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A talking point at last: values education in schools
Brian V. Hill
Emeritus Professor of Education, Murdoch University, Western Australia.
A significant change in Australian educational discourse has occurred and serious interest in values education has emerged. The present paper traces this development and identifies issues now needing to be addressed both for state and non-state schools. The author argues for a definition which leads to a recognition of both cognitive and motivational aspects, and to both public and personal values. The definition is critical and guides the pedagogical focus. The implications for the teaching of every subject need to be addressed and the specific study of religious and other life stances should be included in the curriculum. Progress needs to be maintained and Christians ought to be involved in the process.
Keywords: Values, Education theory
In 2002, the Minister for Education in the Australian Federal Parliament funded a project which was to involve action research on values education in 69 schools around the nation, from both the state and non-state school sectors. The present author was one of the professional consultants involved in the initial conceptualising process, and I was subsequently asked to deliver a keynote address at a conference in 2004 convened to review progress to date.
This presented a challenge, given that I am a committed Christian and have often been prompted by such opportunities to reflect on the relevance of my faith to my secular work-life and the degree to which I am entitled to advocate Christian values in secular contexts where I am speaking as a professional. The problem is how to communicate one's views to a general audience without importing assumptions and vocabulary which would be likely to give rise to confrontation or outright rejection rather than dialogue and the prospect of persuasion.
Some Christian writers seem content to write only for a Christian audience, believing that non-believers will be unable to embrace the truth to which they testify. By contrast, others (among whom I count myself) believe that common grace warrants the attempt to identify common ground with our neighbours, in the hope of drawing them closer through dialogue to the wellsprings of our own beliefs and values. It has been in that spirit that for over forty years I have been attempting to theorise about values education in public forums.
For most of that time, I have felt that I was banging my head against a brick wall. Not so on this occasion, or indeed in the last decade. As this article will show, there has been a sea-change in Australian educational discourse. The opportunity exists for Christian input. The question is how to present this in a way that will earn respect rather than summary rejection, because there is a backlog of Christian arrogance and non-Christian antagonism to live down.
This article contains the substance of my conference address. In several respects it updates a case I set forth in an earlier article in this journal (Hill 1996a). It is similarly offered as an example of an attempt to participate in the public debate.
WHERE HAVE WE COME FROM?
Values education is a complex and controversial area, and it is easy to become jaded and possibly daunted by the obstacles it presents. There is therefore some value in recalling where today's cultural situation has come from. I submit that there has been progress in Australian culture, despite the determined effort of the secular liberal establishment in recent generations to marginalise both the Christian faith and issues of personal morality.
We have lived through a period of great change with respect to values education. This period has been characterised by staggering social upheavals whose impacts have had a far greater influence on educational policy than anything academics said or wrote over that period. On many occasions, I and others argued that in regard to state education, schools could not remain value-neutral and still call themselves 'educational' institutions. In regard to non-state schools, I deplored their tendency to presume that their values and practices were beyond criticism. But for most of the time it seemed as if nobody in either sector wanted to hear such things. Meanwhile, the arrival of immigrant cultures and the breakdown of the traditional family were challenging the value foundations of the inherited social consensus. Something had to give.
In the 1980s, the walls of the dam began to crack. A trickle of seminal documents appeared in curriculum studies, notably in the area of 'social studies', although science too was beginning to take responsibility for its impact on the environment (e.g. Approaches to Values and Attitudes 1987; Effective Participation in Society 1987; Learning and Living 1982; Hutchinson & Waddell 1982).
Then, in 1993, a national curriculum framework appeared, arising from a consultation decreed by the then Federal Minister John Dawkins (Australian Education Council 1989). It attracted strong criticism for its avoidance of values outcomes. Yet most state education departments hurriedly cloned their own versions of it, and these clones initially exhibited the same defect at the level of explicit recognition of values. What would happen to the trickle?
Fortunately, in direct reaction to the technocratic addiction to marketable skills displayed by the clones, there began to be talk about the need to identify 'core values' and to formulate 'democratic charters.' In Western Australia, a project carried out in the non-state sector led to the compilation of an Agreed Minimum Values Charter (1995; see also Hill 1996a) which attracted wide comment. At the time, the State Minister for Education was creating a curriculum council to straddle both the state and non-state sectors, and one of its first acts was to produce a curriculum statement with a values framework which echoed many of the elements in the charter (W.A. Curriculum Council 1998).
