Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Cultivating Moral Imagination Through Teacher Education

  • Pamela Bolotin JosephEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_152-1

Introduction: The Moral Imagination

The concept of moral imagination comprises ethical knowledge, personal integrity, and enhanced sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others; it involves a holistic intermingling of heightened cognitive and affective abilities – a “dynamic interplay of perception, reasoning, and feeling” (Fesmire 2003, p. 146). Individuals with moral imagination are “engaged in critical, creative, and imaginative searches into moral situations” leading to reflection on their own beliefs and behaviors and the “social and cultural contexts that shape who they are and how they live” (Abowitz 2007, p. 298). Once more, moral imagination encompasses the envisioning of ideals and possibilities as individuals with moral imagination are able to imagine profoundly different values and actions, including alternative, non-dominant worldviews, which inspire moral agency.

Authors representing the humanities and professional fields – including business, law, medicine, and teacher education – explain that moral imagination is more than an innate quality as it can and should be fostered through the liberal arts and professional education. They argue that professionals need to discern embedded ethical issues in everyday decisions, to resist becoming absorbed by the technical nature of their work, and to acquire enhanced empathy. They believe that fostering moral imagination enriches the teaching of ethics in the professions; subsequently, when individuals obtain moral imagination, they become more ethical professionals.

Components of Moral Imagination

Scholars writing about moral imagination often interpret this complex concept by delineating its essential interrelated components: Moral emotions include feelings that permit sympathetic and empathic connection with others and the desire to take moral action; moral perception is the ability of people to become aware of others’ needs, hopes, and potentials as well as perceiving the moral nature of situations and experiences; ethical reasoning refers to realistic understanding of situations calling for moral response and approaching situations through a moral standpoint; critical reflection means the continuous scrutiny of individual beliefs and actions as well as examination of immorality and injustice in existing social-political conditions; and visioning in moral imagination refers to the ability to transcend status quo thinking and to envision possibilities for the actualization of ideal moral values and a better society or world.

Moral Emotions

A fundamental component of moral imagination is moral emotion, the feelings of sympathy and empathy. These feelings are crucial for connecting individuals to others so that moral imagination fosters “a vision of relationship” – of the interconnections among all who live on this Earth (Lederach 2005, p. 35) and an appreciation for the natural world. However, experiencing empathy and sympathy and being overwhelmed by these emotions is a misleading characterization of moral emotions. Rather, these feelings spark an imaginative process leading to attentiveness to others’ needs. “Taking the attitudes of others stirs us beyond numbness so we pause to sort through others’ aspirations, interests, and worries as our own” (Fesmire 2003, p. 65).

Moral Perception

Therefore, another component is moral perception – the ability of people to “grasp mutable, indeterminate, and vague situations in which rules and clear criteria for their application are difficult to determine” (Kim 2009, p. 70), to ascertain the needs of others, and to become aware of moral possibilities. Scholars often portray moral imagination as an enhancement of cognition, in particular, “our ability to see and comprehend a moral situation encountered in experience” (Abowitz 2007, p. 288). Moral perception allows individuals to see the ethical qualities of a given situation or dilemma and to apprehend that more than pragmatic or utilitarian concerns are involved – especially when decisions affect the welfare of others. Such perception may also lead to critical awareness of violence and environmental devastation. Furthermore, with keen moral perception, individuals would discern the consequences of apathy and realize the need to take action.

Ethical Reasoning

Ethical reasoning is another cognitive capacity of moral imagination “involving the ability to understand the context of a situation that requires moral judgment,” “the moral rules that come into play,” and “the new possibilities one has envisioned” – allowing people to “think more creatively within the constraints of what is morally possible” (Werhane 2002, p. 34). Ethical reasoning extends perception so that people can evaluate from “a moral point of view” (Werhane 2002, p. 34) and become empowered to make decisions that may profoundly affect their own lives and those of others. As well, scholars who analyze the relationship between moral imagination and ethical reasoning describe how moral imagination develops fluidity of reasoning so to “think in alternatives” (Abowitz 2007, p. 288).

Critical Reflection

Considering enhanced cognitive capacity on a continuum beginning with moral perception followed by ethical reasoning, the next element then is critical reflection. Scholars link such reflection to moral imagination because without examination of personal beliefs and deep understanding of the societal conditions, people may continue to have narrow and self-interested perspectives. Critical self-reflection leads to knowledge of self, including “blind spots,” and ethical understanding of one’s “actions and outcomes” (Kim 2009, p. 66). Individuals who have moral imagination can recognize forces and actions that limit the flourishing of others as they continually evaluate their own choices and actions as the envision a better world. For individuals who possess moral imagination, critical reflection goes beyond critique as it becomes a catalyst for reasoned moral action.


