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Conservation and Moral Development:. Are they related? . Jean Piaget Developmental Psychologist. August 9, 1896 – September 16, 1980 Age 10 : published article on albino sparrow Age 21: PhD in natural sciences 1929-1939 : Research resulted in Stage Theory of cognitive development .

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jean piaget developmental psychologist
Jean PiagetDevelopmental Psychologist
  • August 9, 1896 – September 16, 1980
  • Age 10 : published article on albino sparrow
  • Age 21: PhD in natural sciences
  • 1929-1939: Research resulted in Stage Theory of cognitive development
cognitive development theory
Cognitive Development Theory:


Birth- 2 years


Ages 2-7


Ages 7-11


Formal Operational

Ages 11 +

pre operational stage the age of curiosity
Pre-Operational StageThe Age of Curiosity


  • Ages 2-7
  • Increase in representational or symbolic activity
  • Physical actions become internalized mental representations

Egocentrism: the inability to distinguish the symbolic viewpoints of others from one’s own.

Centration: the tendency to focus on one aspect of a situation to the neglect of other important features.

States rather than Transformations: the final stages in a tendency to treat the initial and

problem as completely unrelated.

Irreversibility: the inability to mentally reverse a series of steps.


Children should not be able to conserve liquids at this stage according to Piaget.

concrete operational stage
Concrete Operational Stage
  • Ages 7-11
  • Thought more closely resembles that of adults
  • Concrete operational reasoning is more logical, flexible, and organized
  • Children able to pass conservation tasks: Through reversal and focusing on multiple aspects of problem

Limitations: Children think in an organized, logical fashion only when dealing with concrete information they can directly perceive.


our study
Our study:

For our study, we worked with 12 students, ages 4-7 at a Montessori school in Arkansas. We hypothesized that these students, being particularly bright, would be able to “conserve” at an earlier age than is typical given Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. In order to test this hypothesis, we performed a water conservation task with each child. We will later connect these results with Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.Our results are as follows….

For our study, we performed a water conservation task with children ages 4-74 and 5 year olds: Shouldn’t be able to conserve
six year olds shouldn t be able to conserve
Six year olds (shouldn’t be able to conserve)

It is interesting to note that both Mary Claire and Tom who should not be able to conserve have older siblings (7 year olds) who can. Perhaps having older siblings makes a difference? But this would be another study all together…


Back to our hypothesis:

Two children were able to conserve at the ages of 5 and 6, an unlikely occurrence according to Piaget. Now we would like to see if these same children who can conserve are able to think through a Kohlberg-style moral dilemma from multiple sides. Also according to Piaget, children under the age of seven will exemplify egocentrism and centration; an inability to think beyond their own viewpoint and also an inability to focus on more than one aspect of a problem. We hypothesized that children at this school would be able to think through a moral dilemma at a more advanced level, even under the age of seven, despite egocentrism and centration.

lawrence kohlberg
Lawrence Kohlberg
  • Grew up in Bronxville New York during the 1930s
  • Tested out of almost all of the undergraduate courses he needed to take at the University of Chicago to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology
  • In his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, he introduced his stage theory of moral development
  • Taught at the University of Chicago for 6 years then taught at Harvard for 19 years until his death in 1987
  • He suffered from a tropical disease that caused him much pain –committed suicide at the age of 59
kohlberg s study
Kohlberg’s Study
  • His data was gathered from 72 boys at the ages of 10, 13, 16
  • He would interview them personally, present them with moral dilemmas, and record their answers
  • Judging by their answers, he would classify them into one of his six stages
  • He created a rubric that examined 8 aspects of each of his stages that would determine which stage they were categorized into
  • From these 8 aspects, he specified how the 8 aspects would be characterized in each dilemma he would present
  • From these classifications, he would identify which level of moral development his subjects were in.
key terms
Key Terms:
  • Value: modes of attributing moral value to acts and persons. Differentiating and relating means and ends, intentions and consequences of one person’s evaluation and others, etc. Modes of assessing value-consequences in the situation. 
  • Choice: the kind of identification with the actor in conflict and methods of resolving the conflict. The social process of moral argumentation and the capacity for making and maintaining an independent choice. The outcome chosen in the particular situation.
  • Sanction: the dominant rewards, punishments or morals to which conformity is oriented.
  • Negative standard or rules: the type of concept against which an act is assessed, on which guides conformity, e.g. taboo, rule, law. The concept of duty or moral compulsion.
  • Self-image and role: modes of defining concepts of good person and good role.
  • Authority: the kind of respect accorded to authority and status and the reasons for which such respect is accorded
  • Content: the particular rules or virtues stressed by the type.
  • Justice: concern for and concepts of rights and the legitimate relation of one act, as deserved, to another. Standards of exchange, reciprocity, contract, punishment, and reward.

