What is a Just Community?
The Just Community model was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg in 1975. The Just Community is an experiment in school democracy; through democratic school structures (Town Hall, Fairness Committee, etc.), students play a meaningful role establishing school norms, values, and policies. At the same time, the Just Community gives students a venue to discuss issues of justice, fairness, and the common good, an experience which enhances their moral development, and strengthens the moral climate of the school.
The Just Community Approach to Moral Education
- Students, teachers, and staff members come together on a regular basis [weekly] to thoroughly discuss and democratically decide upon issues relevant to school life
- Provides actual experiences of participatory decision making in an environment stressing norms of justice and fairness.
- Moral dilemma discussions (inside and outside the classroom) stimulate cognitive conflict through exposure to different points of view and higher stage reasoning
- Students learn responsibility and leadership by practicing responsibility and leadership
- The emphasis on community, caring, and the common good helps strengthen group bonds, leading to greater cooperation, collaboration, and investment from all members of the school
- Students who are routinely exposed to moral dilemma discussions, town halls, and authoritative teaching learn to see rules, policies, and procedures as extensions of ethical and communal values, rather than infringements on freedom, and expressions of arbitrary power
The centrality of Town Hall
*Town Hall helps establish the moral climate of the school by extending moral decision making beyond the individual, and towards the community as a whole. Students learn to see fairness, responsibility, and mutual respect as features of the common good. During Town Hall, students debate issues of moral, social, and political consequence. Town Hall discussions model the practice of deliberative democracy, which stresses conscientiousness (civility and respect), diversity (different points of view are represented, and reflection (focusing on the reasons and values underpinning conflicting views).
- Town Hall is part ceremonial, as the weekly meeting become a ritual that binds the community together, and expresses its unique identity
- Town Hall is part procedural, in that students develop familiarity with the structure and format of democratic decision making
- Town Hall is part social-emotional, as the experience cultivates an atmosphere of caring, empathy, and social belonging. The Town Hall experience helps students feel recognized, included, and validated as individuals and community members
- Town Hall is part intellectual, as the experience helps students critically evaluate evidence, form arguments, incorporate new perspectives, and deepen learning
- Town Hall is fundamentally developmental, both in terms of moral reasoning and democratic mindsets.
*Effective Town Hall discussions focus on the social and moral issues that bear on the lives of community members. Keeping this in mind is key to determining which issues should be discussed, and which topics will guarantee student interest and involvement.
The Fairness Committee
- The Fairness Committee instantiates subtle processes for mediating conflicts
- The Fairness Committee functions as a problem solving group, able to support and include a person while simultaneously requiring different behavior in the future.
- The Fairness Committee helps enforce the “common good” by embodying the rules, values, and norms of the whole community.
- The central obligation of the Fairness Committee is not policing, but determining appropriate consequences for violations of school norms, and resolving fairness issues through deliberative dialogue and constructive conversation. The goal is always inclusion; i.e., changing behavior in a manner that is restorative, authoritative, and tolerant
- The Fairness Committee exists as an informal judiciary that applies the values and norms of the Just Community framework; the committee stresses the equal rights of all parties involved in a dispute
- Stresses consequences rather than punishments; inclusion over exclusion, principles over penalties, reflection over judgment
Important to note
Just Community schools are not free of discipline problems; they just handle them differently. Students take greater accountability and responsibility for their behavior because the standards for good behavior derive from shared understandings, discussed frequently in public. Students in a Just Community are accountable to each other; they act as role models and stewards of the school culture, a role traditionally played by formal authority figures. In the end, the respect that a Just Community faculty accords the students, is paid back in the form of students respecting the culture of the school.
Structural Elements of the Just Community
- Weekly, every other week, or as needed
- 1 hour long (or more), with time for announcements, housekeeping items, etc.
