Early Childhood Education

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1927-1987)


Lawrence Kohlberg founded the cognitive developmental position on moral development and moral education. Born in Westchester County, New York, he was the son of a wealthy businessman and the youngest of four children. Brilliant even as a child, he decided not to go to the university and instead went off to wander the country, living without money and learning firsthand about the tougher side of life. He then joined up with the Merchant Marines as World War II was drawing to a close and signed on to a ship that was smuggling Jewish refugees out of war-torn Europe through the British blockade into Palestine. Moved by his experiences, he attended the University of Chicago, where he earned his B.A. in one year and received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1958.

The war had presented issues of moral duty and social justice. After studying moral philosophy and psychology, he conducted highly original research in which he posed moral dilemmas to ninety-eight boys aged 10-16 and developed a system of coding to analyze the logical structure of their qualitative arguments. His theory challenged the dominant socialization model of moral development based on social-learning theory and posited a structural model that was a major extension and elaboration of Piaget’s writings about children’s conceptions of rules, games, and fair punishment.

Kohlberg set forth six stages of moral judgment stretching from early childhood to adulthood, and he presented empirical and theoretical arguments for their invariance and universality across history and cultures. Recognized immediately as a major theorist and researcher, Kohlberg went on to brief stays at Yale and the Center for Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University before he was appointed Professor of Psychology and Education at Harvard University in 1968. He set forth the major outlines of his theory in Stage and Sequence: The Cognitive Developmental Approach to Socialization (1968), and many other publications. In Development as the Aim of Education (1971), he and Rochelle Mayer stated that education should be democratic and nonindoctrinative and should stimulate children’s thinking in a direction of development, which is universal for all children.

Kohlberg taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for almost twenty years, where he established an influential circle of students and colleagues, many of whom contributed to the expanding research base on the theory and applications. Much of Kohlberg’s energy in later years was devoted to envisioning a just community approach to education, implemented in school and prison settings. These democratic communities had the goals of fostering moral reasoning and empathy development, creating a moral atmosphere of mutual respect and caring, and being models for institutional change. In 1973, Kohlberg’s health was badly damaged by a chronic parasitic infection he caught on a research trip to Guyana, and he was eventually overwhelmed by physical pain and mental suffering and he died at age 59. Kohlberg was recognized for his lifetime contributions by the Society for Research in Child Development. He left two sons by his former wife.

Further Readings: Fowler, J. W., J. Snarey, and K. DeNicola (1988). Remembrances of Lawrence Kohlberg. Atlanta, Georgia: Center for Research in Faith and Moral Development; Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development, volume 2. The psychology of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers; Kohlberg, L. (1987). Child psychology and childhood education: A cognitive-developmental view. New York: Longman Publishers; Power, F. C., A. Higgins, and L. Kohlberg (1989). Lawrence Kohlberg’s approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press; Schrader, D., ed. (1990). The legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. New Directions for Child Development, No. 47. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Carolyn Pope Edwards and Alison Rogers