Three Vital Dimensions of Values in the Curriculum

When we as educators are asked by our curriculum to ‘deal with’ values – as NZC 2007 does – what are we meant to do? Are we meant to focus on the eight values at the top of the values page (p10)? Are we supposed to focus on the values learning processes explained in the second column of the values page? Are we supposed to do both?  Are the values mentioned on p10 the only ones we should address? Can we use a programme like the Virtues Project? What methods of teaching and learning should we use in order to fulfill the requirements set out on p10? Are there other places in the curriculum and associated support materials that we should look at when we ask ourselves ‘what should we should do?’ Within this blog many of these questions will be addressed over time.

This list of questions makes it look as if addressing the values dimension of the curriculum is a fraught and complex thing. One expert I heard tried to simplify it by saying there are two things schools are supposed to do – teach them knowledge and teach them to be good. I think he over simplifies it. Addressing values in education should do more than just ‘teach them to be good’.

In the 1990s the respected US educator Deborah Meier suggested that there were just two main overarching values that were vital to a good education – empathy and skepticism. Many would feel this is rather simplistic too. But I think it is a lot closer to the mark.  Empathy is a vitally important overarching value that can ‘stand for’ many of the ‘softer’ values such as caring, toleration, respect and so on. Skepticism is a much misunderstood term but can be translated for our purposes here into ‘critical thinking’ about values.

Another way to look at this is considering Engle and Ocha’s comment that socialisation and counter-socialisation are both important in education. This is a good point to return to issues of some of my opening questions. A focus on only the 8 ‘big tented’ values of NZC or on the ‘Virtues’ will really mean that our programme will tend to be mostly a ‘inculcation’ and ‘socialisation’ approach to values. This means our programme will lack a ‘critical thinking’ and ‘counter-socialisation’ dimension.

On the other hand if we include the aspects of values learning in the second column of the values page of NZC we will be able to develop a ‘balanced’ approach to values in the curriculum. That is one that hands on the ‘wisdom’ of our ancestors (inculcation/socialisation) but will also be questioning and think critically about current and changing social, economic, environmental issues and ethics that are an influence on values today.

This involves notions of investigative inquiry with an attitude of open mindedness and by initially suspending judgment. In other words – with a degree of skepticism. This involves checking out carefully the many ideas swirling about us and trying to work out what is best to value now. It also involves considering the diversity of values and perspectives represented in current society.

Following the investigative inquiry phase our students should think about the options for continuing with the values of the past, or adapting and changing to new attitudes and values. The approach described in last three paragraphs is more of a skepticism/critical thinking/counter-socialisation approach.

You will have no doubt worked out by now that I see social studies and social sciences as the  ‘natural’ curriculum ‘slot’ for such teaching and learning. The recently published book “Teaching social studies for critical, active citizenship in Aotearoa New Zealand” edited by Harcourt, Milligan and Wood is excellent reading for anyone who wants more background in a ‘balanced’ approach to values in the social studies dimension of the curriculum. However, values issues arise in every curriculum area and are particularly important in subjects such as Science, Health, English and the Arts and should be approached there in similar ways.

I finish this first blog entry with and appeal to teachers, educators, parents and students to look again at page 30 of NZC. Read the whole page carefully and think about what is says at some depth. I suggest you number the paragraphs in this statement 1 – 8 and read them in sections as below. There are in essence 3 sections to page 10.

So read as follows:

  • First read paragraphs 3 & 4 – the 8 values list section – as this the aspect of the statement most schools and teachers often focus on. But, this is only one aspect of the statement! This is the part of the statement that is most strongly inculcation/socialization and has a strong empathy component to it as well.
  • Secondly read paragraphs 6 & 7. This section has 9 key bullet points, just as the values list section focuses on 8 key ‘big’ values. These are in two parts. The first 4 bullet points relate to what students should learn about values and thus identifies necessary values content knowledge needed to think about values. The second group of bullet points spells out key skills and abilities students should develop to work effectively in the values domain. Interestingly the second bullet point in this group focuses on empathy and third on critical thinking (skepticism).
  • Thirdly, read paragraphs 2, 5 and 8. These paragraphs make two very important points. One point is that the values on p10 are “neither exhaustive nor exclusive” and that they can be expanded into clusters of associated values. The second is that the specific values to be highlighted in your schools programme should be fully discussed and negotiated in the school’s community and once adopted should be clear evident in the “school’s philosophy, structures, curriculum, classrooms and relationships” and “everyday actions and interactions”.

I would argue that it is only when parents, teachers, schools and students are fully aware of, and attempting to work with, all three of the dimensions outlined in the values statement of NZC and discussed in the 3 bullet points above, that we can claim to have a balanced programme for values in the curriculum.

Note: For key references and definitions check out the Reference and Definitions pages of this blog.