Echo, Dialogue and Moral Education in the Adolescent Programme

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.

The plan of study and work

By Allyson Ashfield – Kawakawa Teacher, high school

Do you know why the weekly timetable in Kawakawa has the elements it does? I certainly didn’t when I first saw it a year ago!

Kawakawa’s timetable is based on Maria Montessori’s Plans of Studies and Work, (Childhood to Adolescents, Appendix B). It provides the plan for the perfect prepared environment within which the adolescent can develop, as in this plane of development (12 -18 years) they are ‘social new-borns’. The two-part plan consists of ‘The Moral and Physical Care of Boys and Girls’ (or if you like, the practical considerations of social organisation), and ‘The Educational Syllabus’.

Together these two parts meet the adolescents’ developmental needs of:

Part One

  • participating in production and exchange,
  • involvement in the use of the land and
  • working with head and hands

Part Two

  • self–expression,
  • psychic development including moral development and
  • preparation for adult life through general education topics


Micro-economy affords the opportunity for production and exchange, working with head and hands and of course self-expression and Occupations allows for meaningful work to take place (often involving use of the land also) as at the end of the unit there is a benefit to the community. An example of such a benefit this year, is the orchard, which students have developed, where working with head and hand has taken place. Maths, languages, micro-economy and community meeting all aid in psychic development and occupations and humanities aid in the preparation for adult life. Community work forms part of the moral development aspect of the plan. A final timetable component is reflection, which allows for quiet time when the brain can wander in thought and give time to processing.

It is important to recognise that self- expression is a primary developmental pathway for adolescents, as this is the age of identity formation so is interwoven throughout the week in all elements of the timetable, as are all the developmental needs. However, Wednesdays are dedicated to self-expression and the adolescents currently get to participate in the following options: music, art, drama, hard technology and education outside the classroom.

The Plan of Study and Work is just one part of the Montessori philosophy, which is needed to ensure the development of the adolescents’ needs, with the aim of creating fully normalised adults who will emerge capable of contributing to society.