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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Send reinforcements. We're going to teach values

Brian Hill
Brian Hill is Emeritus Professor of Education at Murdoch University in Perth. He has studied values education issues over many years. Brian Hill's article will appear in the Summer 2003 edition of EQ Australia.

'I don't dare teach values!' This comment came from a teacher, who told me of the furore that occurred in her school when an irate parent appeared at the principal's door saying, 'I want to make a complaint. Your Steve Smith is teaching my child values I don't approve of'.

This teacher said she had no stomach for this kind of confrontation and now sticks closely to teaching facts and skills. Is that a better way to be? Not if the aim is to educate students, as opposed to merely developing their technical skills. If that is all they are presented with, students get a very warped view of what makes the world go round. But it's the safe way in the absence of an agreed school policy as to which values to teach and how to teach them.

In recent years, several State school systems in Australia have been edging cautiously towards the formulation of value frameworks, though these sometimes read like mere shopping lists of virtues. In the meantime, there are those who say that any attempt to construct a framework of agreed values is futile in the light of the variety of world views and value stances now abroad in pluralistic communities like ours. 'It's too late to get agreement,' they say. 'Just prepare them for the workforce.'

There are two answers to this. The first is to point out that no school can operate without committing itself to certain values. 'Preparing them for the workforce' is itself a value. Is that all there is to education? So either we shut up shop or we put our values on the table. And since the State school has been set up to prepare children for life in this same pluralistic community, it had better start negotiating with the interested parties—parents, teachers, students, leaders in education, business and the community, etc—to develop agreements at the level of values. We have got to try.

The second answer is that some experiments of this kind have already been tried, and the prospects are promising. An enquiry into 'Civics and Citizenship Education', launched in the Keating era, has moved beyond the initial motherhood statements into projects such as the 'active citizenship' curricula being trialled in some places, part-funded by the present Federal Government.

Again, detailed value charters have been spelled out (with further refinement in view) in at least three States. The next challenge is to develop the habit at school level of negotiating with the local community to identify further common values and goals (compatible with the State charter) that can form the backdrop of each school's operation as a learning community.

Among the values to be identified, there needs to be a sub-set of values that relate to how we actually teach values. In a past generation, when society was less diverse in composition, it was common to find values being taught in a very dogmatic and authoritarian way. But children have rights, many of which have been spelled out at international level. Students are persons, not pawns, and we owe it to them to develop their ability to evaluate beliefs and values, and choose which values to live by.

The way ahead is what I have called 'committed impartiality'. Here's how it works. The teacher does not try to exclude values discussion, but encourages it. In doing so, students are helped to understand the different world views and value traditions prominent in the life of their communities, and to learn skills of empathy and evaluation which will enable them to make wise personal choices. That's part of what the term 'impartial' implies.

At the same time, we don't, as teachers, pretend that we are neutral umpires without any value preferences of our own. That would be a misleading model to present to our students. We need to be seen as committed citizens; committed at the least to the values spelled out in the agreed values framework of the school. It is therefore acceptable and helpful to give an honest answer to the typical student question, 'But what do you think?' at some stage in our teaching. When to do so, and how much to say, are developmental questions. Teachers are used to estimating readiness.

But we return to the need for impartiality when it comes to considering the way we treat students (not pressuring them or favouring those who hold our particular views). Similarly, assessment must be directed, not to commitment—whether students personally accept our values—but whether they have developed the capacity to make informed value choices.

We are entitled to assess how well our students understand what values are, and which beliefs and values are embraced by different sections of our community. This includes assessing not only whether they have a cognitive understanding, but whether they appreciate where other people are coming from, based on empathy—the ability to 'feel into' their feelings and motivations.

In a school operating in accordance with the above principles, how would the principal respond to the irate parent quoted at the beginning? One can imagine him or her saying, 'What values were those? It appears to me that the values in question were consistent with the school's value framework. I take it you had the opportunity to participate in the process of formulating this policy? Or does your complaint relate to the way Steve Smith was teaching this material?' and so on. In this school, teachers who work within the framework can be assured of official backing for their efforts in values education.

Subject Headings

Civics education
Values education (character education)