About the same time, Queensland was responding to the Wiltshire Report. In this report a provisional values charter for state schools was proposed, and it was recommended that individual schools develop their own charters as sub¬sets of it (Shaping the Future 1994). Similarly, educational authorities in several other states were trialling values frameworks for their systems, e.g. Victoria (A Curriculum for All 1988), South Australia (Educating for the 21st Century 1990) and New South Wales (The Values We Teach 1991).
And what of the Federal Government? There were signs that it was beginning to emerge from its neutralist stance when a so-called Civics Expert Group was set up, reporting in 1994. This report confirmed the priority of values education in the public sector. This was a welcome initiative, even thought its focus primarily on public morality and citizenship meant it ran the risk of encouraging a continuing neglect of personal values and life commitments (Hill 1996b).
Unfortunately, a change of government somewhat delayed further developments at the federal level. But in mid-2002 the Federal Government launched a values education study which was charged with the task of developing an agreed framework and encouraging better classroom practice (see Values Education Study: Final Report 2003). Its emphasis on action research was laudable. Speaking at the 2004 conference, the Federal Minister, Brendon Nelson, pledged further significant government funding, which the May Budget delivered.
WHAT DISTURBED OUR DOGMATIC SLUMBERS?
Is this just another swing of fashion in educational circles? Perhaps not. It is worth recalling how things were in the 1950s, when I first became a high school teacher.
Then, the secondary curriculum had been stable for a long time, and consisted of basically the same subject matter that I - and my father before me - had encountered as school students. I was even able to use one or two of his old textbooks! In general, the culture was conformist, and still largely beholden to the sometimes contradictory values consensus derived from our religious and cultural roots in the old Mediterranean world. Patriarchalism was unchallenged, and sex was shrouded in guilty whispers.
Nor was it clear to us then how profoundly the Second World War, recently concluded, had disturbed those roots. Academia was, of course, 'ahead' of the masses, locked in the certitudes of the Enlightenment. In the non-state sector, schools with religious origins were for the most part wedded to their historic traditions. Whether Catholic or Independent Grammar, they tended to assume that their value systems were proven and secure, and merely needed some fine-tuning.
So what disturbed the dogmatic slumbers of that era? The story is familiar and needs only brief summary. The 1960s saw the arrival of the contraceptive pill, along with rising angst among youth at the nuclear threat and the war in Vietnam. Television's window on the world became available, giving an enormous boost to materialistic goals as expressed through avid consumerism.
The resulting emphasis on satisfying individual desires was paralleled by agitation for individual rights - for women, children, oppressed minorities, and others. Many gains have since been made in these areas, in terms of greater equity, but along with these has come a worrying downside: climbing rates of marriage breakdown and of suicide among youth and young adults. The holding power of old values has decreased, but permissiveness is breeding disillusionment and new intolerances. There has also been an alarming increase in the use of litigation to advance private preference at the expense of the common good.
Meanwhile large numbers of migrants, seeking new horizons for both economic and political reasons, have transformed the Australian community into a multicultural society in which alternative value traditions challenge both the old values and the newer permissiveness. The apparent difficulty of defining a consensus on common purposes at a high level has left the door open for resolution at a more materialistic level, dominated by an economic rationalism which bases everything on market value under competitive conditions.
SOME PEDAGOGIC CHALLENGES
Collectively, these trends have now given rise to a number of recent reports and experiments in the area of values education. Several issues now need to be urgently addressed.
1. Describing the nature and sources of values
First, it is not obvious that we yet know how to talk about values. The Values Education Study: Final Report elected fairly summarily to adopt a definition by Halstead and Taylor which spoke of values as principles and standards that guide behaviour (Values Education Study: Final Report 2003, p. 2). This carries a cognitive weighting which potentially obscures the motivational aspect. How and why should propositions of thought be supposed to have any real bearing on conduct?
