Volume:5, Issue: 3

Aug. 15, 2013

Janush Korczak's Road to Moral Education
Silverman, Marc [about] , [about]

KEYWORDS: Moral education; self-reformation; compassionate amelioration; caring theory; dialogue; pedagogical forgiveness; respect for children as individuals; children's self-government.
ABSTRACT: This article explores the road to moral education constructed by one of the most outstanding humanist educators and social pedagogues of the 20th century, Dr. Henryk Goldsmidt, known by his penname, Janusz Korczak (1878/9-1942). Analyzing and interpreting several educational practices selected from a very rich array of the educational practices that Korczak devised and introduced into the life of children in his two orphanages, the author locates three major sequential educational steps – lending genuine respect to children as individuals; fully accepting their strengths and failings while offering them many self-improvement opportunities; and sensitizing them to the importance of justice in their interpersonal relationships – that enabled these very abused and deprived children plagued by considerable social-interpersonal pathologies to undergo significant processes of self-re-formation during their residence in the orphanage over the period they lived in it. 

To cultivate the goodness that does exist; despite peoples’ weaknesses and in born negative instincts, such goodness indeed does exist. Are not Trust and the Belief in people precisely the goodness that we can cultivate and foster as an antidote to the badness we sometimes cannot eliminate, and whose growth we are barely able to curtail through very hard and concentrated effort. (Korczak’s Collected Writings, 1978, 255-56).

“…I believe educators primarily need to know: To lend full forbearance to every child in every case. The meaning of “to understand everything” is to lend it forgiveness […] Educators […] are called upon to adopt in their hearts and for their own sake a compassionate stand in their judgment of children’s misdeeds, failings and culpability […] children act wrongly – sin – out of ignorance […] because they succumbed to temptation, to an other’s manipulation […], because they could not find a way to act differently […]. Those who are angered and agitated by children for being what they are, for being as they were born or as their experiences have taught them to be, are not educators.” (Op. cit., 253-4).


Teaching and educating are professions based on interpersonal and social relationships, and the latter by their very nature ‘teach’ behavioral norms and values. Teaching and education entails developing learners’ ethical orientation, either directly, consciously and intentionally or indirectly and unconsciously and/or both.

In this essay I intend to share major features of an educational approach that achieved a relatively extensive success in assisting young people, children and adolescents (ages 8-14) in engaging themselves in and actually realizing significant progress in their ethical growth. The specific approach and set of educational practices I have in mind are those of the outstanding humanist educator of Polish and Jewish origins, Dr. Henryk Goldsmidt, known to the world by his pen name, Janusz Korczak (1878/9-1942). 

Janusz Korczak – A brief biographical overview

Janusz Korczak is renown world-wide for the heroic stand of non-violent opposition he took in response to the Nazis’ decision to liquidate the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw (July-August, 1942) and to deport everybody there, including all children, to the death camp of Treblinka.  Korczak refused numerous offers to escape into safety from the ghetto. His decision to stay with his charges, over a hundred orphans and staff of the Jewish orphanage he headed from 1912, and to accompany them through all the travails including death that the deportation would hold for them was firm and unequivocal.

The ethos of undertaking radical responsibility for the welfare of others, of lending support and accompaniment to the weakest sectors of the Warsaw ghetto population out of a profound compassion towards all that lives, breathes, creates, and suffers, and the uncompromising insistence on seeking justice and truth as components constituting the definition of humanness is expressed powerfully in this final chapter of Korczak’s life and the ones preceding it in the Warsaw ghetto (1940-1942).  However, the exclusive focus on Korczak’s dramatic end in Treblinka does not lend him and his “walk” and “talk” with the world the attention they more than well deserve.

To be more precise, Korczak was one of the outstanding humanist educators of the 20th century in the Western world – indeed, some would call him the most outstanding one.  In the two orphanages he headed, a Polish one (1919-1936) and a Polish-Jewish one (1912-1942) he developed and implemented a rich array of educational practices, methods and frameworks later known as the Korczakian system.  This ‘system’ enabled emotionally and intellectually deprived and abused children from broken families and with considerable social-interpersonal pathologies to undergo significant processes of self-re-formation during and through their residence in the orphanage over a period of five to seven years.  What was the core of the educational credo and ethos underlying this system? And how was this core translated into and reflected in some of this system’s most salient features?

‘Compassionate amelioration’: The climate and road towards moral education

The two quotes from Korczak’s short and seminal essay, “Principles and Action – Theory and Practice” (1924-25) that head this article articulate in a nutshell his understanding of the overarching aim of education and his basic educational approach towards its realization. Korczak’s educational practice and writings lend testimony to his strong conviction that true education worthy of this name is moral education – educating children’s character in the wholeness and fullness of their personalities in their actual presence, in the present; encouraging and strengthening their will towards goodness is the quintessential aim of education.