Finally, moral imagination involves “the capacity to concretely perceive what is before us in light of what could be” (Fesmire 2003, p. 65) and to formulate “notions and ideals of ourselves and our worlds beyond what we currently experience or know as reality” (Abowitz 2007, p. 288). Thus, holding a vision of a better world is an imperative for cultivating moral imagination – seen as “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (Lederach 2005, p. 29). Such inspired contemplation of possibilities suggests moral imagination’s power to energize individuals’ efforts to work toward a vision of transformation as they reject status quo values and behaviors which limit the flourishing of individuals, organizations, and society.

Educating for Moral Imagination Across the Professions

There are a number of reasons given for fostering moral imagination by authors writing across various professional fields. Advocates of teaching for moral imagination view this concept holistically, envisioning that individuals who possess moral imagination not only can articulate and live according to moral guidelines, they are influenced by ideals which transcend conventional thinking as individuals no longer habitually follow traditional cultural norms. Also, in the professional literature, scholars interpret moral imagination as a catalyst for spurring people to confront morally deficient organizational cultures; whether the organizations are schools or businesses, people can be “trapped within an organizational culture that creates mental habits that function as boundary conditions, precluding creative thinking” (Werhane 2002, p. 39). Once more, it is suggested that moral imagination impels people to challenge acceptance of brutality toward humans and the Earth and, alternatively, to find ways to “transcend the cycles of violence that bewitch the human community” (Lederach 2005, 29, p. 4) by resolving conflicts peacefully, experiencing connection to all of life, and visualizing a peaceable world.

Although moral imagination cannot be easily cultivated, especially since its requisites – beginning with empathy and perception – develop throughout people’s lives (including the years before they enter adulthood and the professions), nevertheless scholars maintain that certain educational experiences can stimulate and enhance these capacities. Strategies for cultivating moral imagination within the professions include engagement with literature and other forms of artistic expression; scholars maintain that introducing the humanities into the curriculum can awaken sympathetic understanding of the lives of others. To develop critical reflection, they recommend the study of ethics and professional ethics with attention to application in real-world situations. Other curricular strategies include deliberation on moral dilemmas relating to professional experiences and development of personal narratives that reveal moral quandaries and ethical insights. Authors also propose service learning – a practice in which academic or professional courses require students’ service in communities outside of the school or university and reflection on those experiences – for the purpose of enhancing students’ growth of understanding of the situations of people and their life circumstances; this strategy is mentioned as especially important within professional fields in which students would not normally have opportunities to help others (as they might in teacher and nursing preparation).

The Moral Imagination and Teacher Education Curriculum

Within the professional literature, a number of authors specifically write about moral imagination as an aspiration for teacher education. Scholars in this field recommend multifaceted curricula – curricular content and experiential learning – for the purpose of enhancing teachers’ cognitive and affective moral capacities. Once more, they contend that teacher educators themselves need to fully appreciate the moral nature of teaching and the intricacy of moral imagination when their aim is to foster the development of ethical teachers. As follows, offering curriculum for cultivating moral imagination means transforming teacher education by rejecting limited approaches that only foster teachers’ technical competency. Instead, to cultivate moral imagination, teacher educators need to attend to components of moral imagination through enhancement of teachers’ and candidates’ moral emotions, moral perception, ethical reasoning, critical reflection, and ability to envision alternatives to human behavior toward creating a better world.

Deliberate fostering of moral emotions, sympathetic and empathic connection with others, has been characterized as an aim of teacher education – despite the fact that many individuals enter teaching because of altruistic purposes; although teaching candidates may profess moral motives (namely, love for children), this expression of moral calling does not represent a fully realized formation of moral emotions. Some teacher educators believe that they should encourage candidates to expand their moral feelings through aesthetic experiences; for instance, the teacher education curriculum may include fictional as well as autobiographical stories and films about how schooling can harm students and how teachers – moved by sympathy for their students and empathy with their despair – try to ameliorate difficult situations. Another approach for fostering moral emotions is reading narratives about young peoples’ experiences, for example, from published accounts about the violence in their lives. As well, teacher candidates and teachers in professional development courses learn about the lives of young people by interviewing children, adolescents, and parents about their schooling experiences. Service and community-based learning also are features of numerous teacher education programs so that individuals entering the teaching profession develop empathy with others from unalike cultural or social-economic backgrounds.

The scholarship on moral imagination also addresses the development of moral perception as a capacity required of teachers so that they are better able to consider the ethical issues embedded in teaching decisions and dilemmas. Such acuity allows teachers to see how all aspects of their work have moral significance. There are several curricular approaches for fostering moral perception. Instructors in content area courses can help teacher education students to see opportunities for ethical inquiry across the curriculum – especially in literature (including children’s literature), social studies and science – as such school subjects are replete with ethical issues and dilemmas. Curriculum that spurs moral feelings correspondingly can develop moral perception so that teachers do not just feel for but understand students’ realities, perspectives, and interests but see paths for alleviating problems and improving conditions. Literature to enhance empathy can be used as a springboard for contemplating fundamental ethical issues faced by teachers who desire to protect their students from harm as well as from the harsh or arbitrary consequences young people face in schooling. Therefore, practitioners who develop moral perception can foresee more visionary futures for the children and adolescents they teach, allowing teachers “to see not just who our students are here and now, but to see into the future and imagine their best possibilities” (Kim 2009, p. 70).

