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Teaching Students to Speak Up and to Listen to Others:

Fostering Moral-Democratic Competency

Georg Lind


Every journey, even the longest, starts with a first step. Every democracy, even the most advanced one, begins with speaking up about things that really matter for and to us as well as listening to those who may disagree. The very essence of democracy relies on resolving our conflicts through discussions based on shared moral principles such as justice and mutual respect, rather than by using brute force. All institutions in a democracy, ideally, operate on the same premise, focusing on mediating conflicts in a peaceful way, namely by speaking up and listening to others, and coming to an agreement that is fair and respects the worth of each individual regardless of wealth and social power. This is, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1785) stated, the highest ‘standard’ of democratic life: Act as if the principle on which your action is based were to become by your will a universal law of nature, and treat humans in every case an end, never as a means only. An updated and communicative extension of this democratic standard has been presented by philosophers like Jürgen Habermas (1990), who states that a ‘moral’ solution to a conflict excludes any use of power or violence, and must rest only on reason and dialogue.

        Most, or possibly all, people value the high moral ideal of democracy. The authors of the American declaration of independence “hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” As many surveys show, the democratic ideal is not confined to North America or Europe but can be found around the globe, regardless of cultural and religious background. The agreement on these ideals is documented in many international declarations—for example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child—, and most national constitutions refer to unalienable democratic ideals as the ultimate standard for policymaking, law-enforcement, and education.

        Yet, daily media-reports about violent conflicts, corruption, and other criminal offenses highlight that people are still far from being able to live in harmony with their democratic ideals. In fact, more often than we like, we do not live up to these ideals. All too often, people resort to power, violence or wars to resolve differences of opinion, or constrain debate in order to avoid a conflict rather than coping with it.

        In this chapter I argue that in, order to narrow this gap between the moral ideal of democracy, on the one side, and everyday life, on the other, we need to cultivate democratic competencies through education. Ultimately, it does not suffice to only teach about democratic ideals and institutions but we also need to foster democratic competencies in everyday life. This raises two important questions: First, how can we find out about these competencies, that is, how can we measure them? Second, can we educate about them and, if so, how can we do this?


The meaning and measurement of democratic competencies

Without doubt, democratic ideals, values, and beliefs are essential for developing and maintaining a democratic society. If people would not value the ideals of democracies higher than other forms of government, and if they would not believe that this is the best form of government, it certainly would not prevail. The World Values Surveys indicates that most people all over the world aspire to hold democratic values. For example, citizens of Islamic countries do not differ in regard to their democratic ideals from citizens from the US or from other Western countries (Inglehard & Norris, 2003). Importantly, it should be clear that democracy would not prevail if these ideals re­main simply ideals, and, moreover, if citizens are unable to apply these ideals to everyday decision-making.

        In a democracy, the rule of powerful people such as a king/queen (as in a monarchy), a dictator (as in a tyranny), or a group of wealthy people (as in an oligarchy), has been replaced by the rule of moral principles (for example, justice, mutual respect, and liberty) on which there is general agreement. Therefore, in a democratic society, citizens cannot solve conflicts by simply appealing to some authority but they must be engaged in a democratic, nonviolent discourse on the basis of these shared principles. “The problem lies in the appeal to any authority whose conclusions are impervious, in principle as well as practice, to the standards of logical consistency or to reliable methods of inquiry that themselves should be mutually acceptable." (Gutmann & Thompson, 1997, p. 56) The most basic democratic competence, then, is to engage in a rational, moral discourse with other people, especially with opponents.

        The psychologist and educator Lawrence Kohlberg (1964) has identified an essential part of this paradigm as moral judgment competence, and defined it as “the capacity to make decisions and judgments which are moral (i.e., based on internal principles) and to act in accordance with such judgments" (p. 425). Habermas (1990), one of the most eminent philosophers of our time, extends Kohlberg’s definition through his theory of communicative ethics. Yet, he extended the concept in an important way by stating that a true democratic discourse must be free of violence and the use of force or social power, and be restricted only by universal ethical principles. “Moral reason,” Habermas asserts, “implies the deletion of those power relationships which are included invisibly in communications and which prevent conscious conflict resolution and consensual conflict solutions through intra-psychic as well as through personal barriers of communication." (Habermas, 1976, p. 34; translated from German by the author) This means that a democratic citizen should be able: (a) to use and accept arguments as a means of conflict-solution, (b) to use commonly accepted moral orientations or principles to evaluate arguments; and (c) to do this even when challenged or confronted by opponents or those who are in disagreement.


