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The double helix of values education and quality teaching

Terry Lovat
Ron Toomey
Terry Lovat is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education and Arts) at the University of Newcastle, and Chief Investigator on the ACDE VEGSP and Values Materials and Resources Project. Ron Toomey is an Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at ACU, and also manages various aspects of ACDE Values Education Projects.


In 2005, as part of its values education Partnerships Project with key stakeholder groups, the Department of Education, Science and Training commissioned the Australian Council of Deans of Education to undertake research into the relationships between values education and quality teaching.

The research centred on several schools involved in the DEST-funded Values Education Good Practice Schools Project (VEGPS), which supports values-related work in a number of school clusters. Work at each cluster was assisted by a critical friend drawn from a faculty or school of education at a nearby university. Values work at four schools was then documented by the university representative and local school staff, in what became a set of internationally benchmarked case studies. These were in turn examined against a review of research studies on quality teaching conducted over the last 15 years, including the work of Carnegie (1994), Alton-Lee (2003), Hattie (2004) and Hawkes (2007).

The case studies and related research are described in detail in Lovat and Toomey (2007), Values Education and Quality Teaching: The Double Helix Effect, available from David Barlow Publishing. The current article focuses on some of the authors’ conclusions from the research.

Quality teaching

The literature review on quality teaching identified five key skills or abilities that students might be expected to exhibit in the hands of a quality teacher. The first, Intellectual depth, refers to abilities such as perceptiveness, intuition and the capacity for analysis and evaluation. Communicative capacity means being able to talk about the process of exploring the values, how the students engaged with the process, what outcomes flowed from it, what they learned, how it was learned, and what it means to practise the values. The growing capacity to do these things is accompanied by a confidence in and commitment to the process of exploration and working with others. The students shape themselves and others as they communicate.

Empathic character means demonstrating a sensitivity and compassion for the world around them, within and beyond their immediate environment.  Growth of this learning shows itself in changed action towards those in need around them and in an expanding sense of social justice generally. Capacity to reflect refers to the ability to think back to an event or some other act, consider the impact it had and plan how things might be done better. Self-management is being able to work with others and with oneself around issues related to values and, ultimately, to live out these values. Self-knowledge means getting to know oneself better and becoming more comfortable with oneself, thereby gaining more poise in the learning process.

The double helix effect

The research identified a range of ways that values education nurtured intellectual depth, communicative competence and the other quality teaching dimensions in students. It found a close relationship between values education and overall teaching effectiveness, as represented below.

Values and quality teaching

Values and quality teaching: the double helix affect

The case studies show that values education can make a very significant contribution to:

  • Fashioning very positive interpersonal relationships not only between students but also, most importantly, between students and teachers in classrooms;
  • Producing a calmer and more contemplative environment in the classroom;
  • Giving people their emotional and spiritual space; and, very importantly,
  • Creating positive dispositions towards learning and enabling people to come to a greater level of comfort with learning, described in the cases as a ‘love of learning’; as well as
  • Significantly raising students’ ‘academic diligence’ if not performance. 

In our view, quality teaching and quality learning flow naturally from placing values at the centre of a school’s ethos and operations, including its broader community outreach and partnerships. Our use of the double helix metaphor taken from genetics is an attempt to capture the nature of the relationship between values education and quality teaching.

When the school places values at the centre of its work, and purposefully tries to live out those values, the resulting changes gradually move students and teachers towards quality teaching and learning practice. When teachers and students are consciously trying to be respectful, trying to do their best, trying to be honest, and trying to be tolerant, the dynamic of the classroom changes, teacher satisfaction grows, and student concentration improves. The impact of these changes on students’ academic performance is the subject of our current research being undertaken for DEST in a study titled Testing and Measuring the Impact of Values Education on Quality Teaching.

Values education: think ‘curriculum’ not ‘subject’

From a curriculum perspective a whole school values education program is not a curriculum ‘add-on’, not just another subject to be taught. Rather, it is a curriculum principle that informs the selection of all content and all approaches to teaching. It reorients our approach to the selection of content and its treatment within the local mandated curriculum. For instance, in teaching a unit on Australia’s settlement with a whole school values perspective in mind, the teacher would very consciously and explicitly take the opportunity to discuss the moral and ethical implications of the settlement, especially with regard to the traditional landowners but also in regard to such things as the nature of punishment and justice, the use of arbitrary rule and attitudes to the land and environment in the convict colony. Similarly, as Farrer (2000) points out, studying Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, The Secret Garden, provides a golden opportunity to discuss some of the characters from a values viewpoint.

A whole school values education approach therefore involves approaching the local curriculum more from a values perspective by providing ways of examining the ‘meaning’ of values, using open, explicit and reflective explorations of values, clarifying values, and examining choices and actions whilst at the same time addressing the content of the ‘subject area’.


The hallmarks of quality teaching are not the exclusive products of values education. However, by making the teaching of values a very explicit and central part of teaching, we tend to create an ambience within which intellectual depth, communicative competence, empathic character, reflection, self-management and self -knowledge flourish more easily, naturally and organically than in any other circumstance.


Carnegie (1994) Years of promise: A comprehensive learning strategy for America's children: Executive summary. Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Alton-Lee, A. (2003). Quality teaching for diverse students in schooling: Best evidence synthesis. Ministry of Education, New Zealand.

Farrer, F. (2000). A quiet revolution: encouraging positive values in our children. London: Random House.

Hattie, J. (2004). It's official: teachers make a difference. Educare News, 144 (February): 24, 26, 28-31.

Hawkes, N.  (2007). Values and quality teaching at West Kidlington Primary School in T. Lovat & R. Toomey  (Eds.) Values education and quality teaching: The double helix effect. (pp. 115-133) Sydney: David Barlow Publishing.  

Lovat, T. & Toomey, R. (2007) Values education and quality teaching: The double helix effect. Sydney: David Barlow Publishing.

Lovat, T. (2006) Values education: the missing link in quality teaching. Keynote address at the Values Education National Forum, May 2006.


Subject Headings

Values education