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Larry Nucci and Elsa K. Weber

The Domain Approach to Values Education: Examples of Classroom Practice

One of the most significant advances made during the past 15 years of research and theory on social development has been the discovery that children's conceptions of morality and social convention are not aspects of single developmental system of morality, but constitute distinct conceptual and developmental domains. More recently we have begun to make progress in applying these findings from developmental psychology to what we call "domain appropriate" values education. What follows are examples of ways in which American History curricula and English writing classes can be used to foster development of students' moral and conventional concepts. These practices also increase students' ability to coordinate moral concerns of fairness and human welfare with the needs of social systems for conventions which structure social organization. The specific practices that are outlined are ones that have been successfully used with adolescent students in grades eight, and nine (freshman year of high school).


The domain approach to values education emerges from the discovery that children's social concepts do not form a single conceptual system, but are structured within discrete areas of social knowledge that account for qualitatively differing aspects of societal and interpersonal regulation. Within this framework, morality pertains to the set of interpersonal actions such as hitting and hurting that have nonarbitrary consequences for the rights or welfare of persons. Moral issues, then, are treated as categorical, and universalizable; specific moral concepts (i.e., it is wrong to hit and hurt another) are structured by underlying conceptions of justice, rights, and welfare (beneficence). Whereas morality deals with issues inherent in interpersonal relations, social conventions such as modes of dress, forms of address, sex roles, manners, and aspects of mores regarding sexuality are the arbitrary and agreed-upon uniformities in social behavior determined by the social system in which they are formed. Thus, conventions are seen as alterable, and context dependent. Through accepted usage, however, these standards serve to coordinate the interactions of individuals within systems by providing them with a set of expectations regarding appropriate behavior. In turn, the matrix of social conventions and customs serves as one element in the structuring and maintenance of the general social order. Judgments about social convention are structured by underlying conceptions of social organization.

Over 30 published studies have reported results consistent with the claim that morality and convention constitute distinct domains. In brief three forms of evidence are offered in support of the moral - conventional distinction. First, interview studies with children as young as 2 1/2 years-of-age have reported that subjects distinguish between matters of morality and social convention. In these studies it has been found that subjects view moral transgressions (e.g., hitting and hurting, stealing personal property, slander) as wrong irrespective of the presence of governing rules, while conventional acts (addressing teachers by first names, women wearing pants, premarital sex between adults) are viewed as wrong only if they are in violation of an existing standard. Interview studies have also found that individuals view conventional standards as alterable, while moral prescriptions are viewed as universal and unchangeable.

The second form of evidence comes from observational studies of children's and adolescents' social interactions in family, school, and playground contexts. These studies have reported that the forms of social interactions in the context of moral events differ qualitatively from interactions in the context of conventions. It was found that children's and adults' responses to events in the moral domain focus on features intrinsic to the acts (e.g., the harm or justice created), while responses in the context of conventions focus on aspects of social order. The general pattern of results reported in the interview and observational studies have been replicated with subjects in other cultures (Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Nigeria, US. Virgin Islands, Zambia) indicating that the distinction between morality and convention is not confined to subjects reared in Western societies.

The third piece of evidence comes from developmental studies examining age-related changes in children's moral and conventional judgments. These studies have reported that concepts in the moral and conventional domains follow distinct developmental patterns. The sequence of changes observed in the moral domain indicates that as children develop, they form increased understandings of benevolence, equality, and reciprocity. In the conventional domain development entails transformation in the child's underlying conceptions of social organization and moves toward an understanding of convention as constitutive of social systems and as important for the coordination of social interactions.

Morality and Convention in Interaction Often social situations will contain elements from both domains. For example, conventions sometimes result in injustices, as in the case of sex conventions that discriminate against women. In other cases, conventions, such as waiting in line to purchase theater tickets, act in the service of fairness. When people reason about such issues they tend to do one of three things:

  1. emphasize on one domain and subordinate the other

    For example, people worried about, or committed to maintaining the existing social order may not even recognize the potential injustice in existing sex role conventions that give greater privileges to men than women. Others, on the other hand, focusing on such injustices may not take into account the impact on social organization in such contexts as family structure, that might result from a single-minded focus on rights and equality.

  2. experience conflict between the two, and engage in inconsistencies and vacillation with an absence of resolution or reconciliation of the components

  3. coordination of the two components, so that the two are taken into account in consideration of the issue.

    For example, concerns for fairness and equality are coupled with changes in the conventions regarding household tasks, child care, etc., that allow for family life to go forward in an organized and functional way.

