How children react to a moral dilemma may be down to your teaching

  • How children react to a moral dilemma may be down to your teaching

The environment you create in your classroom can help children become heroes in training, ready in any situation to do the right thing

Here’s a little experiment for you to try: when you next go into your classroom, divide your students into two groups, and designate half as ‘guards’ and half as ‘prisoners’. Explain that the guards aren’t allowed to physically harm the prisoners, but they are in charge. Have the prisoners ‘arrested’, then hand out their respective uniforms and sit back and watch ‘the prison game’ unfold!

Wait, actually, don’t do any of that; it would be a terrible idea. Not to mention patently unethical. But in the summer of 1971, it didn’t seem that way to Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University, when he set up this exact experiment with 24 young, middle-class men. After 36 hours, the first ‘prisoner’ had to be removed from the experiment after, in Zimbardo’s own words, going “crazy”.

While the prisoners began to internalise their roles, passively accepting the cruelty inflicted upon them, the guards quickly set about devising various methods of psychological abuse. These included arbitrarily punishing prisoners, removing their mattresses, stripping them naked, and forcing them to only go to the toilet in a bucket in their cell. After six days, the experiment had to be aborted. The guards were devastated.

‘That’s horrifying, and yet oddly fascinating, but what’s all of this got to do with primary school?’, I hear you cry. Well, and bear with me here, but children are sort of like prisoners in school if you think about it. After all, they don’t get a choice, they have to come, whether they like it or not. Then, they’re stuck in a uniform and told that someone else is in charge. Finally, we force them to complete tasks which, again, they have no choice about.

The similarities become more eerie and disturbing when you consider Zimbardo’s brief to the guards prior to the experiment: “You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion…that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy….In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness.”

We rule the school

It might be a stretch, but you could draw parallels between this and the Department for Education’s stance, which was recently set out by Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb: “We believe the most effective teaching methods should be pursued…irrespective of whether some find them ‘tedious’.
We believe that schools should be civilised and civilising institutions…because children do not always know best, and sometimes require the benevolent authority of an adult.”

After years of ‘child-centred’ education policies, leading to classrooms dominated by low-level disruption, it is argued that stronger teacher authority is required. And perhaps Mr Gibb is right. After all, didn’t Zimbardo’s study demonstrated that philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ view of human nature was accurate? The view that when left to our own devices, people are horrid, and the natural state of man would lead to a life that seems “nasty, brutish and short”.

All of us, and children especially so, will mainly focus on ourselves and happily pursue our own appetites and desires (even at the expense of others). Hobbes’ answer, was in fact to build an almighty authority, capable of crushing anyone who disagrees with it – his eponymous Leviathan, an absolute sovereign to rule over the masses.

It is on this basis that some call for a return to the absolute authority of the teacher in the classroom, ordained with enough power to quash any chance of the lesson descending into an egocentric frenzy of all against all.

Shock tactics

But, maybe you disagree with Hobbes’ diagnosis of human nature. Surely, deep down, we are all good and sociable and loving, especially children. If you nail your flag to this mast, I’d encourage you to test out your theory. Inform your class that you’re abandoning any rules and consequences. See how that works out for you…

Over the last five or six decades social psychologists have undertaken a number of experiments (of questionable ethical standing) that seem to demonstrate that all of us fall short of the sort of moral character that we believe we possess.

Among the most famous are Stanley Milgram’s ‘obedience to authority’ experiments undertaken in the 1960s. Participants of these studies were invited to ‘teach’ a ‘learner’ some word pairs, and were instructed to administer an electric shock to the learner whenever an incorrect answer was given. What the participants did not know is that the learner was actually an actor, and the shock machine was a fake. But this didn’t stop a whopping 65 per cent delivering what they believed to be a (lethal) 450-volt shock to the learner when told to do so by the scientist in a white coat.

Over the last few years, there has been lots of talk within education about teaching moral character. We know from the work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and his contemporaries that children go through several stages of moral development, with the most primitive stage being simple obedience to authority. It was shocking (pun intended) then, that intelligent adults seemed unable to escape this stage, even with a more mature understanding of right and wrong. Moral action, or character, it seems, is not linked to moral reasoning. Instead, it is the situations that we find ourselves in that define how we act.

The rights of man

So what does all of this mean to how we run our classrooms? The answer may lie with Professor Zimbardo, who has continued to work on this problem since his infamous prison experiment. In his Heroic Imagination Project, Zimbardo is suggesting teachers change the environments and structures within schools to encourage more ‘moral heroes’.

Part of the project involves teaching children about ‘situational awareness’, helping them to acknowledge the existence of phenomena like the bystander effect, in which people are less likely to help someone in need if there are others around who could also help.

Zimbardo argues that children should think of themselves as heroes in training, waiting for the opportunity to take a morally courageous action. Wherever you stand on classroom authority, however you manage behaviour and discuss moral actions (no matter how trivial), this will undoubtedly be having an impact on how your children react when faced with real moral dilemmas in their day-to-day life. So ask yourself the question, are the children in your class more likely to flick the switch to 450 volts, or defy Milgram by turning off the machine and leaving the room?

Human nature

The Heroic Imagination Project outlines six core behaviours that we should be aware of in order to rise above them and do the right thing…

The bystander effect

Help your class overcome the social forces that can prevent them from taking action in unclear or emergency situations, and to gain the skills to respond wisely and effectively.

Adaptive attributions

Consider the effects of ‘stereotype threat’ (conforming to negative stereotypes about your own group) and unhealthy attributions (how you explain the causes of behaviour or events) on children’s learning and performance.

Situational awareness

Explain how group influence and situations affect decision-making, and offer strategies to address social situations mindfully.


Help your audience shift from a fixed mindset towards a growth mindset.

Prejudice and group perception

Raise awareness of the tendency to make assumptions about other people and groups, and also to gain resilience when they experience prejudice from others.

Social conformity

Increase pupils’ awareness of automatic tendencies to conform in social situations, and replace those tendencies with more healthy behaviours.

About the author

Jon Brunskill is the Head of Year 2 at Reach Academy Feltham. You can follow him on Twitter, if you like: @jon_brunskill

Pie Corbett