Testimony and Moral Education

There is a body of research that suggests that children desire to obtain information via testimony to aid their understanding of the world (Harris, 2015; Frazier, Gelman & Wellman, 2009; Harris, 2012a). Morals pertain to acceptable standards of behaviours and beliefs in society and are sometimes rather intangible when compared to information that can be obtained directly by observation. In this light, it stands to reason that young children rely on adults for their moral education. In this essay, I shall define my understanding of ‘moral education’ and explain how other people’s testimony plays a key role in shaping children’s moral education in different spheres of life using research, real-world examples and personal anecdotes.

Moral education, as I understand it, refers to the act of helping children learn values that will help them lead good lives – both individually and as members of society. Parents lay the groundwork for consideration of others, respect, self-control and responsibility at home. Schools, teachers, elders and peers contribute to the formation of a child’s character and moral code. Eventually, as the child matures, he/she begins shaping his/her own character and making moral decisions (Ryan, n.d.). The moral basis for these decisions depends, in no small part, on the foundational understanding of morality that a child picked up from his/her parents through both explicit articulation of what is right and wrong and through implicit observation of their (the parents’) words and actions. The child begins to define what a ‘good life’ means for himself/herself and makes judgements about right and wrong.

In this regard, I would like to share a personal story about a time I made a judgement about right and wrong based on adult testimony. Up until the age of 8, I ate meat like the rest of my family and gathered (based on testimony from my parents and family photographs) that I relished the taste. One day, while sitting at a restaurant with my family, I saw a sketch of a smiling fish on the menu. I asked my mother whether the ‘fish’ that I ate was connected to the ‘fish’ that I had seen swimming in aquariums and lakes. When she answered in the affirmative, I was aghast. I recall following up that event with questions at home about how fish are caught and how chicken and goats are killed; my parents answered my queries to the best of their knowledge. Shortly thereafter, I became a vegetarian by choice and, to this date, have stood by this commitment.

What prompted this mindset shift? After all, I had never seen a fish being caught nor a chicken being slaughtered with my own eyes. When I reflect on it, I realise that the knowledge I gained from my parents (which I completely believed because I trust my parents) helped my mind make the connections between the cooked animal on my plate and the pain it must have gone through when it met its premature death. This connection that I made is further backed by studies which showed that children learn about ‘harm and suffering from the testimony of other people’ which leads them to stop eating meat (Hussar & Harris, 2010; Harris, 2012b, p. 130).

Studies have also shown that children judge whether an action is right or wrong based on the emotional impact that that action has (Harris, 2012b, p. 114). However, there are numerous human behaviours and actions that might have far reaching effect which are intangible and not easily observable. In such cases, aren’t students reliant on adult (or expert) testimony to make judgements? For instance, my colleague, Mr. Eric Torres (classroom discussion, March 7, 2018) brought up the issue of how children think about polluting the environment. While children can see and smell exhaust fumes, they are dependent on scientists, teachers and secondary sources of information (like books and the internet) for the effect that pollution has on the environment. When they learn, through these means of visual, aural or oral testimony, about the deleterious effects of pollution, many of them judge it to be a ‘wrong’ act. Without adult testimony about the facts, children are unlikely to be able to make such a moral judgment as they would have no way of independently testing whether pollution harms the environment or not.

I believe that adult testimony in children’s moral judgement is particularly relevant in an age where information is aplenty while its accuracy is sometimes questionable. Children are likely to often encounter information/opinions that, unknown to them, are not morally acceptable. In such cases, they are dependent on an elder (usually a parent) that they trust for guidance on how to judge right from wrong. I would like to illustrate this point using two different examples.

The first example is about how children judge the morality of songs that they like. Honey Singh is a music producer and singer in India. His songs have a beat and rhythm to them that make him popular among young children and adolescents. However, the lyrics and videos in his songs are misogynistic and contain vulgar themes and language. Young children, especially boys, mimic the actions and words that they see in the video without understanding the innuendos that are behind them. They see older children at school and in their communities listen to these songs and are told that it is ‘cool’ to do so. As they grow older and begin to understand the meaning behind the songs, they have already internalised his music and, by association, assume that the culture and behaviours that he portrays in his videos are acceptable. Thus, without adult intervention and guidance, what children deem morally correct is likely to be a cause for concern. Advice from parents and teachers can serve to counteract the negative music lyrics and peer influences. Adults can explain to children the reasoning behind why the content is objectionable. In this case, it is evident that adult testimony is vital for children’s moral education.

The second example I would like to examine is how children judge the behaviour of popular sports personalities on and off the field. It is quite common to see sportsmen in cricket, football, basketball and other physical sports swear out of frustration when a play doesn’t go their way. With the media spotlight perennially on these iconic players, every action is magnified and replayed on the internet. Unlike Singh’s songs that kids will have to surreptitiously watch and listen to away from the ears of their parents, sport is watched by families openly. Children are likely to assume that it is alright to swear and get angry at the slightest hint of things going awry. Off the field, there are reports of some athletes getting involved in scandals, misbehaving or making inappropriate remarks in public. Children tend to look up to sportspeople and may imitate their behaviours. As with Singh’s music, children are dependent on adult testimony for their moral education and for explanations of why such behaviour is wrong.