This view of social reasoning is consistent with a reinterpretation of earlier, global theories of social development, such as Kohlberg's stages of moral development, as an approximation of the age-related changes in domain coordinations. From the distinct domains perspective, however, one would not interpret such interdomain coordinations as representing a stable context-independent cognitive structure. From this perspective one would predict a great deal more intraindividual, and cross-cultural variation in social reasoning than is permitted by Kohlbergian stages of moral judgment, since morality is but one element to be interrelated in the process of generating actions in multifaceted social contexts.


  1. One educational implication of these psychological findings is that values instruction be coordinated with domain of the issues addressed in a given lesson. The first step in such an approach, would entail the teacher's analysis and identification of the moral or conventional nature of social issues employed in values lessons. Such an analysis would be necessary to ensure that the issues discussed are concordant with the domain of the values dimension they are intended to affect. A related function of the teacher would be to focus student activity (verbal or written) on the underlying features concordant with the domain of the issue. Thus, students dealing with a moral issue would be directed to focus on the underlying justice or human welfare considerations of the episode. With respect to conventions, the focus of the student activity would be on the role of social expectations and the social organizational function of such social norms. As we noted earlier, not all issues of social right and wrong fall simply into one domain or the other. Cases of domain overlap would involve both the domain concordant practices just outlined as well as activities that would involve students in reasoning that necessitates the coordination of knowledge from more than one social dimension.

  2. The second general principle is that the activities and questions posed to students be appropriate for their developmental level. Students in the 8th grade and 9th grades are approximately 13 to 15 years-old. In terms of their conceptions of convention, the majority of such young adolescents are either at Level 4 negation, in which conventions are viewed as the arbitrary and unimportant dictates of authority, or are in the process of shifting toward Level 5 affirmation, in which conventions are understood to be constitutive of social systems. At Level 4, students' lack of understanding of the role conventions play in organizing and structuring social systems, coupled with their knowledge that the specific conventions of society are arbitrary leads them to either downplay or discount the importance of convention, "What's the difference if I eat my peas with a fork or a butter knife?", or conform to convention out of fear of peer or adult sanctions, "Sure, I refer to my teachers by Mr. and Mrs. instead of first names. I have enough trouble being in school; who needs more?" Sometimes, as in the case of teacher names, Level 4 adolescents will go along with conventions in order not to cause moral harm in the form of perceived hurt feelings or disrespect that may come from violating someone else's strongly held convention. These Level 4 adolescents, however, do not understand why anyone's feelings should be hurt, and simply conform in order not to be gratuitously hurtful.

    It is at Level 5 that the person's conceptions of convention can first be described as reflecting an understanding of society as a system. For the first time, students clearly perceive that while individual conventions are arbitrary, they form the set of norms that structures society in particular ways. People who are members of a society are obligated (as a general rule) to adhere to conventions in order for society to function. History teachers, particularly those given the responsibility to teach the US Constitution, or World History are probably familiar with the kinds of difficulties that arise when students are not at a point where they have achieved this Level 5 understanding of social systems and their relations to conventions and customs. Many school districts respond to this developmental transition by delaying the teaching of World history until the sophomore year of high school when most students are 15 to 16 years of age and generally at Level 5 in their conventional understandings. In doing so, schools wait for development, rather than contributing to it. The materials and practices described below are based on a different premise, namely that the transition point from Level 4 and 5 presents a great opportunity to link the teaching of particular school subject matter with the dynamics of development. Done well, such a link carries with it payoffs in the form of student motivation, and interest in the subject matter as well as increased sophistication in their understanding of the academic content.

    In the moral domain adolescents are generally beyond childhood conceptions of fairness as "raw justice", and are beginning to apply their moral understandings to issues that require an integration of concerns for equal treatment with concerns for equity. Fairness is understood as requiring more than a simple tit-for-tat approach to social interactions. At this age, adolescents are also beginning to couple their moral understandings with a broadening sense of their moral community. By engaging students at this age in coordinating their concerns for morality with their emerging conceptions of society, teachers can begin to contribute to the ability of students to take a moral perspective in relation to society as a whole.


The following examples are taken from lessons that were used with students in American History and English writing classes. The questions that are provided here were used to structure in-class discussions and students' homework assignments. Some teachers have used these materials to do both. In the latter case students were first placed in small groups of 5 and asked to discuss the questions among themselves in class. Students were then given the same questions to take home and answer in written form as homework to be graded the next day by the teacher.

Examples of Conventional Issues

We will begin first with issues that primarily involved matters of social convention. Conventional issues addressed in the English course essays included such things as contemporary dating patterns, modes of dress, and table manners. Among the conventional issues drawn from American history were such things as adjustments in modes of dress, work conventions (such as time schedules), and dating patterns that resulted in part from the influx of immigrants and the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. Students' conceptions of convention in relation to societal organization were also stimulated through discussion of such events as the Marbury versus Madison Supreme Court decision which dealt with governmental separation of power, and which helped to establish the American legal norm of judicial precedent.

