In order to be effective, educative activities should be structured around a significant theoretical background. Our theory of education with regard to virtue ethics is funded on the following theses:
- according to the ethics of care, acting “good” means caring for others;
- in order to care for others, it is necessary to learn how to practice virtues.
On the basis of these premises, we present an educative project for children in primary school. The title of the project is “Melarete”: this word was born from a marriage of the Greek terms “meléte”, which means “care”, and “areté”, which means “virtue”. The educative activities in this project are structured in light of the following educative principles, which come from ancient philosophy:
- according to the Aristotelian perspective, in order to learn virtues it is important to practice them;
- according to the Socratic paideia, to learn means to acquire a clear concept of things, which occurs through maieutical discussion.
In accordance with these principles, we propose the following main activities: “basket of virtues”, “journal of virtues”, storytelling, and vignettes about ethical problems.
“MELARETE”: AN EDUCATIVE RESEARCH PROJECT
Our research is based on the epistemological paradigm of “naturalistic inquiry”. According to this framework, the phenomenon under study should be explored in the context in which it appears. The context of our research is the school, where children are used to being involved in experiences aimed at facilitating their personal flourishing.
Our research can be described as:
- “educative research”, because it involves participants in authentic educative experiences and considers these educative experiences as the object of the study;
- “children-centred research”, because it focuses on the experiences of children and on the meaning processes elaborated by them;
- “transformative research”, because it aims at providing an intervention in the current educative context in order to improve its quality;
- “research for children”, because its primary goal is to offer good and meaningful experiences to the children involved, in order to facilitate their process of growth.
The questions at the basis of our research are of two kinds:
- “explorative questions”, i.e. questions guided by the aim of discovering children’s original thinking about virtues;
- “verifying questions”, i.e. questions that aim to determine whether the educative experiences provided to children by the project have been effective and, if yes, what educative effects have been produced.
INSTRUMENTS AND ACTIVITIES
Instruments used in educative research should be effective with respect to both the heuristic and the educative aims of the project. According to the “research for children” approach, a significant activity provides the researchers not only with the possibility of collecting valid data, but also the opportunity to involve children in positive experiences.
When research is designed in the light of naturalistic epistemology, it is important to use instruments similar to those used in the context that hosts the research. Specifically, when the research context is a school, it is significant to consider the use of instruments that are in some aspects similar to those used in the everyday classroom experience.
Following are the main activities proposed within the project “Melarete”.
1. The “basket of virtues”
The “basket of virtues” is a game that functions as a stimulus for dialogue with children about the general meaning of the term “virtue”, as well as the specific meanings of particular virtues such as “courage”, “generosity”, and “respect”. This activity can be used at the beginning of the educative experience in order to explore the original thoughts of the participants about the research object.
In this activity, the researchers prepare three baskets and 30 pieces of cardboard upon which are written the name of different “things”: specifically, there are 10 pieces of cardboard with the names of professions, 10 with the names of games, and 10 with the names of virtues. In class, the pieces of cardboard are distributed to the children so that every child has at least one. At this stage, the categories for the different “things” written on the pieces of cardboard are not revealed. Children are informed that the aim of the game is to give a name to the three baskets.
Every child is invited to read aloud his/her piece of cardboard and to put it in the basket that he/she thinks is best suited to contain it. Since the principle of order becomes clear over the course of the game, every child has the option to move the pieces of cardboard from one basket to another. When every piece of cardboard has been put in the baskets, children are invited to give a name to every basket.
The heuristic aim is to understand if children know the word “virtue”. If this word emerges from the children, they are required to give a definition of it. If this word doesn’t emerge from the children, it is instead introduced by the researchers; in this case, children are invited to examine the specific virtues written on the pieces of cardboard, choose the one that is most familiar to them and give a definition of it.
2. The “journal of virtues”
The “journal of virtues” is a reflective diary in which the children write down, once a week, one virtuous action they have performed in their everyday life. At the beginning of every child’s diary is drawn a tree; each time the child does a virtuous action, he/she is invited to attach a leaf to the tree. The leaves are made of paper, prepared by the researchers and given to the children along with the diary. Each virtue is associated with a specific color, and the child paints the leaf before attaching it to the tree drawn in his/her diary.
The educative reasoning for this activity is to offer children a space for personal reflection; in this way they learn to analyze their own experiences in order to uncover the ethical quality of their actions.
The instrument of the diary allows researchers to explore the ethical world of the child, who makes his/her experience clear to him/herself and others by narrating it in written form. In particular, the heuristic aim of this activity is to understand which actions children identify as virtuous, what meaning children attribute to these actions and whether the type of narrated experience changes over time.
A story based on a specific virtue (for example, courage or generosity) becomes the starting point to fostering children’s reflection by asking the following questions:
- What is the virtuous action of the protagonist?
- In your opinion, what thought guided the protagonist?
- What effects did the protagonist’s action produce?
- What did the protagonist feel inside him/herself after having acted?
The educative reasoning for this activity is to involve children in a reflection on the specific virtue demonstrated in the story read in class. The heuristic aim is to learn the thoughts of the children regarding the virtue acted out by the protagonist.
The story is read aloud in class by a researcher, and the children are then invited to answer the above questions in written form. The narratives are invented by the researchers. The protagonists are animals, characterized in an anthropomorphic way, who live in the “Wood of Virtues” and become involved in situations which have ethical relevance. In the invention of the story it is important to give particular attention to the construction of dialogues between the animals, in order to show the co-constructed nature of ethical thinking.
The utility of the story as an educative instrument is connected to the fact that stories can present virtues, not abstractly but in the form of a lived situation, where protagonists with specific thoughts and emotions act virtuously using their concrete experience. Furthermore, the use of narrative provides opportunity for the positive involvement of children, who enjoy listening to stories.
4. Vignette about an ethical problem
The educative reason for this activity is to offer to children the opportunity to reflect on a specific virtue stemming from a problematic ethical situation. The heuristic aim of a vignette activity is to discover:
- the reasoning that children develop to identify and define virtuous situations;
- the ideas about specific virtues that exist in the children’s thinking.
It is important that the problematic situation represented in the vignette is close to the children’s everyday life, so that the children’s reasoning can develop out of concrete experience and not the abstract. It is also important to highlight that at the beginning of the activity, children are required to describe the different situations. Description is a cognitive act that allows thoughts to remain rooted to reality; thus, description is considered as the basis of understanding and deliberation.
The significance of using the instrument of a vignette is that children are required to explain their ethical evaluations through this activity. During the final conversation, the researcher encourages the children to share and explain their choices; in this way, the different choices are compared and discussed following the children’s comments.
For children, the intersubjective sharing of ideas is a way to delve deeper into the concept of a specific virtue in order to discover different possible interpretations of it. This conversation is a situation in which the criteria that motivate children’s choices can become evident. The role of the researcher is to facilitate the flourishing of children’s ethical thinking.
In recent years, the project “Melarete” has been concluded in several classes at primary schools situated in the North of Italy, while in other Italian schools is still ongoing. In these educative experiences, children are involved in the activities explained above. The analysis of the collected data is still in progress, but the data already analyzed, through a qualitative and inductive method, confirmed the educative effectiveness of the project in stimulating children’s ethical thinking.
As noted above, a specific quality of the activities provided by “Melarete” is that they have both an educative and heuristic value, in accordance with the educative research approach. This characteristic of the current project allows the researchers not only to collect significant data about the ethical thinking of children, but also to involve them in experiences that can foster their ethical growth. For this second value, “Melarete” can become a useful reference for teachers who want to promote ethical education in their classrooms.
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