“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
What we learn and how we are taught are key to shaping the people we become. The heated debates around the UK’s National Curriculum in recent months attest to a general recognition of this: with the fight-back against the proposal to remove climate change from the syllabus; discussion around what is taught in history classes; and a current trend for questioning how to teach ‘character’. What is not always considered is what values are being taught through our education system. New ‘action research’, carried out by Lifeworlds Learning in collaboration with Oxfam, Practical Action, the British Red Cross, Think Global and the National Children’s Bureau, aims to address this. Their recently launched report, Leading Through Values, outlines the findings of a pilot study in which primary school teachers took to teaching children about values in nine UK primary schools.
The idea of ‘teaching values’ will set off alarm bells in the minds of many (myself included!), but this project was intensely aware of this. Teachers were asked to reflect both on their own values and on the problem in trying to ‘impart values’. The project aimed to create understanding that society is already shaping our values on a daily basis, and we should at least be discussing this openly.
“The project highlights the influence different people and environments have on an individual’s values. The class became more tolerant of each other’s beliefs when we unpicked what values were and how we all differed from each other depending on individuals’ circumstances. Within a safe environment we were able to challenge behaviours.”
The intention, then, was to equip both teachers and pupils with the language of values and awareness of how to identify where and how values play out in the world we live in. Rather than creating another add-on of discrete activities, this was designed to fit in with the syllabus and existing teacher lesson plans. Children discussed values through the books they were reading, through games, through current affairs, and through local issues. Both teacher ownership and pupil voice were heavily encouraged. Afterward, teachers reported how taking part in the project had opened their eyes to the connections between issues and values, and recounted how the language of values had contributed to children’s understanding of the world around them.
“No, Henry VIII wouldn’t be a good leader today because he didn’t value mutual respect.”
- Yr 5 pupil
“... a statemented child, who rarely engages in an appropriate way, could say how during the Egyptian riots Mubarak was breaking human rights by not letting people choose their own president.”
Those interested in measurement will be glad to hear that the researchers also measured both teacher and pupil values before and after (and some significant shifts were found - values such as benevolence, universalism and achievement all showed increases); as well as carrying out a qualitative appraisal of learning outcomes and wellbeing.
Whilst the pilot phase is now complete, the project partners are seeking interest and support from groups and individuals to continue the work (including further involvement from schools in the future).
“It’s not a new way of teaching so much as a new idea of teaching. A new way of reflecting on how you teach and what’s going to have the best impact.”
If you’re interested in discussing this research or being involved, please contact the project co-ordinator Rob Bowden.