Primary kids would be kinder, and bullying could reduce if schools taught critical thinking: research

Children could become kinder and more inclusive towards their peers and even bullying could reduce if schools take on the findings from new research.

Associate Professor Laura Scholes from Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Learning Sciences and Teacher Education in Brisbane was lead researcher on the study, which looked at children’s moral reasoning in an ethnically diverse Australian school.

“As Australian schools become more ethnically and culturally diverse, there are challenges for school leaders in developing children’s capabilities within inclusive school environments,” Associate Professor Scholes said.

“We know little about how children in diverse educational settings think and how they use their school’s values for inclusion. Our study addresses this gap by examining primary school children’s reasoning about the social inclusion of peers with a focus on how they justify including and/or excluding aggressive peers.”

The researchers interviewed 26 children (10–11 years old) who were asked to draw about and reflect upon a situation where an aggressive child was excluded from play.

“For example, if a new child arrives at the school and wants to play at lunch time but appears to demonstrate aggressive behaviours, rather than simply excluding the new child from play, children may interpret and respond based on evaluating a range of factors including, emotions, relationships, and values,” Associate Professor Scholes explained.

“It would include weighing up the potential amount of harm, the school rules, the setting where it occurs, empathy based on the child’s plight, or the possibility the child could be helped and welcomed into the peer group.”

The findings showed most children’s reasoning was based on a simplistic ‘one right answer’ pattern about exclusion which reflected a focus on following the school rules.

Few children moved ‘beyond right answers’ to weigh up multiple perspectives in their reasoning about inclusion/exclusion of peers.

The researcher said reasoning and making decisions based on moral values was complicated even for adults.

“There is a need to evaluate a range of factors (emotions, empathy, possible consequences of the situation) and think about values such as rights and fairness and social conventions,” she said. 

“The common values included in Australia’s national framework for Australian schooling, include care and compassion; doing your best; a fair go; freedom; honesty and trustworthiness; integrity; respect; responsibility; and understanding, tolerance and inclusion.”

“For our society to live up to these values and become more inclusive, complicated moral values need to be fostered.”

Most of the children were inclined to follow school rules around inclusion and exclusion of their peers, rather than evaluating multiple perspectives about the issue. But the downside of strictly following school rules is that nuance and multiple perspectives are missed.

“It may well be it will take until early adolescence for these children to take on a more evaluative approach to moral transgressions by their peers,” Associate Professor Scholes said. 

“But these finding suggests schools need to support children to transition towards an ‘evaluative moral reasoning’ approach.”

The research argues that values education in schools would benefit from strategically developing children’s awareness of others’ beliefs and the skills to weigh up multiple perspectives – also known as ‘evaluative epistemic cognition’.

This would mean teachers supporting their students to understand that ideas can be evaluated from a range of different viewpoints.

Associate Professor Scholes added that teachers could support children to learn critical thinking skills and how to evaluate multiple perspectives to support reasoning. 

“These strategies can be applied across the curriculum and include things like listening to other perspectives, finding out what evidence supports conflicting points of view, and then using reasoning to make personal decisions,” she said.

“Climate change is a topic that lends itself to such approaches as children can consider different perspectives on the issues, look at the evidence behind different standpoints, evaluate the evidence, and then make an informed decision related to their personal stance.”

“This kind of reasoning can then be applied to moral issues in schools, such as inclusion.”

Children’s epistemic reasoning about social inclusion of aggressive peers in a culturally diverse school, was published in the British Educational Research Journal.

The research was led by ACU in coordination with Queensland University of Technology and the Brisbane Catholic Education Office.

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