Why values education is an important agenda

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Why values education is an important agenda

Some people might be wondering why TCFNSW has historically been so interested in values and values education. They may observe that their school has a statement of values and that it is there for all to see, much like mission statements were around in the early 1990s. The question is: what affect does a statement or policy have on the every day life of the school? Not much, I hear some say.

For government schools the background to recent initiatives in values education has been very significant. In NSW schools in the 1970s, there was an opening up of curriculum to a school based approach in both primary and secondary schools. Teachers were faced with questions about what knowledge to teach, what skills to develop and how values could be taught in lessons. In the area of values, the 1974 “Base paper” on curriculum talked about “moral autonomy”.  Many saw this as situational ethics (moral principles vary with circumstances) and moral relativism (no moral principle is more important than another.). Considerable debate followed and many teachers were uncomfortable about what was intended by “moral autonomy” and some wanted to label it as a “values free” approach to education.

Some of these concerns were reinforced in the 1980s by an increased focus in classrooms on values clarification approaches to teach values.   Its openness to all values positions led to it being attacked as being a “values neutral” approach.  The 1980s became increasingly dominated by a community view that public schools were “values free” and “values neutral”. This view was further compounded by the lack of any statement by the Department about the values of public schools or the teaching of values. In these circumstances, some parents believed that Catholic schools and the newly growing Christian schools would offer their children a recognisable values base and so they left public schools.

In 1988 to address these matters, the Director-General developed the document many of you would know called “The values we teach”. This document stated the learning, personal and civic values that public education stood for and carried some contextual information that supported an approach to values education.
Iimplementation was never required and little support was provided. The values we teach mainly sat as a policy statement to answer the critics of public schools as being “values free” and “values neutral”. As was the case with many non-government schools, some government schools did establish a school policies so that they could be accountable to parents who might ask a question about values.

Values education more than a policy

Values education is not simply about having a policy, no matter how up to date or cutting edge that policy might be. Values education is about what goes on each day in classrooms and in every interaction in the school community. While policy can set the standards and the expectations, plans strategies and implementation are what is required to make all members of the school community take notice of the policy.

The Department’s policy, Values in NSW public schools has a number of excellent features. https://detwww.det.nsw.edu.au/policies/A-Zindex/index.shtml and select from the “v” and then the policy.

1.    It recognises the reality, that we are teaching values every day through what we do and say, whether we intend to or not.
2.    It reaffirms that public schools have always taught values
3.    It identifies an inclusive set of core values that encompass a range of secular and religious world views.
4.    It articulates core values and an approach to be taken by school communities and classroom teachers.
5.    It distinguishes between the values associated with behaviour, teaching subjects and substantive issues in the community. More about this in a moment.
6.    It acknowledges that greater explicitness is needed in schools and classrooms about values
7.    It recognizes the need for schools to communicate its values.
8.    It outlines an approach to values education that is multifaceted and comprehensive and neither limited to one area of teaching or school activity nor restricted to additional one-off programs.

Of these excellent features I want to focus on just a few. The statement that the values encompass a range of secular and religious world views is significant. Although not a specifically Christian document, Christians will be comfortable with it. Although not entirely a secular document, people with secular world views will be comfortable with it because it embraces a set of core values accepted in common across the community.

The second important feature is its comprehensiveness. The document is about classroom teaching, policies, procedures, communications, and relationships. It is about the core values permeating all aspects of school life. The other side of this point is that the policy discourages additional programs, one off events or activities and single subjects as being appropriate vehicles to carry the values agenda. Whole school means everyone and everything. 

The key strategies are discussion and reflection, to think about the core values in every situation and to talk about them with others. In a practical way, reflection and discussion can improve planning where what schools wish to do can be measured against the core values. They can form a set of standards to guide both planning and behaviours. They also form a great set of measures for any evaluation.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the classroom remains the focus of schools and learning. Here teachers simply need to bring to the surface the values that are all through the curriculum and their teaching strategies. Asking students to reflect on what values are operating when they discuss any action or express any opinion will quickly make the values real to students and help them to understand them in a variety of contexts. This involvement allows students to learn what the values mean.

However, any lesson could proceed without ever reflecting on these values by bringing them to the surface. In such cases the opportunity for values education is lost.

Whether a government or non government school, the opportunities for values education are ubiquitous. However, if not taken up by teachers then the opportunities are lost and schools may well have a policy and values will be taught, but whether the two match will be for the judgement of parents and students.

John Gore