Values Education - Can Values Change the World?

19/10/2012 15:12 | Updated 18 December 2012

I'm just getting my head round a visit to Nottingham in early November, home of Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, allegedly the oldest pub in the land. This is a claim contested by around 19 other pubs in England. And as someone not much taken by the idea of crusades, neither its name nor the photo of the modern-day Knight Templar on the pub website, do much to recommend it to me either.

The purpose of my trip to Nottingham is less confrontational. I have been asked to facilitate the opening session of a one-day conference entitled Cooperating through values: learning for change. brief is to stimulate some initial thinking around the question: "Can values change the world?" It's a deceptively simple question.

The UK's Department for Education proclaims that the National Curriculum "should reflect values in our society that promote personal development, equality of opportunity, economic wellbeing, a healthy and just democracy, and a sustainable future." The statement goes on to give very brief and general descriptors of how these values should relate to "ourselves", "our relationships", "our society" and "our environment." Whether schools and regulatory bodies interpret this framework as a driver to change is a moot point. My experience of speaking to teachers reveals at best a patchy knowledge of its existence, let alone its content and implications. Given the observation of WWF's Tom Crompton that life "'is a 'dance around the values circle'!", this seems a sorry state of affairs .

As part of the Common Cause project, Crompton and his collaborators have extended our understanding of the degree to which values play a greater part in human decision-making than knowledge does. So that looks like a pretty compelling, "yes, values can change the world."

Yet even progressive educators are torn about the legitimate place of values in education. In a thinkpiece I wrote last year for Sustainability and Environmental Education, I challenged Bill Scott and Paul Vare, both influential thinkers on education for sustainable development, for straying too far into the waters of provisionality . Scott and Vare had responded to the Fairtrade Foundation's Harriet Lamb's aspiration "to create a situation where it is no longer acceptable to do nothing, where every company, and every individual, has to do something to make the world fairer," by issuing a challenge to "any values-driven educator" "not to force this process." Moreover they counselled the importance of learning to live with the frustration "that it is so difficult to do the 'right thing'". (Scott & Vare "Education for Sustainable Development: two sides of an edge" )

Howard Gardner would presumably take a dim view of this kind of talk. In his recent bookTruth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: educating for the virtues of the twenty first century, he critiques of the impact of post-modern relativism on learning on education:

"if we give up lives marked by truth, beauty, and goodness - or at least the perennial quest of them - to all intents and purposes, we resign ourselves to a world where nothing is of value, where anything goes .... Debate yes, dismissal no." p7

And follows up by urging us to:

"salvage, indeed to valorize, the core idea of truth. I believe that human beings, working carefully and reflectively and cooperatively over time, can converge more and more closely to a determination of the actual state of affairs." p20

I feel caught between two stools here. One the one hand impelled to use my role as an educator to challenge injustice and inequity, on the other distinctly queasy about the notion of universal truths and values.

Not for the first time, Richard Sennett comes to the rescue. In his excellent book, Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation, he dramatises the distinction between our customary dialectic approach to problem solving and the dialogic approach. In the former opposing views are traded until synthesis occurs. The latter stands for,

"a discussion which does not resolve itself by finding common ground. Though no shared agreements may be reached, through the process of exchange people may become more aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another." p19

That accent on surfacing the views, and by extension the values, of both ourselves and others, seems critical to me. An important point made by Crompton is that we all possess a complex of values, some conducive to "bigger-than-self" issues, others determinedly self-interested, and both a mix of the conscious and unconscious.

Yes, values can change the world. Of course they do. Whether we know it or not, every decision we make individually and collectively, is shaped by values.
Perhaps a more helpful question, then, is "can teaching about values change the world?" Yes again. Particularly if we learn to take a dialogic approach that immerses ourselves, our students, our colleagues and our organisations in an open and truthful exploration of our values; of where these values are coming from and, crucially, where they might lead. Putting real effort into such a project would, I think, be doing the 'right thing.'

I'm quite looking forward to a pint and a natter with that Knight now.