Monday, February 20, 2012

Teaching Morality through Drama: Truth in Imaginary Circumstance

How can teens be prepared to make moral choices? Is it wise to expose them to moral dilemma through theoretical situations in theatrical settings, or is it better for them to learn hard lessons from experience--letting them pass or fail--and then reflect on the consequences of their choices? 

But first ... what is moral development?
Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg is largely associated with the development of morality.  Kohlberg's ideas show “how” people develop their ability to make moral choices through levels and stages, instead of "what" moral choices are (Berk, 2012). Kohlberg theorized that moral maturity levels can be understood through a person’s growth in decision-making processes and he organized his observations about these processes into three levels: 

(1) The Preconventional Level, which is controlled by the external forces of rules and people in authority. It is comprised of Stage 1 (punishment and obedience orientation) and Stage 2 (instrumental purpose orientation).

(2) The Conventional Level, which is governed by a person’s belief that societal order must be maintained. It is comprised of Stage 3 (morality of interpersonal cooperation) and Stage 4 (social-order-maintaining orientation). 

(3) The Principled Level, which defines morality in abstract ideas. It is comprised of Stage 5 (social contract orientation) and Stage 6 (universal ethical principle orientation.)

Due to the longitudinal studies of Kohlberg and those who followed his research, the observations from these studies reveal that Stages 1 and 2 decrease in early adolescence while Stages 3 and 4 increase. Evidence from Kohlberg’s studies also show that most people do not move beyond Stage 4. In other words, most people never reach high levels of moral reasoning (Berk, 2012). 

As early as 1968, Kugelmass & Breznitz found in their results from a study of intentionality in adolescence, that there is a great deal of moral development occurring during late adolescence. The adolescent moves between the three levels and settles into habits of the higher stages. 

This was supported in Perry & McIntire’s 1995 study on the modes of moral judgment in early adolescence where they found that teens (especially young teens) use several modes to make moral choices, which touch on all six stages of Kohlberg’s theory. These include caring about others, using the “golden rule”, and moral decisions based on selfishness. 

Because there is so much instability in making moral choices during adolescence, Perry & McIntire (1995) argued that development and implementation of moral education is appropriate. This idea is supported in the work of Harding & Snyder (1991), who believe that the arts—and more specifically film—could aid in bringing about discussions, and they presented a rationale for using literature and contemporary film in school curriculum. 

However, in the relatively recent research of Laible & Carol (2008) on moral affect and moral cognition, they show that parental involvement impacts areas of moral development of teenagers when related to bullying. Their study indicated that parents who instill higher levels of moral affect (guilt, shame, sympathy and ehpathic anger) were correlated with prosocial behavior and moral conduct. They also showed that higher levels of moral cognition improved altruistic behavior. 

So no matter which side of the debate a person takes about moral education, what seems to be crucial in the development of higher levels of morality, is the involvement of more mature adults in teenage discussion. To develop higher levels of morality, teens must develop awareness. This occurs through interaction and observation. If a teen is to be aware of making moral decisions, he or she must be able to discuss the implications of those choices.

As a morally responsible adult and fully formed artist, I believe that drama and drama-based instruction could be a key to developing moral education curriculum because theater has the power to create truths of reality in imaginary circumstances. When a play is well written on subjects involving any moral issue, this conflict becomes the heart of the play and the drama sparks discussion because it illustrates consequences of choices to many people who watch the play.

This became obvious to me in a reading of a play called “Personal Foul” that my writing partner and I wrote and produced in New York this past fall. The play was less than 30 minutes and yet it was powerful enough to spark a 45-minute discussion after it was read. 

As playwrights, we examined the topic of sexual misconduct between teacher and student by setting our play in the high school Football/Cheerleading culture. By using the Orion/Artemis myths, we loosely structured the play with the form of Greek Tragedy. A squad of cheerleaders represented the Greek chorus and made commentary on the action of the play as the audience witnessed a high school football coach (Orion) and a senior cheerleader (Artemis) struggle with their sexual attraction to each other. 

Drama is conflict.  And ... drama within a theatrical setting provides a forum in which an audience can confront moral conflict without the consequences they would encounter in real life.  It shows each an audience member what they think about tough subjects and prompts discussion.  It makes them "aware".  As a result, theater can teach morality and help a society shape the kind of morality it wishes to portray.

Berk, L. E. (2012). Infants, children, and adolescents (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. ISBN: 9780205718160.

Harding, C. G., & Snyder, K. (1991). Tom, huck, and oliver stone as advocates in kohlbergs just community: Theory-based strategies for moral education. Adolescence, 26(102), 319-29. Retrieved from

Kugelmass, S., & Breznitz, S. (1968). Intentionality in moral judgment: Adolescent development. Child Development, 39(1), 249.

Laible, D., Eye, J., & Carlo, G. (2008). Dimensions of conscience in mid-adolescence: Links with social behavior, parenting, and temperament. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37(7), 875-887. Retrieved from

Perry, C. M., & McIntire, W. G. (1995). Modes of moral judgment among early adolescents. Adolescence, 30(119), 707-15. Retrieved from