True democratic competencies are rooted in our tacit knowledge

Democratic competencies, like other competencies, are not limited to, and are not identical to, conscious knowledge, that is the knowledge about which we can discuss. On the contrary, to be effective, democratic competencies must be rooted in an unconscious cognitive structure. On the one hand, we may believe that we are more democratically competent than we really are. We believe that we are engaged in our own views and interests, and that we do listen to others but keep quiet when we should speak up and turn our back on people who do not share our point of view. On the other hand, we often ‘know’ more than we believe. For example, we ‘know’ whom to trust as a politician and whom not. But if we should explain why we should not trust a certain politician, we may have no meaningful explanation.

        In science, these distinctions are very important. The philosopher Ryle (1949) high­lighted the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how.” The philosopher Polanyi (1966) called the latter tacit knowledge in contrast to overt knowledge (see also Gigerenzer, 2006). In psychology, tacit knowledge is referred to as cognitive structure. Piaget (1976) stated that “Cognitive structures are not the conscious content of thinking, but impose one form of thinking rather than another. [. . .] The subject is only conscious of their results. [. . .] He has no access to the internal mechanisms that direct his thinking.” (p. 64)


Competencies and ideals are distinct but inseparable aspects of democratic behavior

We believe that democratic behavior is not only determined by (tacit) democratic competencies (or cognitions), but also by (tacit) democratic ideals and emotions (or affects). We call this the Dual-Aspect-Theory (Lind, 2000; 2002). For a long time we used to view them as separate entities or components of human func­tioning, which can be located in different areas of the brain, and which could be assessed only through different assessment instruments. In their influential taxonomies of educational objectives, Bloom and his associates (Bloom et al., 1956; Krathwohl et al., 1964) saw democratic and moral objectives as clearly separate from the cognitive domain, and published them under the title “affective objectives” in a separate volume. This separation of ‘affective’ democratic behavior from the ‘cognitive’ domain seems to explain why researchers have developed hundreds of democratic attitude and value scales but rarely established a democratic competency test.

        Today, we are more aware of this separation of affect and cognition as two separate domains, and also how separating the components of behavior are erroneous. Ultimately, all human behavior has both an affective and a cognitive side. Piaget (1981) noted: “It is impossible to find behavior arising from affectivity alone without any cognitive elements. It is equally impossible to find behavior composed only of cognitive elements. [. . .] Although cognitive and affective factors are indissociable in an individual’s behavior, they appear to be different in nature.” (p. 2) The “distinct but inseparable aspects model” is confirmed by modern neurobiological research (Damasio, 1994).

        Like cognition, affect and emotion do not need to be conscious. Often, we find some politicians very pleasant without being able to say for sure why. Sometimes, we think we ‘know why’ only to realize later that we have erred. Piaget (1976) speaks of this as ‘affective unconsciousness.’

        These two distinctions lead to a fourfold conceptual model of democratic behavior, which is depicted in Figure 1. While most of the literature in this area focuses on the upper part of the model, namely on conscious reports of participants about their moral values and overt behavior, we know little about the lower part, namely on the assessment and education of tacit or procedural democratic knowledge, which is the knowledge on which we mostly rely in everyday-life.

Figure 1: Dual-Aspect Model of Democratic Behavior


Aspects of Behavior [1]

Affective Aspects

Cognitive Aspects

Overt knowledge (knowing that; declarative knowledge)

Expression of democratic values

Expression of democratic beliefs and ‘knowing that’

Tacit knowledge (knowing how, procedural knowledge)

Manifestations of democratic affects

Manifestations of democratic competencies

People’s declarative democratic attitudes and beliefs let us hardly predict behavior. People are poor judges of our own emotions and competencies, and often they have reasons to hide them if they are aware of them. We must remember that people can pretend almost anything and also fake attitude and belief scales in any desired direction. In contrast, people’s competencies are a much better base for predicting their behavior. They are a good predictor of non-violent conflict resolution, resistance against immoral authority, and helping behavior (Candee & Kohlberg, 1987) as well as abstinence from drug consumption (Lenz, 2006).