We are still grappling with the problem of moving the student from "knowing the good to be desirable" to "desiring to do the good" (cf. Frankena 1958). One recalls the chastened observation made by Oliver and Bane, researchers who worked with Kohlberg, that although they seemed to be able to stimulate mature classroom reasoning about justice and cognate values, there was little observable flow-on into behaviour in the school playground! (Oliver & Bane 1971, p. 260).
The definition of values that I have proposed in previous writings is that they are "the priorities individuals and societies attach to certain beliefs, experiences, and objects, in deciding how they shall live and what they shall treasure" (Hill 1994a, p. 7). This shifts the focus from a value being regarded as a merely cognitive state of mind to a whole-person decision, readiness or 'disposition' to act in certain ways, given the opportunity.
2. Identifying the teaching domains
The definition has several significant implications for the way in which we view the teaching of values. First, it implies that there is a cognitive component, because clearly, value priorities can be described in prepositional terms, and are accessible to good reasons being given for holding them. Commitment to a value is not merely a socially conditioned habit. Words like 'experiences' and 'treasure' invoke the affective and volitional dimensions of valuing. To speak of 'experience' requires that we encourage students to feel "what it's like" to act out, or live by, the values being commended. Empathy needs to be awakened through such teaching strategies as drama, role plays, simulations, and giving students responsibilities within the school community and the classroom lesson.
An important part of values education, then, becomes the act of talking about the insights gained from these experiences, which again brings in the cognitive dimension. One school in the recent values education study reported that there was an observable "change in the language of students who [were] more able to express their feelings through their success or otherwise in living the values of the school" (Values Education Study: Final Report 2003, p. 112).
It also bears repeating that a value is a "'disposition' to act in certain ways, given the opportunity." We do not always act according to what we believe or value. While normally valuing honesty, for example, we may baulk at admitting to a man at our front door with a gun in his hand that someone he is searching for is actually inside our house. Similarly, fear of peer group pressure often prevents students who are actually interested in the material being taught from showing it. It is not 'cool' to show interest.
This should warn us against attempting to rely primarily on specific behavioural outcomes under formalised test conditions to tell us if our values education has succeeded. Dispositions can be inferred from observable behaviour, but only over the long haul and in a variety of different situations, formal and informal. Only then is the teacher entitled to conclude that certain values have in fact been embraced.
Then, of course, the question is whether we ought to report this conclusion as part of our assessment of the student This raises ethical issues about the student's right of choice in regard to values, which suggest that our knowledge of whether there has been value change in the student should only be used for the purpose of assessing us the teachers, not the student.
To put this another way, within the context of formal testing we are only entitled to test and report on capacity, not commitment. The teacher's task is to enhance capacities of thinking and feeling in regard to values. This is not to deny that the teacher can and should teach with the hope of influencing the student's actual commitment. But it would be an invasion of personal liberty to require that students desirous of obtaining a good mark produce evidence of having embraced certain teacher-preferred values.
Framed in this way - and the 2003 Report does tend to polarise the options in these terms (e.g. pp. 175ff) - values education appears to be caught between the devil of value-free rationality and the deep blue sea of conditioned conformity. It is doubtful if this old debate has yet been satisfactorily cleared up. Surely we would want to affirm that education is about liberation, not domestication? But equally, surely we want out of it responsible citizens, not fence-sitting self-pleasers?
The resolution I argued for in the 1990s was a position I called 'critical affiliation' (Hill 1994b, ch. 5). This involved:
3. Applying complementary strategies
- the right of students to know the nature and sources of the values impacting on them
- the development of their capacity to empathise with these values, and also to evaluate them; and
- the encouragement of commitment to worthy values.
So far, I have referred to values without using any adjectives to qualify what kinds of value I have in mind. We tend to relapse into associating such remarks primarily with moral values. But my comments to this point have been intended to apply just as much to other realms of value, such as the intellectual, aesthetic, technical, religious and social. This validates the claim that every curriculum area is implicated in values education.
Similarly, schools need to achieve consistency between the general administrative practices and relationships in the school community and the content of what is being formal taught in the various curriculum areas. Since the discussion of the so-called 'hidden curriculum' in the 1960s, which post¬modern critics in the 1980s have reinforced, we have known how easily the teaching of values in the classroom can be sabotaged by other school practices.