Ethical reasoning is another goal based on the belief that teachers need to deeply understand the moral consequences of their actions and to imagine “various competing possible lines of action” (Kim 2009, p. 70). Accordingly, the teacher education curriculum includes philosophical study for expanding and deepening understanding of ethical principles and fostering appreciation of ethical complexity. So too, teacher educators should help their students explore implicit and explicit moral messages in schooling. To help enhance teachers’ capacity for ethical reasoning, teacher educators need to offer provocative curriculum; they must provide learning experiences that will help their students to understand how ethical issues are entwined in teaching practice and challenge students’ comfort with status quo beliefs about morality. Therefore, teachers should learn about the history of schooling – particularly about young peoples’ experiences of racism, discrimination, and denial of education – and also to engage in curriculum inquiry by investigating everyday phenomena to problematize and question the commonplace and to recognize the structures that create immoral classrooms and schools. Such knowledge helps teachers to develop a more sophisticated understanding of practical ethics and gives them the ability to scrutinize unexamined cultural assumptions. Clearly, to foster ethical reasoning, the teacher education curriculum must foster analysis of educational beliefs and societal values. In this way, critical reflection involves ethical inquiry into social-political circumstances influencing teaching and schooling.

To develop the capacity for critical reflection, scholars implore teacher educators to provide opportunities for self-reflection to elicit awareness of teachers’ own values, their moral dilemmas, and ethical issues embedded in their practice. But teachers’ reflection on their moral lives must be more than affirmation or celebration (Abowitz 2007, p. 288); such self-scrutiny helps individuals to examine beliefs that influence their decisions and actions. As such, the teacher education curriculum allows spaces for teachers and candidates to be introspective about their own values. Teachers should be encouraged to investigate the origins of their beliefs to contemplate if they hold naïve moral assumptions stemming from unexamined conventions or from thoughtfully constructed choices. One methodology for critical self-reflection is writing reflective journals to explore moral quandaries, dissonance between initial values and reformulated beliefs, and growth of understanding. Another related assignment is a qualitative self-study – a process of investigation and critique – in which teachers and teaching candidates apply their learning about the moral dimensions of education to analyze their practices, classrooms, and schools to perceive value messages – including such manifestations as symbolic signs or posters, explicit rules, forms of competition, and patterns of adult admonitions as well as praise.

Moreover, to fully develop moral imagination, teachers must develop the capacity for visioning. This final component of moral imagination goes beyond thinking about alternatives in the usual repertoire of moral reasons. Moral imagination “must do more than merely help students articulate who they presently believe they are, as moral beings” (Abowitz 2007 p. 288). Rather, the teacher education curriculum should also introduce transformational ethics and practices so that teachers are guided by goals that challenge conventional aims and methods (Kim 2009, p. 65). This component of moral imagination, visioning, leads to consciousness transformation stimulated by learning about profoundly different ways of thinking about the world as well as contemplation of “infinite possibilities hidden in the actual” (Kim 2009, p. 70). One way to inspire visioning is to present alternative conceptions of ethics, in particular, the work of contemporary ethicists who write about cosmopolitanism and ecojustice. Such study provides insight about structural violence and about deeply ingrained individualistic or nationalistic values that may be part of the dominant culture. Moreover, learning about the ethics of non-violence cultivates teachers’ imagination about what it would mean to live according to ethical ideals in which moral obligations extend to those outside of one’s family, culture, and country and to care about all forms of life and the Earth. Visioning then becomes a process of adopting a peace-based worldview and committing to work for non-violence and restoration of the natural world. Thus, the curriculum of teacher education would include peace and eco-justice curriculum, including strategies for caring classrooms, restorative justice, and environmental sustainability.


In sum, scholars believe that teachers should acquire these attributes of moral imagination: enhanced sympathy and empathy, critical awareness of violence and inequity, unconventional thinking, envisioning of just and moral possibilities for school and society, and the ability and desire to challenge indifference, inhumanity, and environmental destruction. Therefore, teacher education needs a curriculum that is respectful of teachers’ moral motivations and ethical capacities and yet is complex, challenging, and visionary. As well, teacher educators need to conceive of curriculum as an integrated effort across courses and learning activities so that their students have multiple and ongoing opportunities for developing and enhancing all the components of moral imagination. As many of the knowledge areas of this curriculum require specific attention to ethics and the moral dimensions of education, there are advantages to offering specifically focused courses, so teachers have more opportunities to deeply consider the moral nature of their work and possibilities of schooling for transformation of individuals and society. Yet, opportunities to enhance moral imagination need not be introduced only as additional or isolated element but across the curriculum to help teacher reimagine their beliefs about curriculum and pedagogy.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Educational StudiesUniversity of Washington BothellBothellUSA

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  • Daniella J. Forster

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