Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Budding Brains: Cognitive and Moral Development

Human Development

Tanner Lusher, Kelsey Willems | Published: December 1st, 2023 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course Psychology
  • Time Frame Time Frame 90 minutes
  • Duration More 1-2 periods


In this lesson, students discover how the human mind develops the ability to perform cognitive functions and engage in moral reasoning. First, students establish what they already know about how people learn. Next, students gain a basic understanding of cognitive and moral development by reading two articles focusing on the theories of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. Students extend their understanding further by comparing and contrasting the two theorists. Finally, students engage with different questions and scenarios in paired conversations before reflecting on how these concepts impact their own growth.

Essential Question(s)

How does the human mind learn to perform vital functions and make moral decisions?



Students participate in a Commit and Toss activity to consider how people learn.


Students use the Paired Texts H-Chart strategy to gain a basic understanding of cognitive and moral development.


Students create a Double Bubble Map that will help them compare and contrast the major theories of Piaget and Kohlberg.


Students consider how they learn while engaging in discussion using the Roundabout Conversations strategy.


Students reflect on what they have learned and how it relates to their own human development using the How am I feeling? What Am I thinking? strategy.


  • Lesson Slides (attached) 

  • H-Chart handout (attached, 1 per student)

  • Piaget’s Cognitive Development handout (attached, 1 per pair)

  • Kohlberg’s Moral Development handout (attached, 1 per pair)

  • Poster Paper (1 per pair)

  • Markers 

  • Notebook paper

  • Sticky notes (1 per student)

  • Pencil/pen


10 Minute(s)

Facilitate the lesson using the attached Lesson Slides. 

Transition through slides 3-4 and go over the essential question and learning objectives in as much detail as you feel necessary. Advance to slide 5 and ask students to take a moment and consider the following question:

How do people learn?

Pass out a sticky note to each student (or have students get out paper) and instruct students to write down a brief response to the question on the paper or sticky note. 

Next, transition to slide 6 and introduce the Commit and Toss strategy to students. Ask students to crumple-up their previously written response into a small ball and toss it into a designated area in the classroom. Students will then go pick up a paper that is not their own and read it to themselves. Call on students and ask them to read the response of one of their classmates to begin an initial discussion about how they believe people learn. Remind students that there is no right or wrong answer. The purpose of this activity and discussion is to establish what they already know or believe related to human development. Repeat this process as often as time allows.


30 Minute(s)

Display slide 7 and review the definitions of cognition and morality in as much detail as needed. Ask whether students have any questions and clear up any misconceptions. 

Proceed to slide 8. Pass out a copy of the attached H-Chart handout to each student and have them find a partner. Next, give each pair one copy of the attached Piaget’s Cognitive Development handout and one copy of the attached Kohlberg’s Moral Development handout. Have students determine who will read which handout. Introduce the Paired Texts H-Chart strategy to students by explaining that the left side of the H-Chart is where they will summarize the Piaget article and the right side is where they will summarize the Kohlberg article. Students will then combine what they have learned from both articles to answer the question in the middle of the H-Chart. Give students about ten minutes to read their specific articles and record the main ideas or takeaways from it on one side of the H-Chart handout. 

When students are done summarizing their own article, instruct them to talk with their partner and share what they took away from their article. Remind students to take notes of what their partner said on the other side of the chart. Lastly, have students work together to apply what they learned from the readings to answer the essential question of the lesson in the middle section of the H-Chart. Share out as time permits.


25 Minute(s)

Pass out one poster paper and a few markers to each pair. Display slide 9 and introduce the Double Bubble Map strategy by pointing out the graphic on the slide and explain to students that they will make their own version of this on the poster paper that you provided for them. (Alternatively, they could do this on their own notebook paper if supplies are limited.) Explain to students that they will work together to create a map as a visual representation to compare and contrast the processes of cognitive and moral development based on what they learned from reading the articles and the notes they took on their H-Chart. Give students about 5-10 minutes to complete their maps and then ask for volunteers to share out. As you move into discussion, feel free to unhide slide 10 if you think having a visual for cognitive and moral development will help students better understand the concepts.


15 Minute(s)

Display slide 11. Introduce the Roundabout Conversations strategy to students before starting the activity. Explain that students must be in two evenly sized groups for this activity. Divide the students in a way that works best for you or that they are familiar with in your classroom. The first group makes a smaller inner circle facing right and the second group makes a larger circle around the inner circle facing left. Explain that students will move with the music and then stop when the music stops and talk about the question on the board with someone from the other circle. Below are the discussion questions: 

  • How do you know the difference between right and wrong?

  • Describe your thought process when making a distinction between what you feel is right or wrong?

  • How do you prefer to learn something new? (theoretical knowledge vs practical experience) 

  • What factors do you consider when you are getting dressed for school?

Transition to slide 12. There is animation on this slide so that you can display one question at a time. Prepare a classroom appropriate song on your computer or cell phone to play while students are walking between questions. Start the music and direct students to start walking in a circle in the direction they are facing. After a while, stop the music and have students turn and face the person from the other circle who is across from them. Give them 2-3 minutes to discuss their response to Question 1 with their partner; then start the music again. Be sure to “click” the slide to make Question 1 disappear; then “click” again to make Question 2 appear. Repeat this process for the remaining questions. Try to ensure that students are speaking with a new partner during each round.  Afterwards, as a class, ask for volunteers to share their responses to the questions as time permits.


10 Minute(s)

Advance to slide 13 and have students take out a piece of paper. Direct students to write responses to the following questions on the slide using the How Am I Feeling? What Am I Thinking? strategy.

  • How would you describe your understanding of how the human mind learns to perform vital functions and make moral decisions?

  • How do you think this knowledge could be beneficial for your life as you grow older?

Collect student responses as they walk out and use them for assessment or to inform what you still need to review on this topic.