Month: April 2016

Defying Milgram: what’s your role in developing your children’s moral character?

This is a piece that I wrote for the lovely people at Teach Primary, who produce a fine magazine. You can subscribe to it here, if you like.


Here’s a little experiment for you to try: when you next go into your classroom, divide your students into two groups, and designate half as ‘guards’ and half as ‘prisoners’. Explain that the guards aren’t allowed to physically harm the prisoners, but they are in charge. Have the prisoners ‘arrested’, then hand out their respective uniforms and sit back and watch ‘the prison game’ unfold!

Wait, actually don’t do any of that because it would be CRAZY and patently unethical. But it didn’t seem that way to Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University. In the summer of 1971 he set up this exact experiment with 24 young, middle-class men.

After 36 hours, the first ‘prisoner’ (who, along with the rest of the participants, had been certified as pyschologically stable) had to be removed from the experiment after, in Zimbardo’s words,  going “crazy”.

Whilst the prisoners began to internalise their roles, passively accepting the cruelty inflicted upon them, the guards quickly set about devising various methods of psychological abuse. These included arbitrarily punishing prisoners, removing their mattresses, stripping them naked, and forcing them to only go to the toilet in a bucket in their cell.

After six days, the experiment had to be aborted. The guards were devastated.

That’s horrifying and yet oddly fascinating, but what’s all of this got to do with primary school? I hear you cry.

Well, and bear with me here, but children are sort of like prisoners in school, if you think about it. After all, they don’t get a choice, they HAVE to come, whether they like it or not. Then they’re stuck in a uniform and told that someone else is in charge. Finally, we force them to complete tasks which, again, they have no choice in.

The similarities become more eerie and disturbing when you consider Zimbardo’s brief to the guards prior to the experiment:

“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion…that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy …. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”

It is perhaps a stretch to draw parallels between such a stance and that of the Department for Education’s, which was recently set out by Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb:

“We believe the most effective teaching methods should be pursued…irrespective of whether some find them ‘tedious’.

We believe that schools should be civilised and civilising institutions…, because children do not always know best, and sometimes require the benevolent authority of an adult”

After years of ‘child-centred’ education policies, and a general degradation of behaviour culminating in classrooms becoming dominated by low level disruption, stronger teacher authority is required, it is argued.

And perhaps Mr Gibb is right. After all, surely Zimbardo unequivocally demonstrated that philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s view of human nature was accurate. When left to our own devices, people are horrid and the natural state of man would lead to a “nasty, brutish and short” life.

All of us, especially children, mainly focuses on ourselves and will happily pursue our own selfish appetites and desires (even at the expense of others), if given the choice.

Hobbes’s answer, contrary to a reduction in the authority that led to the horror of the prisoner experiment, was in fact to build an almighty authority, capable of crushing anyone who disagrees with it. This force was his eponymous Leviathan, an absolute sovereign to rule over the masses.

It is on this basis that some call for a return to the  absolute authority of the teacher in the room, ordained with enough power to quash any chance of the class descending into an egocentric frenzy of all against all.

Maybe you disagree with Hobbes’s diagnosis of human nature, though. Surely, deep down, we are all good and sociable and loving, especially children. If you nail your flag to this mast, I’d encourage you to test out your theory by informing your class that you’ve decided to abandon any rules and consequences. See how that works out for you…

In fact, over the last five or six decades social psychologists have undertaken a number of experiments (of questionable ethical standing) which seem to demonstrate that all of us fall short of the sort of moral character that we believe we possess.

Amongst the most famous of these are Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments undertaken in the 1960s. Participants of these studies were invited to ‘teach’ a ‘learner’ some word pairs, and were instructed to administer an electric shock to the ‘learner’ whenever an incorrect answer was given. What the participants did not know is that the ‘learner’ was an actor and the shock machine a fake, but this didn’t stop a whopping 65% delivering what they believed to be a (lethal) 450 volt shock to the learner when told to do so by the scientist in a white coat.

Over the last few years, there has been lots of talk within education about teaching moral character. We know from the work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and his contemporaries that children go through several stages of moral development, with the most primitive stage being simply obedience to authority. It was shocking (pun intended), then, that intelligent adults seemed unable to escape this stage, even with a more mature understanding of right and wrong.

Moral action, or character, it seems, is not linked to moral reasoning. Instead, it is the situations that we find ourselves in that define how we act.

So what does all of this mean to how we run our classrooms? The answer, ironically, may lie with Professor Zimbardo, who has continued to work on this problem since his infamous prison experiment.

In what he dubs his ‘Heroic Imagination Project’, Zimbardo is suggesting  teachers change the environments and structures within schools to encourage more ‘moral heroes’.

Part of the project involves teaching children about ‘situational awareness’, helping them to acknowledge the existence of phenomena like the bystander effect, in which people are less likely to help someone in need if there are others around who could also help.

Children should, Zimbardo argues, think of themselves as ‘heroes in training’, waiting for the opportunity to take a morally courageous action. This might mean battling social conformity (which is exactly the sort of thing we encourage in classrooms to ensure the smooth running of learning throughout the day).

Wherever you stand, the way that you structure your classroom, manage behaviour and discuss moral actions (however trivial), will undoubtedly be having an impact on how children react when faced with real moral dilemmas in their day to day life.

So ask yourself the question, are the children in your class more likely to flick the switch to 450 volts, or defy Milgram by turning off the machine and leaving the room?


Jon Brunskill is the Head of Year Two at Reach Academy Feltham. You can follow him on Twitter, if you like: @jon_brunskill