Measuring moral judgment competence: The Moral Judgment Test (MJT)

The Moral Judgment Test (MJT) has been developed to simultaneously measure moral orientations and competencies. The standard version of the MJT contains two short stories (the “workers’ dilemma” and the “doctor’s dilemma”) in which someone is confronted with a moral dilemma. The participant is to judge whether the protagonist’s decision was right or wrong. By doing so, he or she reveals a commitment to certain opinions about the issues at stake. Then the participant is confronted with six arguments in favor of the decision and six arguments against it. All arguments have been carefully selected or drafted to represent each of the six moral orientations which Kohlberg (1984)[2] identified. All of this constitutes a moral task for people, for which we can distinguish three different levels of difficulty.

        The lowest level of difficulty of the MJT is to go beyond mere opinions, and to deal with arguments. Some may be surprised by the number of people for whom this is very challenging. The second level of difficulty for the participant then is to recognize that the arguments differ with regard to their moral quality. People with low moral judgment competence accept all supporting arguments without qualification. The development of their judgment competence becomes visible only when they start to accept some supporting arguments less, or even reject them, because they represent an inadequate moral orientation or principle. For example, someone may argue that the doctor in one of the dilemmas should not do mercy-killing because he may get into trouble. Although this is a supporting argument, from a moral point of view, this is not an adequate or compelling argument against mercy-killing because it does not refer in any way to the value of life or to the suffering of the person who asks for it.

        The third and highest difficulty level for the participants is to make a differentiated judgment about the arguments which oppose his or her opinion on the dilemma. Most people are unable to cope with this task. They find it extremely difficult even to listen to an opponent, and nearly impossibly to weigh on an opponent’s arguments. Such a task causes cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) and cognitive imbalance or disequilibrium (Piaget, 1976). From the research by Keasey (1974), we know that most people tend to assimilate arguments to their own opinion on a particular issue, and also judge all arguments on the basis of agree­ment or disagreement with their opinion. Situated at low levels of democratic competence, people here hold opinions on political and moral issues so strong that their moral ideals and principles have no bearing on their behavior. Their opinions seem so deeply anchored in their emotions, and reinforced by their social environment (and the mass media to which they expose themselves), that their own moral orientations are suppressed. Only when higher-order cognitive processes – like deliberation and discourse – have developed, they will be able to judge and behave according to their own moral and democratic principles.

        If a participant cannot discern the moral quality of the arguments, because he or she is preoccupied with defending his or her opinion against an opponent, he or she gets zero C-points (“C” stands for competence). A C-score of zero is reflected in the pattern of judgments of the fictitious ‘Person A’ on the left side of Figure 2. A participant who rejects supporting arguments which are inadequate, and accepts counter-arguments because of their high moral adequacy (like Person B in Figure 2), will get the highest score of 100 C-points.

Figure 2


The methodological rationale of the MJT is outlined in greater detail elsewhere (Lind, 2008). [3] In many respects, the MJT contrasts sharply with traditional psychometric instruments. With the MJT, the unit of study is the individual person and not the responses of a sample of people. The main index, the C-score (C for competence) is based on an analysis of the total response pattern, and not on atomized answers which are stripped from their mea­ning. Finally, the MJT allows us to measure both aspects of democratic behavior – competence and orientation – simultaneously. The MJT, therefore, provides several measures for cognitive and affective aspects of moral judgment behavior, for which the most central is the C-score (Lind, 2008). The C-score reflects the degree to which the participant rates the 24 arguments of the standard MJT with regard to their moral quality rather than in relation to their opinion, agreement or other aspects of the situation like dilemma-context. [4] The C-score ranges from zero (meaning that the participant is not able to attend to the moral quality of the arguments) to one hundred (implying that he or she has rated the arguments exclusively by their moral quality).


The Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion: The need for democratic education

The task of living and working together in an ever more complex and changing world with people from different cultural and religious backgrounds is a huge challenge, especially for future generations. Today children are born into a world of unprecedented diversity and moral challenges. They are faced with problems which the older generation had not even known to exist when they were young. Each child will have to figure out his/her own way to cope with diversity and pluralism. In order to acquire the basic competencies for this challenge, society needs to provide students with a “favorable learning environment” (Schillinger, 2006) throughout their development — in kindergarten, elementary and secondary school, college, and beyond. Some children are blessed with favorable genes and parents, yet in a democracy, all people need to cooperate and live together peacefully and, therefore, all need to acquire basic democratic competencies. This is why we can­not do without democratic education at schools.

        Educators (and the public) hold various beliefs about the nature of democratic personality, resulting in different views on the role of schools. Some believe that moral-democratic competencies are inborn and the only thing school can do is to select the students accordingly. This theory lays the groundwork for highly selective school systems as well as much of our testing policies. Some educators believe that moral and democratic competencies are not totally fixed at birth but unfold as the child gets older in an invariant sequence. School, they believe, does little to intervene in relation to the student’s development. In contrast, behaviorists believe that children are born as “blank sheets,” and need to be molded through rewards and punishment to become the kind of citizen that a particular society values. The school’s task, then, is to “socialize” the child by using social pressure or force.

        According to my reading of the research literature, neither theory is adequate. Moral and democratic competencies are not inborn, nor are they instilled in children through social force. The existing evidence, rather, suggests: (a) that, deep in their hearts, most, if not all, people believe in the moral ideal of democracy and want to live by it; (b) that they often face a formidable task when time constraints, social forces, or other issues impact with their ideal; and (c) that they are more likely to cope with these tasks if they had learned to solve conflicts through free deliberation and discourse with opponents. This, in sum, is our ‘education theory’ of moral and democratic development (Lind, 1987; 2002; 2005; 2008; 2009). This theory implies that it is not merely the amount of education but its quality which fosters moral democratic competencies. Education must provide opportunities for responsibility-taking and guided reflection in order to be effective (Sprinthall, Reiman, & Thies-Sprinthall, 1993). In a longitudinal study Lind (2002) found that the absence of such opportunities in the learning environment of university students leads to a decrease of students’ moral judgment competence (see also Schillinger, 2006). The importance of good education for the development of democratic competence, had already been shown by Torney et al. (1975) in their ten-country-study: "Morally knowledgeable, less authoritarian and more interested students came from schools where they were encouraged to have free discussion and to express their opi­nion in class." (p. 18).


Schools do not always do the right thing

In spite of the general desire for deliberative democracy and the need for the respective com­petencies, we see little of this in our classrooms. Teaching in most schools is confined to the conveying of declarative textbook knowledge. It seems that many teachers and educational policymakers have not understood the dimension and the urgency of the task. Often teachers who praise the value of democratic government, at the same time, behave autocratically in their classroom. Of the many standards meant for guiding civic education, only a few, if any, refer to basic democratic competencies. Among the hundreds of policy standards for civics teaching, which were collected across the United States, [5] the vast majority, namely 426 out of 427 pertain to declarative knowledge about democratic institutions, and only one addresses the acquisition of procedural democratic knowledge. None of the standards listed in the Compendium K-12 Stan­dards (Kendall & Marzano, 2004) mentions competencies such as speaking up and listening to others in a democratic discussion.

        A few standards do, however, come close. One standard requires that the child “under­stands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument.” Yet, this standard is not meant as a democratic virtue but only as an instrument for ‘me’ winning the ‘others.’ Students should “understand that people are more likely to believe a person’s ideas if that person can give good reasons for them” and that, therefore, they should “back up their ideas with good reasons.” It does not seem to be important whether the arguments given are true and sincere. Democratic competencies are also more than just the ability to use “conflict-resolution techniques” or display “effective interpersonal communication skills.” These skills and techniques can be helpful but without interpersonal agreement on common ethical grounds and without emphatic understanding of each other, no genuine cooperation is possible. This is not a unique problem to the US educational system alone.