Considering this aim, educators are called upon to address one basic question: “Through what processes can the will towards goodness be strengthened and advanced, and the will to badness refined, reduced and re-channeled to more constructive life-building directions?” Korczak himself was keenly aware that it is much easier to pose this question than to locate adequately compelling responses to it. In his experience and estimation, the main difficulty in finding such responses stemmed from what he perceived to be the in-built limitations and frailties of humankind. 

The educational approach he developed to confront this very problematic gap between life-improving possibilities embedded in and emerging out of this constructive work on the human will, and the serious limitations negative genetic and social forces exercise over it, can be called “compassionate amelioration.” Its fundamental meaning is well conveyed in the following lines taken from a poetic prayer by the Protestant existentialist theologian Reinhold Neibhur: “Dear Lord - Please grant me the fortitude to accept those things not in my power to change; the courage to change those things in my power; and the intelligence to be able to discern between these two.”

Education is here conceived as an existential calling to undertake a wholehearted responsibility towards the present given personalities of the children and to the possible facilitation of their ethical development and advancement. Response-ability, the ability to respond in compassionate amelioration – care and critical-ethical concern – to the real worlds, aspirations, dilemmas and struggles of their charges in ‘the here and now’ of their existential presence – to these children’s “isness” - is the hallmark of good educators. In another place in this essay Korczak asks: “Who are the true educators?” and answers: “Those who while clearly recognizing their charges’ faults and failings, continue to lend them trust, confirmation and support, who accompany and help them to advance and improve themselves.”

The Korczakian educational system: Selected salient features 

Korczak constructed and implemented an interrelated web or network of educational practices, methods and frameworks that at once were grounded in and fostered a social climate of “compassionate amelioration.”  The most outstanding among them were:  the children’s parliament and court; this court’s constitution; the apprenticeship system; gradated citizenship status; ethical-improvement wagers and growth-charts; work assignments, units and points.   Each of these independently and through their interrelationship encouraged educational processes that ever-sought to realize a persuasive integration between a relational ethic of caring (a compassionate accompanying of human others) and a cognitive-reflective-critical ethic of justice (fairness) – committed to seeking just relationships between people. A profound and uncompromising respect of every individual is the thread that ties these two distinct types of ethics and moral education together. 

How do these educational processes lead not only to caring but to ‘caring in a just way,’ or ‘caring for justice’ – work itself out and through the practices/frameworks mentioned above? In my opinion, they work themselves out in all of these three sequential steps.

Due to the journal space limitations, I will demonstrate them only through an explanation and exploration of the children’s court and its constitution.

Step one: Educational forgiveness or genuine respect for human others’  ‘isness’

Korczak’s belief that children’s education must stay with them, and through their own assistance and dialogical cooperation, and his translation of this principle into affording them genuine self-governing institutions are expressed in his children’s parliament and court, and his composition of a constitution for this court’s proceedings. The constitution has no laws that define right or wrong, good or bad deeds. The deeds themselves and their rightness or wrongness are first defined by the plaintiff, the child who accuses another child of committing a misdeed against her/him; then, the court judges  – four children (who had not been accused of an offence over the previous week) and one educator (in a no vote advisory voice capacity) – are called upon to determine the extent to which this misdeed is wrong/unjust and also, the extent the perpetrator is responsible for and deserving blame, and punishment for committing it.  The ethical nature of one’s deed – bad, good, just, unjust, etc. – is defined in relational inter-subjective terms by the plaintiff and the children serving as court judges. 

Instead of substantive laws, the constitution contains 109 by-laws that are essentially guidelines towards evaluating the extent to which the accused/defendant should be held response-able for the misdeed(s) that the plaintiff has set before the court’s judgment. The first 99 by-laws numbered in singular units (1,2,3, etc. to 99) comprise a rich array of persuasive reasons/contexts/circumstances that “excuse” the offence of which the child is accused; the last ten numbered by hundreds (100, 200 up to 1,000) find her/him responsible for the offence; the severity of the offence is expressed in the extent to which the reprimand is publicized among the members of the orphanage’s community; by-laws No. 900 and 1000 are the severest ones: 900 warns the offended that expulsion from the orphanage is imminent unless she/he alters anti-social behavior patterns immediately and extensively; and 1000 expels her/him from the orphanage.  Its noteworthy that the offender who receives by-law 900 is afforded the opportunity to choose a more veteran member of the orphanage’s community to serve as an apprentice to assist in this last-minute/back-against-the-wall possibility of self-improvement; and also that a member who receives by-law 1000 and is expelled (over the 30 years of its existence expulsion happened quite rarely), after three months can apply for re-acceptance to the orphanage (on the assumption that over this periods he/she has mended his/her ways!).

The preamble to the constitution contains the phrase, “If a person does something bad, the best thing (to do/the best way to respond) is to forgive her/him”. This phrase is used twice as if it already is in some way or Korczak wants it to become in some way a given, self-understood, mantra-like postulate of any work with people in general and with children in particular.  The substance of this postulate is close to identical with that of the passage quoted above in the heading of this essay. Combining these passages with the 99 rulings that refrain from finding the offence deserving of reprimand, it would not be far-fetched to suggest that the subtitle Ninety (99) reasons why good people sometimes do bad thingscould legitimately be lent to this part of the law book – its longest and thickest part!