The following example illustrates how conventional issues may be presented to students. It is taken from a history discussion involving conventions of forms of address. The targeted incident occurred in the period just after the American Revolution and revolved around the early negotiations regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations between the newly formed United States, and their former colonial master, England. The following summary paragraph, based on the course text was presented to the students to begin the discussion.

Issue: Forms of Address

"After the revolutionary war between England and the American colonies, the United States was formed and George Washington was elected first President of the United States. Many problems with England continued, however, because the English government did not recognize the United States as a country. There was no way to exchange ambassadors, have trade agreements, or settle war debts. The King of England wrote a letter to George Washington to start negotiations. He addressed the letter to Mr. George Washington. When Washington received the letter from the King of England, he saw that it was addressed to Mr. George Washington instead of President George Washington. So, Washington returned the letter without reading it."

Once the teacher presents the issue and establishes that students understand the main points of the events, she may begin the discussion. Given the essentially conventional nature of this issue, questions focusing on the justice or harm elements of the event would be domain inappropriate. Questions such as, "Was it fair for the King of England to have sent a letter to Washington without addressing to 'President Washington'?" "In what sense were the King's actions inconsiderate?" would be ones that students could be forced to consider, but they don't do much if anything to help students to deal with the central issues involved. In fact, pushing students to view this issue in moral terms feeds into their tendency to miss the point with regard to convention, and sustains their related tendency to personalize, rather than comprehend the general social function of conventions.

An domain appropriate use of this issue would engage students in consideration of the social organizational issues being raised in this interaction which centers on conventional forms of address. The focus of the following teacher questions is on getting the students to consider how Washington's behavior might have been influence by his understanding that being addressed as President reflected his status as leader of a country, and by implication, that a person addressing him as President tacitly acknowledged the government of the United States.

Questions for Discussion or Written Assignments

  1. Was Washington right or wrong to return the letter to the King of England because it was addressed to Mr. Washington instead of President Washington? Why? 

  2. Why do you think Washington returned the letter? 

  3. In the story we learn that the letter was related to negotiations regarding having England recognize the United States as a country. In what sense might the way that the letter is addressed have something to do with having England recognize the United States?

    1. How might this have been a factor in Washington's decision to return the letter because of the way it was addressed?

  4. What is the significance of titles like President and King for the way a society is structured? 

  5. Could we have a society that didn't use different titles for people who are in different positions like doctors or presidents?

    1. How might that change society?

  6. How about at school, why do we use titles here for teachers (Mr. and Mrs.), but not for students?

    1. What do those title tell us about the way our society here at school is structured?

  7. Suppose we did away with using titles like Mr. and Mrs. for teachers. What do you think of that?

Examples of Moral Issues

Moral issues which can be drawn from American history are those which bring to focus facets of fairness such as distributive and retributive justice, and issues of individual and social welfare. These elements of moral understanding may be evoked through discussion of such things as the moral courses of action available to a nation attempting to respond to the impressment of its own citizens by another country, as in the Chesapeake incident of the early 1800s in which United States sailors were captured and forced to man British ships. This incident may be compared to contemporary hostage taking situations in the Middle-East. The forced removal of Indians from their lands as illustrated during the period of the Jackson presidency, and a number of incidents related to the Civil war, such as the raids of John Brown, and Sherman's march through Georgia, may also be included as stimuli for moral discussion. Finally, history can provide the context for discussion of moral issues of deception and interpersonal exploitation through such things as the Whiskey Ring scandal during Grant's presidency, and the behavior of the "robber barons" during the period of industrial expansion.

These "distant" moral issues may be reiterated through essays in either American history or English writing courses which put them into everyday contexts.

Issue: The Hamburger Shop

The following is a fictional scenario which has been used by eighth grade English teachers to stimulate moral reflection.

"Mike works at a local fast food hamburger restaurant. One day some of his friends come in for lunch. One of them, Joe, finds that he doesn't have enough money. So, Joe asks Mike to just give him a cheeseburger and a coke. Mike would like to help Joe - especially since Joe is a friend and has done Mike a lot of favors in the past. Besides, Mike knows he won't get in trouble. The manager isn't around, and no one will know that he gave out one hamburger and a coke. On the other hand, it would be stealing to give Joe the hamburger and the coke. Mike isn't sure what to do."

Instructions to Students for Written Work and Subsequent Discussion

"Write a 200 word essay explaining what you think Mike should do and why. In structuring your essay address the following questions.

  1. The way Joe figures it, he is just asking for help from a friend. What do you think of this way of looking for things? Why? 

