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What is Domain Based Moral Education

Domain theory maintains that our understandings and judgments about social interactions are constructed within discrete conceptual and developmental frameworks, or domains of social cognition.  The history and basic tenets of domain theory are presented in our Moral Development and Education Overview (Click Here for Overview)  section of the website.  Within domain theory a distinction is drawn among concepts of morality (issues of harm/welfare, fairness and rights), social convention (norms and social rules particular to a social system or group),  and the personal (issues of privacy and prerogative that primarily impact the individual).   Domain theory also provides an account of how individuals reason about and engage in social actions in the context of complex situations that involve the coordination of understandings from more than one social cognitive domain.  


The implications of domain theory for values education are several. First, the identification of a domain of moral cognition that is tied to the inherent features of human social interaction means that moral education may be grounded in universal concerns for fairness and human welfare, and is not limited to the particular conventions or norms of a given community or school district. By focusing on those universal features of human moral understanding, public schools may engage in fostering children's morality without being accused of promoting a particular religion, and without undercutting the basic moral core of all major religious systems.


Second, educational research from within domain theory has resulted in a set of recommendations for what is termed "domain appropriate" values education. This approach entails the teacher's analysis and identification of the moral or conventional nature of social values issues to be employed in values lessons. Such an analysis contributes to the likelihood that the issues discussed are concordant with the domain of the values dimension they are intended to affect. A discussion of dress codes, for example, would constitute a poor basis for moral discussion, since mode of dress is primarily a matter of convention. Likewise, consideration of whether it is right to steal to help a person in need, would be a poor issue with which to generate a lesson intended to foster students' understandings of social conventions. 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 student activity would be on the role of social expectations and the social organizational functions of such social norms.


On the basis of this kind of analysis teachers are also better enabled to lead students through consideration of more complex issues that contain elements from more than one domain. By being aware of the developmental changes that occur in students' comprehension of the role of social convention, and related changes in students understanding of what it means to be fair or considerate of the welfare of others, teachers are able to frame consideration of complex social issues in ways that will maximize the ability of students to comprehend and act upon the moral and social meaning of particular courses of action.


The best sources for discussion of domain appropriate education, along with guidelines and examples for how teachers may select materials from existing school curricula from which to generate lessons and practices which will foster students' development within the moral, conventional and personal domains may be found in: Nucci, L. (2008) "Nice is not enough: 


Facilitating moral development. New York: Pearson.



Examples of such materials and practices are provided in the Classroom Practices segment of this web site.


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