Teacher releases the inner saint in children

Professor of Education Joan Goodman

Professor of Education Joan Goodman

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Professor of Education Joan Goodman is convinced that early childhood education is at heart a moral undertaking. She has already co-authored one book on the subject, “The Moral Stake in Education,” with Professor of Law Howard Lesnick (“Research,” Current, Feb. 1, 2001).

So when she came across someone else teaching in the Graduate School of Education who not only shared this view, but successfully put it into practice, it was not surprising that she would propose that they both write a book.

That book, “Teaching Goodness: Engaging the Moral and Academic Promise of Young Children” (Allyn and Bacon, 2003), features the unconventional viewpoint and rigorous methods of its co-author, occasional GSE instructor Usha Balamore, who teaches kindergarten at Episcopal Academy in Lower Merion.

The unconventional viewpoint is that children can learn to “fall in love with goodness” through engagement with questions of right and wrong. “[Balamore] has clear ideas of what is worthwhile and what is not worthwhile behavior, but she wants to extract [that behavior] from her kids,” Goodman said.

Goodman was able to observe Balamore in the act of extraction in the graduate courses she taught in GSE. “She won the Best Teacher award here the second year she taught because she teaches our students the way she teaches her children.”

It might be more accurate to say that she teaches kindergartners the way she teaches graduate students, for Balamore’s method of extraction is very demanding. In its use of questions to get to the moral issues involved in actions, it closely resembles the Socratic method.

For example, the kindergartners might be asked in a lesson about Christopher Columbus, “What might Columbus have done to make friends with the Indians?” Then, after the students have acted out their various ideas, they would be asked which ones worked best.

Or when a student does something wrong, she will seek a public confession so that the other students in the class can offer support rather than punishing the student individually.

Balamore arrived at her views that children’s natural inclination towards goodness can be drawn out through engaged teaching over three decades of spiritual study and teaching in India and the United States. And while Goodman does not share Balamore’s essentially optimistic view of children’s nature, she does not deny the effectiveness of her approach. “I think children do have mischievousness in them as well as goodness,” she said. “Usha highlights that one side of them. But she pulls it off.”

And it’s not just because she is working with mostly affluent children, either. “She used these same techniques in impoverished areas in New Delhi, and it worked. She feels that if you get them young and you work on their souls, it will work anywhere.”

Originally published on April 17, 2003