Helping Children Think About Goodness and Caring
In a previous blog post in February, Luigina Mortari, Scientific Director of the Center of Educational and Didactic Research at the University of Verona, Italy, described the “Melarete” curriculum that she and her colleagues developed to expose elementary school students to concepts of ethics, virtue, and care. In this second post, we hear more about this program’s activities, theoretical basis, and student outcomes.
“MelArete” is an educative program and research project aiming at enhancing and exploring children’s ethical thinking. Over the past eight years, we have worked with classes of Italian primary school students on two central topics: care and virtue. This program is rooted in two main theses:
-acting “good” means to take care of others and understand the impact of our actions (Noddings, 1984; Mayeroff, 1990; Tronto, 1993; Held, 2006; Mortari, 2015);
-taking care of others means to act virtuously (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics).
During the past year, the project involved six 4th grade classes of primary schoolers (106 nine and ten y.o. children) and eight kindergarten classes (57 five and six y.o. children).
For each of these classes, twelve sessions took place, during which different activities were promoted with the aim of encouraging children to reflect on age-appropriate ethical concepts and experiences. For example, the first meeting focused on the meaning of the words “good” and “care.” The researcher introduced the story of “Puc and Pec,” two jaguars, one of whom takes care of the other through acts of kindness. The narrative models practices of good friendship and care for others, stimulating the children to think about how to act with care as a fundamental building block of goodness.
In the primary school classrooms, the story was presented through pictures, while with the kindergarten students, it was animated with puppets. After the story was presented by the researcher, children were involved in a basic Socratic conversation, during which they were asked to answer to the following questions:
-The word “good” is a beautiful word. What comes to your mind when you hear this word?
-The word “care” is another beautiful word. What comes to your mind when you hear this word?
These types of Socratic conversations have a long history and follow the “maieutic method” to bring children’s ideas of ethical concepts into full view and are therefore useful as an educational and research tool. As in “Socratic Circles” (Copeland, 2005), open conversations are used to promote the exchange of ideas in order to develop critical abilities like listening, thinking, and discussing. Socratic conversations start from an eidetic question, that is, a question about the essence of a phenomenon. After having formulated the question, the researcher guides the discussion by listening to the participants’ ideas and encouraging them to further examine their thoughts, in order to individuate their points of clarity and shadow.
We can find this method in the Platonic dialogues (for example, in the Charmides, when Socrates tells his interlocutor, “Say what, in your opinion, temperance is” (159a); or in the Gorgias, we find Socrates asking his interlocutor to precisely indicate the object of the rhetoric: “Consider yourself questioned by both these men and myself, and give us your answer. What is this thing that you claim is the greatest good for humankind, a thing you claim to be a producer of?” (452d)). Analogously, in an elementary or kindergarten class, we encourage children to examine their ideas about concepts such as virtue, justice, respect, etc. The researcher acts as a facilitator, guiding the conversation in order to stimulate children to reflect deeply with their own experience as a starting point. Children’s contributions to the conversation were not evaluated as right or wrong; instead, the researcher expressed gratefulness for the children’s willingness to share their thoughts.
The discussions of good and care were audio-recorded and transcribed. In kindergarten, after the conversation, children were required to draw the moment of the story that most impacted them and then to explain to the researcher what they drew and what the word “good” meant to them (these definitions were transcribed by the researcher under each drawing). Collected data demonstrates the richness of children’s thinking. In the table below, we present a selection of children’s thoughts collected in primary school and kindergarten.
We hope that these responses show the various ways that students of a young age are already beginning to conceptualize their ideas of goodness and caring. These ideas should be explored further and nurtured in positive directions.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics (2nd ed.). Translated by T. Irwin. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999.
Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic Circles. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.
Held, V. (2006). The Ethics of Care. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mayeroff, M. (1990). On Caring. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Mortari, L. (2015). Filosofia della cura. Milano: Raffaello Cortina Editore.
Noddings, N. (1984). Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Plato. Complete works. Edited by J. M. Cooper. Associate editor D. S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
Tronto, J. (1993). Moral Boundaries. London: Routledge.