Teachers and administrators inevitably function as role models, and have little chance of hiding their true values from the people with whom they are so constantly and intensively in contact. One can learn an astonishing amount about the character of a teacher by asking a student or two: "What sort of a person is Mr (or Ms) X?" Usually, the answers probe much more deeply than what Mr (or Ms) X thought they were revealing of their true selves to the students.
Again, schools in the 2002-3 study exhibited a growing appreciation of the need to have a two-pronged strategy: one interpreting values education as an 'across-the-curriculum' theme, infusing the teaching of every subject; and the other, providing a place in the curriculum for specifically studying values as such - their nature and significance in our life-choices, and how one goes about justifying them and negotiating value agreements in the group: in short, studying the 'discipline' of values discourse.
Frequent involvement in professional development seminars with teachers has convinced me that more work is needed in respect of both these strategies. There are still many teachers who think that their particular subject area has little to do with values education, and that anyway it is the responsibility of some other specialist. And there are still few timetables which allow for the systematic study of logic and values discourse as such.
WHAT IS THE COGNITIVE CORE?
1. Exploring underlying belief systems
These curriculum deficiencies are magnified by deficiency in another area of disciplined study: the study of underlying belief systems. One of the main problems with talk about values education in previous eras was the 'bag of virtues' approach. I mentioned earlier the researchers who, while working with Kohlberg, concluded that their cognitive developmental model seemed unable to guarantee a carry-over of mental practice into voluntary life-situations. This had already been demonstrated in the late 1920s by the famous Hartshorne and May (1930) Character Education project.
More recently, I encountered the attempt in a South-East Asian country to base moral education on a Confucian model, whereby moralisms were taught in the spirit of duty towards one's elders, in the expectation that this would produce willing personal allegiance to the moral precepts presented. The supposed success of this strategy was due less to what was taught in the schools than to a tradition in that culture of strong authoritarianism in the home and in wider social and political structures. But it is now becoming much harder to impose unquestioning obedience on the 'options generations' (Mackay 1997) in modern Asian societies.
The point is that the motivation to actually act on the values we accept intellectually comes from more basic beliefs about the nature of the reality we inhabit and the point of going on living in that reality. Each individual develops a personal framework of meaning which may vary from an inconsistent mish¬mash to a thoughtfully integrated network of beliefs and values. Hence there is a need to help students understand this connection and to inspect some of the more fully articulated life-stances influential in their culture.
The operative word here is to 'explore' the ways underlying belief systems influence values (cf. the title of Hill 2004), rather than to either 'impose' or 'ignore' them. In this connection, potential ambiguity exists in using approaches to values education without bringing to notice the religious belief systems on which they rest. Examples of this are the Living Values project initiated by Brahma Kumaris and the Virtues Project promoted by Baha'i. Teaching About Worldviews and Values by former English teacher Julie Mitchell (2004. Reviewed later in this journal issue) offers a new breed of teaching resource which takes seriously, and deals impartially with, a number of the worldviews which are influencing value commitments in today's world. It is another example of a Christian professional contributing to general educational theory.
These considerations highlight the need to ensure that what has traditionally been known as 'religious studies' is seen as both an integral and a distinguishable part of values education (cf. Hill 1989,2004). It implies the same two conditions earlier laid down for the formal aspect of values education in general. First, each curriculum area should accept some responsibility for life-stance education, acknowledging that wider frameworks of meaning account in part for both the justification and the motivation for learning about that area. Second, the curriculum should also accommodate the specific study of religious and other life-stances, not just as an appendage to 'cultural studies', 'moral education' or sessions on 'personal development', but as a conceptual focus in its own right.
For too long Australian state school systems have been crippled in the fulfilment of their mandate by their failure to take on this task. Even the united testimony of reports tabled in each state in the 1970s affirming that this was part of their secular mandate have failed to remedy the deficiency.
The neutralism of state schools has been one of the reasons given by the newer wave of alternative Christian schools for offering another educational route. And on the face of it, schools working from a religious foundation are in a better position to do this. But it is not neutralism but impartiality that the state school must observe. Impartiality includes advocating that students enter into worthy value affiliations, along with those embraced in the school's values charter.
