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William Damon

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William Damon is the Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, Stanford University. He pioneered the use of innovative educational methods such as peer collaboration, project-based learning, and the youth charter. His current work includes a project to develop youth charters for schools and communities nationwide. Dr. Damon writes on intellectual and moral development through the lifespan and is the editor-in-chief of New Directions for Child Development and The Handbook of Child Psychology.

William Damon is the author of 16 books and numerous book chapters and articles on education and human development, especially moral development. His work has been influential for research and theory in academic developmental psychology and in the broader society, especially around questions of childrearing and schooling that supports children’s social and moral development. Damon’s editorship of the 5th and 6th editions of the Handbook of Child Psychology places him–along with Carl Murchison, Leonard Carmichael, and Paul Mussen–as one of the great organizers and synthesizers of developmental science. As part of Damon’s commitment to the study of human growth, he also was the founder and long-term editor of a series called New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development.

By the time Damon captured the attention of the popular press with his book The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth (1990), he had written and edited seven scholarly books on the social and moral development of children. His early works include The Social World of the Child (1977), Moral Development (1978), and Social and Personality Development: Infancy through Adolescence (1983). These studies focused on how the moral conduct of children and adolescents plays out in real social situations. Damon emphasized that moral thinking and behavior develop in dynamic relationship with family, peers, teachers, and the larger social world. Moral emotions (such as empathy, shame, and guilt) and the principles of distributive justice (which can be seen in sharing) flourish, or may be smothered, within these relationships.

The Moral Child marked a shift in Damon’s scholarship. The book surveyed and synthesized the large, complex body of research on moral development and translated it for the general public. In addition to bringing him a new audience, the book articulated the implications of the best research for educational practice, childrearing and family relations, communities, and the American culture more broadly.

In 1995, Damon gained an even larger popular audience with his book, Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in Our Homes and Schools (1995), which won the Parent’s Choice Award. The book proposed that prevailing child-rearing beliefs and practices are not leading to morally mature young people. Damon argued that, “with best intentions,” parents and schools have been in large part responsible for this situation: our unwavering focus on self-esteem and child-centered practices were misguided and reflect a misunderstanding of “the nature of children and their developmental needs. . . .All the commonly accepted standards for young people’s skills and behavior have fallen drastically. Less is expected of the young, and in turn less is received.” To build character and competence requires high moral standards and expectations.

Another important focus in Damon’s work has been his study of moral exemplars. His first book on this subject, Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment (1992), written with developmental psychologist Anne Colby, opened up a new perspective on moral development and has been widely cited and built upon in the field. Damon and Colby studied individuals who had shown “a sustained commitment to moral ideals or principles” over many decades of their lives. The authors found a number of qualities that were consistent across the entire group of exemplars, including a sense of certainty about their core moral beliefs, a positive attitude toward hardship and challenge, receptivity toward new ideas and goals, a lifelong capacity for moral growth, and a strong integration of their moral values into their sense of self.

Damon has also worked with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the Good Work Project (GWP). The project studies exemplary leaders and practitioners known in their professions for doing work that is both successful in the usual terms of the field as well as highly ethical. The project seeks to understand the values, motives, and adaptive approaches of these individuals, as well as the challenges and pressures they face. Damon coauthored, with Gardner and Csikszentmihalyi, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (2001) and has written a book on business based on the project -- The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing.

The GWP not only aims to understand good work, but also seeks to promote its presence in the professions it studies. Damon has partnered for several years with the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ) to produce educational curriculum and training workshops to support high quality journalism that reflects the principles identified in the Good Work study of that profession. The program has been delivered to more than 6,000 newspeople in more than 200 print, online, broadcast journalism organizations.

Currently, Damon is professor of education at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. His work at the Center is designed “to promote the character and competence of all young people growing up in today’s world . . . [to provide] guidance for parenting, for improved educational practice, and for youth development in a wide variety of community settings.” One study that is currently underway, for example, looks at young people who exhibit a striking sense of moral purpose, including, for example, a 12-year-old boy who has been raising money to build wells for drinking water in Africa since he was eight years old. This research has been expanded in the work of Dr. Kendall Cotton-Bronk.

He is currently working with Howard Gardener and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the GoodWork Project

(This entry has been adapted by the author from an entry in the Encyclopedia of Applied Developmental Science)

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