When George told the king that it was a dragon stealing the food at night, the king became very angry. “He may not be dangerous, but he is stealing some of our food which is against the law and the village might go hungry. He might scare the people, too! He must be locked up.” So that night, George did as he was told and caught the dragon with a huge lasso and led him to a cave where he was locked up night and day……

Once upon a time there lived a king and his daughter who was a princess. They lived happily in their kingdom until they realized that there was a thief stealing food from the marketplace but they had no idea who it was. So the King asked George, the bravest knight in the kingdom, to keep watch at night to see if he could spot the thief. He would soon find out that the food-stealer was none other than a big, scaly dragon.


But we haven’t heard the dragon’s side of the story. The dragon didn’t like being called scary or scaly and was actually very kind. He really loved people and would never hurt anyone. He didn’t like to steal food from the kingdom but his family was hungry and there were no more fish in the lakes for him to catch since the king had already

scooped them all up for himself and the people in his kingdom. He didn’t know what else to do to feed his wife and baby dragons, so he thought he had to sneak into the kingdom and take only a little bit of the king’s food.

do you think george was right to lock up the dragon
Do you think George was right to lock up the dragon?

Stage 3Interpersonal Relationships

Age 7

Mason: “Yes and no. Because he was trying to feed the other dragons and he would never hurt anyone. But it was against the law, too. Why not share the food? It’s kind of confusing because he was doing both good and bad.”

Maria: “No. Because he was trying to feed his family and he didn’t want to hurt anyone. They should share.”

Madilyn: “Yes and no. He did steal the food and that was wrong but he had to take the food because he could not feed his family. He thought the dragon was mean and George was just doing what he was told.”

Emily: “Yes and no. He shouldn’t have stolen the food but he was right to help his family. The king was wrong to lock him up and shouldn’t have taken all of the fish in the first place. They should all share.”

Stage 4Maintaining social order

Stage 5Social contract and individual rights


Age 6

Ayva: “Yes… but then again, the dragon was nice so kind of both. It was right because he was stealing; it was their food and it was against the law. But he was good and he wouldn’t have harmed any person. They had nothing to eat so of course they had to steal to feed his family.”

Stage 3Interpersonal Relationships

Mary Claire: “No because the dragon was nice and he didn’t have any food. I don’t think it was good to tell George to lock up the dragon because he was a nice dragon.”

Stage 5Individual Rights

Alex: “No.” Then said, “Yes.” He kept saying, “Call the cops!” during the story. “The dragon was nice but he was stealing food”(Said he would rather be George’s friend than the dragon’s because the dragon was stealing food).

Stage 4Maintaining Social Order

ages 4 5
Ages 4 & 5

Stage 4:Maintaining Social Order

Glenna (4): “Yes. Because George went off to get the dragon and took him into the cave. You see here the dragon got food, not good. The dragon was scaring everyone.”

Kannady(4): “No. Because he was nice. But it was against the law to take the food. He should have found another way to get food.”

Tom (5): “No. He could have just told the dragon to stop stealing the food. But wasn’t right of the dragon to take the food because the village might starve.”

Landon (5): “No. Because he was friendly. It was right of him to steal the food because he needed to feed his family.”

Stage 3:Relationships/ Empathy

Stage 5:Individual Rights

  • It would seem that our hypothesis is partially correct. Even the children who could not conserve had some concept of moral judgment.
  • Granted the factors could easily change (characters, species, setting, varying circumstances).
  • Piaget was correct in his studies and so was Kohlberg. While his studies were much more extensive he limited himself in some ways.