        Therefore, we should not be surprised that people often do better in speaking about freedom and democracy than living by these ideals. Keasey (1974) highlighted that most adolescents find it difficult to listen to, and appreciate, counter-arguments. Lind (2002) also found that most people are so preoccupied with defending their opinions against others that they cannot appreciate the quality of their arguments. We sometimes even encounter individuals who cannot even differentiate between an ‘argument’ and the opinion for which it is given: “Why do you ask us again to say what we think about this issue?” It is not inconceivable to predict that such individuals will have difficulty achieving an agreement on a controversial issue by nonviolent ethical discourse. It seems more likely that they might either use brute force to make their opinion dominate over all others, or give up their opinion if their opponent is seen as more powerful. In fact, low judgment competency correlates strongly with blind submission to authority, as seen in the Milgram experiments (Kohlberg, 1984) and with an inclination for violence (Lind, 1998).

        If we are concerned only with backing up our ideas with ‘convincing reasons,’ and with conflict-resolution techniques, we are ‘rationalizing’ but are not, necessarily, rational. Rationalizing means that we use arguments (and the moral principles to which they appeal) just to back up our intuitive opinions, and that we will change our reasons rather than our opinion if they do not agree. In contrast, being rational means that we examine our opinions and action-choices on the basis of our shared moral principles, and adapt our opinion to our principles rather than the other way round. Rational means also that we listen to the arguments of oppo­nents (or even enemies), and judge their arguments according to their moral quality rather than only to their opinion-agreement.

        It seems that the importance of schooling for the maintenance and development of a democratic society is best understood at times of threat, controversy and social disaster. Confronted with the task of building up a nation after the War of Independence, Jefferson, one of the first US presidents, clearly noted the importance of schooling for democracy: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education” (quoted in Boyer, 1990, p. 5).


A new effective method of democratic education

Dilemma discussions have shown to be one of the most effective ways to stimulate democratic competencies. If they are well-designed, they provide what Schillinger (2006) calls a “favorable learning environment.” There are many methods using the dilemma-discussion format. Yet, not all are equally effective. Over the years, we have developed a particularly effective method, which we now call the Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion (KMDD; Lind, 2005; 2009). It grew out of the method first suggested by Blatt and Kohlberg (1975), which showed to be more effective than previous methods (Higgins, 1980; Lockwood, 1978). In a meta-analysis of 141 intervention studies, for which sufficient information was given, Lind (2002) found a remarkable average effect size (r = 0.40). No nega­tive effects were found, and the effects were sustained over a longer period of time.

        However, the Blatt-Kohlberg method also had its drawbacks (e.g., Berkowitz, 1981; Lind, 2002). One critical aspect concerns the so-called “+1-convention,” which demands that the teacher confront his/her students with arguments exactly one “stage” above the reasoning level in order to stimulate upward development. Not only could this requirement encounter difficulty in being fulfilled but the plus-one convention also seemed to rely too much on the authority and prescription of the teacher. This convention and the presentation of several di­lemmas within 45 minutes leave too little room for autonomous learning.

        Therefore, we introduced several changes. Among other things, we gave up the plus one convention in favor of counter-arguments, which were shown to be very effective for stimulating cognitive growth (Piaget, 1929; Walker, 1983). In order to allow for more child-centered teaching, we also reduced the number of dilemmas to one, and increased the minimum session time to 90 minutes. While experimenting with these changes, three basic principles of democratic learning turned out to be essential:

        First, [6] the principle of mutual respect and free moral discourse in the classroom is fundamental. Above all, this principle requires the teacher to see him or herself as a facili­tator, not as a master of students’ learning. In regard to the moral and democratic learning, it is especially important that teachers do not use their authority to impose their aims, and their pace of learning, upon students. Teachers must provide their students with opportunities for a free discourse (Habermas, 1990) by respecting each learner equally, regardless of his or her power and status.