- TH can be used for assemblies and speakers (with approval from the Agenda Committee)
- The Agenda Committee (AC) serves as the TH governing committee
- The committee is composed of student representatives from each grade, 1-2 faculty members, and the Agenda Chair (a Senior)
- The responsibility of the AC includes:
- Researching potential agenda items, and solicit proposals from community members
- Creating an agenda for the TH meeting
- Presenting the topic to the community in an illustrative way, developmentally appropriate way
- Keeping the discussion as open as possible and as structured as necessary
- Maintaining decorum and civility; protect rights of all speakers
- Keeping a record of the TH discussion for review and follow up
The Fairness Committee
- The Fairness Committee addresses fairness issues that emerge within the school, working to resolve disputes in an ethical, reflective, inclusive manner
- The Fairness Committee is represented by two Senior co-Chairs, grade level representatives, and 1-2 faculty advisors
- Groups of 8-9 students in each grade, who meet weekly (or every two weeks) with a teacher, faculty member, administrators, etc.
- Advisory is meant to serve as a support system, and a venue for small group discussion and trust building exercises
Moral Dilemma discussions
- In the classroom, and during TH
- Aligned with scope and sequence of curriculum
- Designed to create cognitive dissonance, and broaden ethical awareness
Moral Dilemma Discussions
Just Community schools traditionally utilize the dilemma discussion to promote higher order moral reasoning. The dilemma discussion normally begins with the exposition of a moral conflict of some kind. The dilemma can be hypothetical (i.e. the Heinz Dilemma), or it can emerge from a current event (i.e., Dr. Kevorkian and Assisted Suicide). The dilemma is described in narrative form, with emphasis on relevant characters, themes, and conflicts. The emphasis on narrative prevents students from relying on specific judgments and conclusions within the dilemma itself, and keeps the topic general enough to permit more expansive interpretation (and increasing complexity as students become more comfortable with the dilemma’s foundational components). A narrative, like a fable, is necessarily reductive and generic, but its structure invites broad inquires into value and meaning. A good dilemma will place two important values in conflict; in the case of assisted suicide, the values might be individual liberty (the freedom to choose how to live and how to die), and social responsibility (the obligation of doctors to improve quality of life).
These conflicting values produce cognitive dissonance; the dissonance derives from an inconsistency or paradox in moral or ethical judgment. In the case of assisted suicide, the values of individual liberty and social responsibility seem to be at odds. However, the process of resolving these conflicting values helps deepen and diversify modes of interpretation, especially when students see how many compelling and principled perspectives can be brought to bear on a single situation. The moral dilemma discussion exposes students to a range of moral ideas and ethical concerns, from the simple– is assisted suicide wrong? – to the complex – can a democratic society sanction assisted suicide in moral terms? Through the dilemma discussion, students learn to practice moral reasoning and deliberative discourse; the activity encourages them to explain their reasoning, listen to competing claims, identify core values at play, and revisit assumptions. By the end of the discussion, students may adopt more sophisticated moral perspectives. If moral perspectives do not change, the experience of engaging with difficult questions and competing values at least serves an important educational purpose; students become more reflective, conscientious, and open minded. Students also learn to see political and social controversies as rooted in important moral ideas, rather than petty disagreements rooted in partisan concerns. In this way, the dilemma discussions serve a very explicit democratic purpose, as the experience of publically engaging with difference deepens the moral and social culture of the classroom
Limitations of the Dilemma Discussion
The classic Kohlbergian moral dilemma has its strengths and weaknesses, some of which Kohlberg himself understood. First, hypothetical dilemmas marginalize the details, concerns, and obligations that influence real problems. How often do we encounter a true Trolley Problem, where we must either allow a speeding train to kill two people tied to the traintrack, or directly intervene so the train kills only one person on a separate traintrack track. This is interesting; in one case we don’t kill, but two people die, and in the other case, we kill, but only one person dies. But the value here is limited, the dilemma is mainly an intellectual exercise, not a prediction of how one might act in a similar situation. And the dilemma tends to ignore the complicated and subjective nature of ethical action, where personal ideals and commitments influence action, sometimes much more so than some remote and unachievable standard of justice.
As Carol Gilligan and other theorists have made clear, the language of justice, fairness and rights is limiting and partial. What about our need for connection, understanding, and caring? What about our personal ideals and intuitive evaluations? What happens when we approach moral dilemmas exclusively in terms of generic problems and standardized solutions? In asking these questions, Gilligan and others challenged the justice oriented tradition represented by Plato, Kant, Rawls, Kohlberg, etc., and broadened our understanding of moral development.