This was presented to me in Rafe Esquith’s book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. He shares it with his fifth graders, uses it with them in discussing literary, film and historical characters, and encourages his students to aim high and develop their personal code of ethics.
Level I: I don’t want to get in trouble.
Level II: I want a reward.
Level III: I want to please somebody.
Level IV: I follow the rules.
Level V: I am considerate of other people.
Level VI: I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it.
I’ve since shared and discussed this with my kids and students I encounter while working as a substitute teacher. It’s powerful when kids examine the “levels” from which they are making their choices. I ask them for examples of when a higher level of ethics may conflict with a lower, for example when they may suffer for making a moral choice. I may point out that school often keeps students aiming at levels I and II, sadly (level III in the younger grades), and ask how having a higher level of ethics could affect their studies.