  2. Joe has done a lot of favors for Mike in the past. Would it be fair for Mike not to return a favor in this situation? 

  3. This could be considered stealing, but the hamburger shop sells thousands of hamburgers each day. If so, little harm is being caused to the hamburger shop in order to provide a friend lunch. Isn't that fair?

HINT: The key to resolving this issue is to imagine yourself as one of the characters in the story. You don't know in advance whether you will be Mike, Joe, or the owner of the hamburger shop. The answer to the questions asked should be ones that would have to be seen as most fair to all parties concerned.

Examples of Domain Overlap

These issues pit conventional concerns for social organization and coordination against moral concerns of justice and human welfare. Issues of overlap which may be employed in American history are such things as changes in suffrage laws which over the course of American history have extended the vote to women, African-Americans, and persons who do not own property. Other issues of overlap may be drawn from the existence of slavery in the ante-bellum south, and contemporary debate over sex role conventions as they relate to family structure and opportunities for women. In English composition classes students may be asked to write essays on such issues as an event reported in the local newspapers in which a high school principal had censored an article in the student newspaper concerning the impact of divorce on children. That particularly rich incident brings the conventions regulating the roles and relative status of adults and children into play with issues of freedom of expression and responsible journalism. The following example taken from American history course materials illustrates the way in which mixed domain issues may be presented to students.

Issue: Segregation

"By the 1870s public schools were established in the Southern states. At first the schools were open to all children black and white. However, few white parents permitted their children to attend schools with the children of former slaves. As a result, public schools in the South were segregated by race, with children attending different schools from blacks."

Instructions for Written Work and Subsequent Discussion

A domain-appropriate treatment of this issue would direct students to consider the moral issues involved, as well as the implications for the overall conventional structure of society. A good way to start is to have students first dealt separately with the conventional and moral aspects of the episode, and then ask them to take both into account in their resolution of issues. The following set of questions may be used to guide discussion of the segregation issue in a domain-appropriate fashion.

(Questions with a Conventional Focus)

  1. In what way did establishing segregation serve to maintain features of Southern society that existed prior to the Civil War? 

  2. How do the norms that establish who we interact with affect our lives? How do they affect the way society is structured? 

  3. How would integrated public schools have altered the structure of Southern society in the 1870s? 

  4. How do current racially based norms of interaction affect the structure of society in our community? 

  5. There are many conventions that distinguish among classes of people in a society. For example, adults have privileges that adolescents don't, men and women use different public restrooms, teaches eat in the teachers' lounge while students eat in the cafeteria, and so forth. How do these norms help to structure a society? 

  6. How are the norms we just talked about like segregation? How are they different?

(Questions with a Moral Focus)

  1. What's wrong with segregation anyway? Is it unfair? Is anyone hurt by it? 

  2. Is it fair to say that public schools must be open to people of all races? 

  3. Some people in the 1870s argued that this would be unfair to the white Southerners who did not wish to interact with their former slaves. Did the Southerners have a right to keep their children from having to interact with blacks in the public schools? 

  4. Suppose that a majority of people in a community do not wish to permit Asians to attend their public schools. If there are only one or two Asian children, shouldn't the majority rule? Would it be fair for the concerns of the majority to be outweighed by the needs of one or two people? 

  5. In what circumstances should the rights of a small minority out-weigh the wishes of a majority?

(Questions with an Integrated Focus)

  1. The issue of segregation in the United States has many parallels to contemporary events in South Africa. There the laws and norms established separate ways of life for blacks and whites. In both cases, considerations for maintaining the social system (segregation in the US.; apartheid in South Africa) were, or are in conflict with consideration of human rights and justice. What is the best way to resolve these conflicts between the need for social structure and law on the one hand, and justice on the other? Can they be reconciled?

This last question reflected the particular context in which these materials were developed and used in actual history classes. As can be seen, they brought to the students' attention the overall social implications of changing conventions, even unjust ones. Can you (reader) think of another way to structure the issue for students so that they are stimulated to bring the moral and conventional aspects of racial separation into focus? Might current situation and events in central Europe be appropriate?


Younger and less developed students will provide answers to the questions posed in the above examples that will be different from more developed students. In structuring class discussions it is helpful to have students at different developmental levels distributed across groups. This allows less developed students to hear responses from other peers that might stimulate them to think differently about such issues. Normal variation in student levels within typical classrooms provides sufficient disparity among students to result in effective discussions. By employing this indirect approach to teaching, the instructor avoids "teaching as telling" and engages students in the active construction of their own understandings of such issues. This promotes two educational aims: the effective learning of academic content, and the development of students social and moral reasoning.


If you are interested in research findings regarding applications of the domain appropriate procedures presented here, or if you have questions or comments to offer contact:

Larry Nucci (



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