By Thomas McGrath – Humanities Teacher – High school
Dolphins are amazing. Not only are they like humans in many ways, but what is particularly fascinating is their navigation method. In basic terms it involves making repeated sounds and tuning in to their echo, thus allowing the dolphin to gauge its position within its environment; it is a dialogue with the infinite depths of their oceanic landscape.
Adolescents are amazing. Not only are they like humans in many ways, but what is particularly fascinating is their learning method. In basic terms it involves expressing actions and words and tuning in to their ‘echo’, thus allowing the adolescent to gauge its position within its society; it is a dialogue with the infinite depths of their social landscape.
This ‘echo’ is at the heart of ‘moral education’. The moral character of adolescents is not something ‘given’. It must be gradually assembled, disassembled, remodelled, and calibrated in an ongoing process of experiment and reflection – both consciously and unconsciously – by each individual. When expressing a thought or opinion, when putting themselves out on a limb for others, they are finely tuning in to the ‘echo’ this produces from those surrounding them; judging how it feels, and logging for future reference. It is our job as adults to ensure that the conditions and environment (ourselves included) are prepared in such a way as to foster this experimentation, while ensuring safety, adequate guidance in our responses, and assurance when it goes wrong.
As adults we are all in possession of a wealth of experience and wisdom from our own lives. But, when we think of passing these moral learnings on, often our tendency is toward monologue. There are certainly times when a well-placed and concise monologue is a potent tool, but ultimately it is through the experience of action and reaction that we as humans truly comprehend what it means to be a good person. So, to ensure that our adolescents form strong moral fortitude we must first model it ourselves, and second, not wonder “What should I say?” but rather “What should I ask?” For when we ask, we invite dialogue.
Dialogue is fundamental for moral education and learning in general. It requires engagement, listening and consideration of others and their ideas; it is a fluid process that can meander or be direct depending on the aim; it is social, collaborative, spontaneous and explorative – all qualities that appeal to adolescents. But most importantly, it is a form of ‘echolocation’ that allows the moral character to be developed and exercised. We want to assist our young people to become adults with the strength to enter into dialogue with the society they inhabit – verbally, physically, emotionally, in any form necessary – and to not be surprised or afraid when society talks back; but to tune in to the echo and respond with consideration and vigour.
[postscript]: If anyone were to compare me to a dolphin, I would be most flattered.