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Reflective Judgment

Gifted Education and Support

This article by Felicia A. Dixon presents teachers with a number of ideas on how they can teach their students to reason and discuss, debate, or write about a number of scenarios.

Author: Feldman, D.H. & Morelock, M.J.
Publication: Handbook of Gifted Education, Chapter 35, pp. 455-469
Publisher: Allyn & Bacon
Year: 2003
    A real challenge in education is…“empowering individuals to know that the world is far more complex than it first appears, and that they must make interpretive arguments and decisionjudgments that entail real consequences for which they must take responsibility and from which they may not flee by disclaiming expertise.” (King and Kitchener, 1994, p. 1)

As King and Kitchener aptly state, we must empower our students to make interpretive arguments and decision-judgments about vexing problems in all disciplines. These moral dilemmas entail real consequences for which all our students, including gifted students, must take responsibility.

Effective gifted education must offer something suitable for thoughtful minds to consider, to reflect on, and on which to arrive at a judgment that considers all aspects of the problem/ issue/dilemma at hand. Regardless of academic discipline, problems/issues/dilemmas should be constructed that require students to reason—not just to memorize—and to arrive at a conclusion. Such curriculum that is focused on rigorous examination of information is valuable for gifted students.

King and Kitchener’s Reflective Judgement Model (1994) describes seven stages of reasoning, culminating in reflective thinking. In working with students, they suggest writing an initial moral dilemma to determine how students think through it. For example, consider the following moral dilemma from the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee:

    Some say Boo Radley should be brought to trial because he killed Bob Ewell. Others contend that putting Boo Rdley on trial is pointless, sort of like “killing a mockingbird.”

Obviously, this is very open-ended. It is written to suggest two different perspectives to consider about a major theme in the novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Although it is fairly simple in its length and sentence construction, it does invite consideration, which is what you want to elicit from your students to see how they are reasoning through the issue. King and Kitchener suggest that individuals are in Pre-reflective Thinking if their reasoning about the above dilemma fits one of the first three stages:

Stage 1: Knowledge is concrete and can be known through direct observation. In this case, I really cannot comment much about this because I do not know Boo Radley or Bob Ewell. I see things only as concrete and observational— black and white.

Stage 2: Knowledge is absolute and is available through observation or via authority figures. In this case, the teacher lectured on this and thought that…(teacher’s perspective). I do not know as much as my teacher, therefore, I believe what he/she said. I defer to the authority figure.

Stage 3: Knowledge is absolutely certain or temporarily uncertain. Only in the future will we know for certain what is right. In this case, Who am I to say? Only the end of the novel will tell for sure what the answer is.

The following two stages are termed Quasi Reflective Judgment Stages, which present advanced levels of reasoning skills suitable for gifted and talented students ready for the challenge:

Stage 4: People claim to know what is right for themselves, but are not willing to judge others’ behaviors or ideas. Everyone has a right to his/her own opinion. In this case, how can I judge you for the way you think about this novel or this situation? You are entitled to your own opinion just as much as I am entitled to mine.

Stage 5: While people may not know directly or with certainty, they may know within a context based on subjective interpretations of evidence, a belief called relativism. What is known is always limited by the perspective of the knower. In this case, we may not know with certainty exactly what Harper Lee meant by this scenario. I have my own perspective—based on my world view and what I know. You have your own perspective and your own subjective interpretation.

While both stage 4 and 5 approach more independence in reasoning, they do not indicate that the student is reasoning through the information given. Rather, they show reticence to judge, which holds the student back from considering the entire situation freely. With all of these thoughts in mind, consider the following two final stages termed Reflective Thinking:

Stage 6: People construct knowledge into individual conclusions about ill-structured problems on the basis of information from a variety of sources. Interpretations that are based on evaluations of evidence across contexts and on the evaluated opinions of reputable others can be known. In this case, students consider the dilemma itself based on a variety of information. They form conclusions based on what they know and what is evident in the novel about the situation. They evaluate information independently and move on with their own judgments.

Stage 7: People view knowledge as the outcome of reasonable inquiry in which solutions to ill-structured problems are constructed. They evaluate the adequacy of those solutions in terms of what is most reasonable or probable on the basis of the current evidence, and they reevaluate the evidence when relevant new evidence, perspectives, or tools of inquiry become available. This is the highest level of thinking and is noted by the ability to add new evidence when it presents itself. In this case, the more we learn about Boo Radley and Bob Ewell, the more we can re-evaluate the scenario. Students are able to view both sides equally and find the most salient idea, and change their thoughts as new evidence presents itself. Few students can do this.

Begin with a simple scenario (as the one presented above) to see where your students are. Do not stop there. Add the following dilemma that touches on the same novel but extends it:

A Moral Ethical Dilemma from Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
Some say that reading Go Set a Watchman, totally dispels all admiration they have for Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, because now they know that Atticus is really a racist. Others say that the whole issue is one of perspective—that of Scout at 26 years old versus that of Scout at 6 years old. In other words, the hero worship of a young girl for her father is countered by the reality of who that father is to a twenty-six year old woman returning home to her small town from New York City. What do you think?

You now can see how your students are reasoning. You can have students discuss, debate, or write about these scenarios. I presented literature-based examples, but you can write these dilemmas from all disciplines. I start with a simple scenario to see exactly how students are attacking the issue. You may want to present the first dilemma as a written exercise. But as you proceed, it certainly makes sense to debate these issues. There is rigor in this strategy, both for you and for your students. Additionally, your students can develop a greater ability to reason—so you are inherently working with a growth mindset for your students. I wish you well as you explore moral dilemmas and work to encourage reflective judgment in your students.


King, P.M. & Kitchener, K.S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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