What values should we teach in schools and why?

THE aims of an education system must encompass more than the knowledge and skills required for the workplace, but also reflect our beliefs and desires for a good society, and moral citizens. However, human beings have the potential for developing in many directions, and there is much debate about what these directions should be. As the educationalist, Wringe (1988), noted: ‘…the problem of educational aims is deciding which kinds of development should be fostered and which discouraged’. (p.43)

Dennis Sale. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (31332842)
Dennis Sale. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (31332842)

Opinion: Dennis Sale

In previous articles, I outlined key competencies that need to be taught in schools, now and for the foreseeable future, and how best to develop the teacher expertise needed. Here, I focus on the teaching of values in schools – whether in the formal curriculum taught, and/or as part of school culture and conduct rules.

Values, and other related terms such as principles, morals, and ethics reflect the differing belief systems of both collective groups (eg political parties, religions), and individual persons. They have their roots in core beliefs about right and wrong, often associated with strong emotions, and typically the products of prior experiences and perceptions developed in family and peer group contexts.

As we know, there are wide variations in what groups and individuals frame as acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, and this has become even more diverse and confusing with the explosion of public knowledge and social media.

We are increasingly bombarded with so much information and variation of what is acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, that its not surprising that many people cannot, to use an old saying, ‘see the wood from the trees’. It is in this confused moral landscape, that many youngsters struggle with issues of identity and meaning.

While parents are the primary agent of socialisation who rightly determine the values and related experiences for their children, schools also need to be significant mediators in a society of moral pluralism. In this context, I am going to make the case that certain core values should be taught in schools as they are essential to both personal, social, and global wellbeing.

While academic conversation on human values has long been an arena for philosophers to ‘strut their stuff’ – so to speak, there is an increasing scientific base for how we can derive core values for the betterment of humankind. Given the importance of working towards more global consensus on crucial issues for the future prosperity of the species, this should be high on the curricula agenda for schools universally.

What constitutes wellbeing is open to contestation, but I totally agree with Pinker (2017), a leading evolutionary psychologist, who makes the following summary:

‘Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family and friends are better than drudgery and monotony.’ (p.51)

Such a viewpoint can be supported in many similar veins and contexts. For example, Harari (2016), a leading historian in the modern context, argues that ‘the most real thing in the world is suffering’ (p.307). This may sound somewhat extreme – even shocking – but I don’t think many of the inmates of Auschwitz would have taken issue with such a claim.

For further illustration, we don’t only need to refer to extreme examples, as suffering is embedded in all peoples’ lives at some time, in various ways. My point is not to be morbid here, but if suffering has a realism that we can all relate to (and don’t particularly like), then there is value in considering wellbeing as a very desirable state, and therefore a necessary base for framing the values we teach in schools.

There is much that science can contribute to our understanding of wellbeing, and the core values and life experiences that can enhance it for more people. The philosopher and cognitive scientist, Harris (2011), makes the blunt assertion:

‘Kindness, compassion, fairness and other classically “good” traits will be vindicated neurologically – which is to say that we will only discover further reasons to believe that they are good for us, in that they generally enhance our lives.’ (p.180)

I am concerned that we are not sufficiently teaching these core values in explicit and systematic ways in schools, and this is a global issue. Students need to understand why these values are so important as principles for good human conduct, and better wellbeing for all. This requires skilful teaching, not just explaining their relevance to better living, but modelling and demonstrating their application in everyday interactions with students, especially in teachable moments.

To call this ‘social engineering’ is both naïve and dangerous. All education is social engineering, and it is an experiment. I think that encouraging our young to be kind, show care and concern for persons and the environment, and treating each other with fairness and equity would be a good thing.

It may be our best approach to reducing discrimination, tackling anti-social behaviour, and enabling greater opportunities for meeting the psychological needs essential for the flourishing of humans beings.

This is the moral component of framing our educational aims, and an essential part of the wider process of helping students to develop the capability to become self-directed lifelong learners. I also think it would be nice to have an education system that both equips young people with the competencies to attain personal life goals, as well as facilitating a better moral mindset for tackling the existential challenges we all face as individuals, communities, and as a species.

Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as advisor, researcher, and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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