I believe that moral and academic education are deeply intertwined and cannot be separated. Every lesson taught, every decision made, and every expectation held by the teacher has the potential to influence his/her students’ ideas about the world (Ravitch, 1973). In this article, Ravitch elaborates on how teaching history and literature without a sense of the good would be a futile exercise. The way the textbook and teacher present historical events impacts how children will judge the morality of those events – for instance, if a teacher or textbook praises missionaries and says that Christianity is the religion that the world should follow, then children are likely to believe that perceiving other religions as inferior is morally acceptable. I think that a lot of history comes down to speculation and there are a lot of grey areas in how it is interpreted. Adult viewpoints can strongly influence whether children consider an act from the past right or wrong. After all, when one thinks about it more deeply, the entire construction of the past is solidly grounded in testimony!

A research study on how young children learn moral values inside the classroom came up with some insightful findings. There were clear links between the epistemic climate of schools and the epistemic beliefs of teachers with the extent to which children felt empowered to make choices and decisions in schools (Brownlee et al., 2012). Schools that supported critical thinking and independent moral decision making tended to attract teachers who supported their students’ critical thinking and moral development. Conversely, when school policies were silent on critical thinking and moral issues, teachers were less inclined to engage their students to critically think and make moral decisions. What struck me about the study was the fact that school environment and teachers’ beliefs, both relatively intangible elements that are hard to evaluate/measure, can influence the moral education that children receive. Thus, analysing the quality of moral education at schools becomes a hard exercise to carry out with fidelity.

I would like to conclude this essay by reflecting on my own upbringing and the role that adults have played in my moral education. From the anecdote that I shared earlier in the essay on becoming a vegetarian, it is apparent that I attached weight to the information supplied by my parents. That was strong enough for me to change my mindset about eating meat even though I had no first-hand experience seeing animals being killed.

I imbibed a lot of values from what my mother told me and how I saw her live her life. For example, she values time and being punctual; thus, being on time was something I regarded as the naturally right thing to do. Only when I realised that there are people who do not adhere to time as strictly as I do, did I see that there was an alternate way of thinking about time! Another value that she taught me was integrity – she emphasised that I should always do my best regardless of rewards. As a child, there were times when I was tempted to take a shortcut and I did not see why it mattered whether I accomplished a task one way or the other. On other occasions, I would be disappointed if I did not get recognition when I put in the effort – for example, missing out on academic prizes at school. It was my mother who made me see the value of doing a job sincerely and for the right reasons. Her advice and the way she lived her own life strongly shaped my moral beliefs.

Lastly, my school and teachers were instrumental in my moral education. We had a subject called Value Education from grades 3 to 5 which taught the right attitudes and behaviours on topics ranging from the environment to how to interact with people. I recall that the subject was taught by one of my favourite teachers in grade 4 (she had been my Hindi teacher for 5 years from lower kindergarten to grade 3) so I listened intently to what she had to say. When I was in middle and high school, there was a school policy that if a class had a free period after the lunch break (if a teacher was absent), then that class used to help clean the school grounds of any litter. This messaging was key to me being very conscientious about not littering even though it is sadly common to find garbage strewn on the roads in India. The emphasis of the school, teachers and physical education instructors on keeping the grounds clean played a part in me wanting to keep the rest of my surroundings clean.

Through this essay, I have illustrated the importance of adult testimony in helping children make decisions about eating habits, music choices, behaviours of sportspeople and their own attitudes towards other people and the environment. I have shown how moral judgements are implicit in subjects like history and how adult testimony shapes these moral beliefs. Lastly, through personal reflection, I outlined the impact that my mother and school had on morals and values that I live by to this day as an adult.


Brownlee, J., Syu, J., Mascadri, J., Cobb-Moore, C., Walker, S., Johansson, E. & Boulton-Lewis, G. & Ailwood, J. (2012). Teachers’ and children’s personal epistemologies for moral education: Case studies in early years elementary education. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 28(3), pp. 440-450.

Frazier, B. N., Gelman, S. A. & Wellman, H. M. (2009). Pre-schoolers’ search for explanatory information within adult-child conversation. Child Development, 80, pp. 1592-1611.

Harris, P. L. (2012a). Children’s questions. In Trusting What You’re Told, pp. 22 - 44. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harris, P. L. (2012b). Moral Judgement and Testimony. In Trusting What You’re Told, pp. 113-131. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harris, P. L. (2015). What children learn from questioning. Educational Leadership, 73, pp. 24-29.

Hussar, K. & Harris, P. L. (2010). Children who choose not to eat meat: a demonstration of early moral decision-making. Social Development, 19, pp. 627-641.

Ravitch, D. (1973). Moral Education and the Schools. Commentary Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/moral-education-and-the-schools/

Ryan, K. (n.d.). Moral Education - A Brief History of Moral Education, The Return of Character Education, Current Approaches to Moral Education. Retrieved from http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2246/Moral-Education.html

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This essay was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the course EDU H180 - Cognitive Development and Trust in Testimony completed by the author at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The aim of the course was to critically examine widespread assumptions regarding early cognitive development, namely that children: (i) mostly construct their own ideas and theories about the world; (ii) rely primarily on their own first-hand observation; (iii) ignore corrections and suggestions made by other people; and (iv) arrive at their own, innovative solutions to problems. The course examined an alternative possibility that children are often willing and even credulous pupils rather than self-sufficient autodidacts. As such, they adopt ideas about the world supplied to them by other people; spontaneously seek information from other people, especially by asking questions; revise their ideas in the light of what they are told; and often have difficulty in arriving at their own independent solutions to problems.