some involving electronics, some using tools or fabric or paper or wood. Genuine progressive education recognizes the value of loving literature, delving into history in depth, and using your hands and mind to make beautiful things.”

I strongly agree. From a psychological point of view, opportunities for hands-on experience are the most effective and sustainable way of learning, especially if they are supplemented with opportunities for reflection. This means that schools of education must show teachers how to design such opportunities rather than do lecturing. This change will take some effort and time. But it will be worth-while.

However, she leaves out an important question: How can we be sure that we make real progress in educational theory and practice?  How can we reach agreement beyond our sympathisers? As Alan Schoenfeld said in his presidential address at the AERA meeting in 1998, we need an explict understanding of what we teach and what we measure. We need to define more explicitly the competencies which we want schools to promote, and we need to do more research into the nature of these competencies. Only when we thoroughly understand our educational objectives, we can design effective learning environments. Thorough understanding is also the prerequisite for designing valid measurement methods. We do not need measurement for evaluating people (students, teachers, principles etc.). As has been shown by many comprehensive studies, test-driven education policy-making has completely failed. Rather we need valid measurement for checking the truth of our theories about competence constructs, and for checking the effectiveness of our teaching methods.

Four decades ago, I decided to move beyond smart critique and to follow up my own advice. I singled out one educational objective which seems to be highly needed for living together in a democracy, but is generally neglected in the schools of most countries: moral-democratic competence, that is, the ability to solve problems and conflicts on the basis of moral principles through deliberation and discussion, instead of through violence and deceit. This objective can be found in many general proclaimations, but hardly ever in class-room practice. Progressive  and democratic schools and also some traditional school teachers seek to promote it, but we do not know whether they are effective because there is no evidence besides the testimony of the protagonists.

Therefore, I decided not to think about a new teaching method, but to start with a project to define and to measure moral-democratic competence. This was not easy because at that time I could only chose between two wrong methodologies: on the one hand, the behaviorists’ classical test theory, which is objective, but is unfit to measure internal structural competencies. For test theory, constructs like moral-democratic competence does not exist. Prevailing test theory discards structural properties of human behavior as measurement error! On the other hand, there were qualitative methods like clinical interviews, which claim that they can assess competence and structur, but are susceptible to subjective scoring biases.

I saw no use in mixing these two dubious methods as many have suggested. Rather I turned to Experimental Psychology, which had shown that internal cognitive functioning can be measured objectively. Unfortunately this branch of psychology has been largely ignored by main stream behaviorists as well as by qualitatively oriented educational researchers.

Our endeavors have been successful. We can now measure, and study, moral-democratic competences validly and objectively. We can design an effective learning environment that gives children an opportunity to speak up and listen to others, to solve problems and conflicts peacefully, and, eventually, to build a democratic community. Thanks to the new measurement methodology, we can also show now that such hands-on learning is highly effective and sustainable. Details can be found in my book “How to Teach Morality“.


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