It should be noted that religious schools face the opposite problem: of ensuring that students do not just conform to group pressure but embrace such affiliations critically, having first come to terms with the value pluralism of modern society and learnt to respect those with whom they may nevertheless disagree.
2. Clarifying the core
All that has been said so far presumes that sufficient agreement has been reached on which values to teach in order to operate as truly educational institutions. That is a taxing requirement. Most schools' staff are value pluralistic, and the families of the children they teach even more so. Many people believe that attempts to negotiate consensus will inevitably lead to value hiatus, and their desire to protect their children from such an environment has led them to prefer non-state education. But to the extent that such schools are strongly protectionist, they are likely to contribute to the increasing social fragmentation. Is there no middle ground?
This was the problem which the 1995 Values Project in Western Australia tried to tackle head-on. As I have described elsewhere (Hill 1996a, 2000), it began with an attempt to get four major faith traditions talking together, in the hope of identifying some common ground based on their mutual desire to live together in a political democracy. At the time, some misunderstanding was caused by the inclusion in the resulting Agreed Framework of a value dimension identifying ultimate life-stance values. This prompted the state educational authority to keep its distance, claiming that it must remain neutral in regard to such values.
But the project, by including this dimension, was making two points. First, it was expressing the conviction that attachment to other values, such as those of a democratic or educational kind, ultimately depends -for the individual - on that person's more general world-view or life-stance: a point which has just been made. Second, it granted that people might achieve public consensus on democratic and educational values for more proximate reasons, even though they did not agree on the ultimate beliefs which for them validated those values. The hope was that by identifying democratic and educational values in separate categories, this might enhance the possibility of co-operation, not only between systems in the non-state sector, but also with the state sector itself.
The problem was to convince policy makers in the public sector that the quest for a consensus on the common good was not a pipe-dream but an achievable goal. For the previous twenty years my own efforts to make this point had failed dismally. This time, however, the values charter which subsequently appeared in the W.A. Government's Curriculum Framework drew heavily on the democratic and educational dimensions of the framework developed in the non-state sector. Since then, the Civics and Citizenship Report has further strengthened the case. But that report also raises a further question, to which we will return in a moment.
One other feature of the W.A. Values Project worth highlighting again was a procedural rule adopted to avoid stalemates. Our stated aim was
not to develop a totalistic account to which all participants would be expected to conform, but a minimalist set of agreements on which to base common action in the wider educational arena... Where specific beliefs and values [...] failed to secure general agreement, they [were not to be] treated as unimportant, but [were] put on hold for further attention at a later stage, while the main process of achieving an agreed minimum proceeded. Though held over, they still earn[ed] a place as content in that part of the curriculum devoted to developing an appreciation of value-stances and honing the skills of values analysis. (Hill 2000, pp. 201, 206. Original italics)
Many of the trials in this project undertaken since, and in the more recent values study, fortify those who hope that robust workable agreements are achievable.
3. Transcending the public/private dichotomy
This last point can be made quickly, though it may be the most controversial. It was noted earlier that the Civics and Citizenship Report was mainly concerned with public values. This emphasis by itself has the potential to blind us to the need to seek consensus on many values that are more personal, though not less relevant to the common good.
In the reports of schools in the 2002-3 Values Study trials it is interesting to note which values tended to dominate. There was much emphasis on self-esteem, community morale, and responsible citizenship, less on personal morality and life-goals as such. But feelings and attitudes depend not only on affirmative procedural values such as 'resilience' and 'connectedness', but also on personal visions of the life good to live. As noted earlier, values always have a belief component, and reasons given in justification of those beliefs supply part of the motivation for their adoption. In the end, public morality is reliant on personal morality and vision, and any education worthy of the name will seek to merge these elements.
We have reason to take heart from what has already been done. We now have available an increasing number of case studies on which to model future attempts. But it has also been noted that some particular areas still require more rigorous analysis and implementation. In a culture on the turn, it is urgent that the momentum be maintained - and this is a task in which Christians ought to be involved, as expressions of their general ministries of compassion.
Emeritus Prof. Brian Hill may be contacted through Murdoch University, Western Australia. Email email@example.com
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