A deep respect and caring for people/children combine together in lending forbearance to their misdeeds through the adoption of a close-to-uncompromising compassionate understanding attitude to the many-good-reasons – circumstances and causes – that diminish their capacity to do good things or increase their capacity to do bad ones. As pointed-out above, in Korczak's eyes a good educator (and we’ll add here ‘an educator towards goodness’) is a person who, despite her/his close familiarity with his/her student’s flaws, faults and failings continues to believe in him/her, to lend the latter trust, support and encouragement to develop and to achieve further self-improvement.

Furthermore, the forbearance inspired, supported and fortified by compassionate understanding are not conceived here as a special favor or unwarranted gift but as an imperative commanding ethical respect for the student’s ‘given’ and ‘present’ “is”, or with permission, for the ‘his/her’  “is-ness”.  Blaming – castigating, indicting etc., – a child for his/her present “isness” – the isness s/he gives and is given to – not only demonstrates a lack of respect towards the individual present presence. It strongly militates against, and often eliminates any possibility of the child re-considering the problematic (damaging; destructive, etc.) ramifications of specific aspects of his present – isness. The relative easiness the child experiences with or towards her/his present – isness is not challenged. In short, while angry accusation and blaming locks-up, educator’s forgiveness unlocks and opens the “gates of reformation” through which the child could enter.

Step two: Offering 'Self-reformation' practice-fields

This forbearance or forgivingness is not meant in any way to lend a do-wrong free-pass to the child; a kind acceptance of the bad deed is immediately followed by and predicated upon the notion that in the future, hopefully the next time around, the child will not do it again.  Phrasing this in the terms of the Jewish ethical tradition, ones evoked by the Hebrew translation of this passage from the original Polish text:  “When an opportunity for the child to repeat this bad deed presents itself again, she/he will “mend her/his way” and refrain from committing it again; she/he will re-turn or turn backward or forward to a better primordial or utopian place.” 

Korczak's system of education abounds with ‘offerings’ of 2nd, 3rd, 4th and more mending/improving-behavior opportunities. For example, children entering into a wager with Korczak re: some sort of negative behavior they wanted to overcome (ethical-improvement wagers); the preponderance of non-indicting over indicting by-laws in the law-book; raising one’s citizen’s status because of becoming a more cooperative person, to name just a few.

The ubiquity and abundance of mending-ones’-way opportunities clearly demonstrate that Korczak truly believed that his charges would undertake response-ability under their own volition to mend their (bad) ways, and this belief was not pious, rhetorical, idle or empty.  On the contrary, it was based on his and his leading educational workers devising a relatively inexhaustible array of self-improvement opportunities or, improving-oneself and one’s relationship to others practicing fields.

Step three  – Not just caring but Just-caring

Pedagogical forgivingness is not only predicated in hope we have discussed earlier. There are also borders which it cannot or at least should not be allowed to traverse: it cannot tolerate, lead to, encourage, fortify or advance the development of an unjust social climate in which the strong, aggressive, violent, mischievous, manipulative, lazy, irresponsible etc. become stronger and stronger while the weaker, quiet, shy, reserved, cooperative, industrious, responsible become weaker and weaker.  In the last sentence of the passage from the preamble to the constitution Korczak states explicitly and clearly that the pursuit of justice and truthfulness is at the very core of the children’s’ court’s raison d’etre

“The children’s court is not justice, but its mission is to aspire towards justice; the court is not truth but its members seek truth.” (Korczak, 1996).

Retributive justice provides the grounds on which the array of diverse “self-reformation practice-fields” are built, and a relational paradigm of justice underlies and shapes the very substance of the court constitution and its procedures. Constructing the mending-ones’-way practice fields on these grounds, and this paradigm assisted students to learn and internalize rational ethical principles of give and take, effort and outcome, in-put and out-put, etc. On the other hand relational justice not only encouraged but actually ‘compelled’ children to develop emotional-intellectual capacities necessary to make informed, intelligent and responsible ethical judgments and decisions. 

More specifically, the many social frameworks that engaged them and in which they engaged, and the interest in and commitment to justice, fair-mindedness, rationality and truthfulness underlying them, challenged the children ‘to work on gaining self-knowledge, and to develop and actually exercise moral reasoning based on rational thinking, critical reflection and judgment, beneficence, empathy, and compassion directed towards themselves and others.

Korczak's road to moral education is constructed out of a fruitful tension-laded integration between three contemporary reigning theories of morality and moral education: Kohlberg's deontological intellectual-cognitive one; Lickona's virtue theory; and Nel Nodding’s caring theory.  A future article I plan to pen and hope to publish will focus on showing how the Korczakian system manages to incorporate the useful insights of each of these theories while at the same time 'correcting'/overcoming the serious failings and dangers in each of them.

Concluded and ever-yet-to-be completed.


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