        Second, the constructivist principle of learning. A good dilemma discussion works like a vaccination. By confronting the organism with a semi-real virus it develops all the capacities to cope later with a real virus. Similarly, by confronting the learner with a semi-real ‘educative’ moral dilemma, he or she is stimulated to develop many of the abilities needed when being confronted with a similar dilemma in real life later. The educative dilemmas which we use are especially designed for stimulating learning.[7] Yet we should keep in mind that dilem­mas are cognitive construction and each learner defines them in a different way depending on his or her level of cognitive-moral competence (Lind, 2006). This makes communication often very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, becoming aware of, and coping with, these differences of meaning construction has become a major objective of the KMDD.

        Third, there is the principle of maintaining an optimal level of arousal through alter­nating phases of support and challenge. Through challenges, students get emotionally aroused. They are eager to solve problems or to ease bad feelings. Yet, challenges must never last for too long, or get too strong, because too much arousal (like anxiety) prevents learning. Before this happens, the teacher switches from the phase of challenge to a phase of support, in which the participants are reassured, and their emotions then can calm down to allow intel­lectual activities and reflection to recuperate.

        Based on these three principles of democratic and moral learning, the KMDD has become a highly effective method. In a carefully designed, randomized intervention experiment with Thai college students, Lerkiatbundit et al. (2006) found high and sustainable effects of the KMDD on moral judgment competence. The experimental group gained 12 C score points on the MJT, and this gain could still be observed six months after the end of the intervention. The high average gain is remarkable as the MJT showed a high stability in a separate ‘reliability’ study (r = 0.90) (Lerkiatbundit et al., 2004), and the C score remained almost unchanged in the control group. Other studies found similar gains. For comparison, the gains with the Blatt Kohlberg method were, on average, about 6 percentage points per year (Lind, 2002). The effect sizes of both intervention methods compare favorably to average effect sizes of “effective” psychological, educa­tional and medical treatments (Lipsey & Wilson, 1993).



“Deliberative democracy,” concludes Gutmann (1999), “underscores the importance of publicly supported education that develops the capacity to deliberate among all children as future free and equal citizens.” (p. xii) Speaking up and listening to others can, indeed, be taught. However, this ‘teaching in a democracy’ must be different from traditional instruction and classroom management. To be effective, democracy education must be democratic itself (Dewey, 1966). Teaching must not only attend to the curriculum but must respect the learner and adapt to his or her special needs.


Questions of reflection

1.          What kind of knowledge is underrepresented in our schools’ curriculum and standards?

2.          Why is there often a gap between people’s high democratic ideals and their behavior?

3.          How can children be supported to speak up in school in relation to democracy?

4.          What makes it so difficult for many teachers to be an effective democratic educator?

5.          How can democratic competencies be measured?



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Ryle, G. (1949). Concept of mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schillinger, M. (2006). Learning environments and moral development: How university edu­cation fosters moral judgment competence in Brazil and two German-speaking coun­tries. Aachen: Shaker-Verlag.

Sprinthall, N.A., Reiman, A.J. & Thies-Sprinthall, L. (1993). Role-taking and reflection: promoting the conceptual and moral development of teachers. Learning and Individual Differences, 5(4), 283-299.

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Further reading on the KMDD and its theoretical and research background can be found on the author’s website:



[1]. To be consistent with our own model of human behavior, we speak here of inseparable (yet distinguishable) aspects or properties of behavior rather than of ‘components.’ See the first section of this paper for a theoretical explication of the aspect model.

[2]. Kohlberg reduced his six stage-model at one point but returned to it later (Kohlberg, 1984).

[3]. The MJT is available in thirty languages ( It can be ordered from the author for research and program evaluation. The prospective user of the MJT should have a background in moral and democratic psychology.

[4]. As Kohlberg (1984) notes: “In studying moral behavior we are concerned with studying action in which the subject gives up something or takes risks where not doing so would appear to be to his or her immediate advantage. ... Thus, it is the overcoming of these situational pressures on either a verbal or a physical level that constitutes the test of moral behavior” (p. 522).

[5]. Source: (Oct. 12, 2004).

[6]. In this edition, the three principles have been re-arranged because it becomes more and more obvious that a free, democratic atmosphere in the classroom is perhaps the most fundamental condition for effective teaching.

[7]. KMDD instructors are taught how to develop educative moral dilemmas for particular educational objectives as part of their training.