Values Matter

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Following a recent exercise to establish an explicit set of values for the Primary Phase of ITE at the University, Stephen Scoffham and Jonathan Barnes argue passionately for why values must be at the heart of education.

a brain connected to a heartDiscussions around ‘British’ values, faith schools and inclusion remind us that values stand at the heart of what we do in education. At a national level values are embedded in the national curriculum and government policy decisions.  At a local level schools must formulate and publish aims or mission statements identifying the principles which underpin their practice.  The debate about values is arguably one of the most important issues in education today and it is keenly contested. Reconciling conflicting views and aspirations requires us to think clearly about our fundamental beliefs.  At the same time we also need to consider how these beliefs will inform our actions in the classroom.

Values can be defined as deeply held beliefs that act as ‘fundamental guides and prompts to action’ at every level of our lives (Booth and Ainscrow, 2011 p21).  When we discuss our values it helps to clarify the forces that drive us. Great numbers of decisions characterise our professional and personal lives. For teachers working in schools today it is easy to be blown off course by a deluge of directives and policy statements which end up being contradictory and confusing. A survey of over 500 teachers commissioned by the NASUWT in 2013 found that although most teachers love their work, a combination of low salaries, constant curriculum changes, the pressure to perform and disregard of their professional opinion were making many question whether they wished to stay in their jobs. In such circumstances values are particularly important as they provide a sense of meaning and direction. Our research suggests that those whose lives are informed by deeply held beliefs are likely to be particularly resilient and able to sustain themselves in the face of adversity.

However, our values are not always neatly aligned. In our personal lives contradictory values may pull us in different directions. In workplaces like schools the challenge of finding agreement may be even more acute. When we think at a deeper level more fundamental and universal beliefs tend to come to the fore: belief in family, love, fairness, peace, health, care for children and nature permeate cultures around the world.  The support of like-minded colleagues and the sense that one’s creative strengths contribute to a shared moral purpose help to build a better community.

Devising a values statement

A recent restructuring process at the Faculty of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University has stimulated debate about values in primary teacher education. In these discussions many colleagues referred to a distinctive ethos that they believed underpinned our work at the university: a deep commitment to understanding learning, a concern for children and their various needs, coupled with a strong sense of collegiality stood out as being particularly significant.

Such values, although implicit, tend to become eroded by the attrition of external pressures.  It is for this reason that staff working in the primary phase met together to try to capture the ethos which permeates their work as part of a staff development day.  A lengthy process of discussion and collaboration was held where all present were asked to record their thoughts around what they believed they valued most in primary education.

The next steps

The notes, diagrams, post-its and flip charts which primary colleagues had devised during the day were then carefully evaluated to identify key words, links and connections. Having identified key themes the next step was to turn them into values statements.  All those involved in this part of the process had to agree that each value statement was genuinely rooted in what staff had written, both in spirit and in detail.

After much discussion the following statements emerged as succinct summaries which encapsulated the original notes and expressed them in a form which could stimulate further discussion.

  • Community: We recognise the importance of learning from each other through conversation, co-operation, collaboration and building quality relationships
  • Respect: We know that learning can flourish in environments where people feel trusted, nurtured, loved and supported in becoming autonomous
  • Knowledge: We believe in the importance of developing the expertise of all learners in all disciplines
  • Evidence: We affirm that all educational activity needs to be underpinned by research, debate and the opportunity for critical reflection
  • Innovation: We seek to support each other to move beyond compliance by taking risks, being creative and thinking globally

It is useful here to expand upon these values, to further establish their meaning and importance.

  1. Community
    Developing an effective and supportive working environment is part of creating a viable ‘community of practice’ (Wenger 1998). Building democratic and collaborative decision-making structures offers rich possibilities for curriculum development and a pleasant working environment. This argument, originally mounted by Dewey (1938), is as relevant now as it was then.
  2. Respect
    Respect involves valuing the integrity of others and acknowledging their equal rights to contribute to the life of the community. In a professional context where hierarchies often dominate, a respectful approach recognises how power relationships can limit creative contributions. Writing over forty years ago, Paulo Friere (1973) alerted teachers to the dangers of dehumanisation and the importance of ‘authentic’ approaches to education based on shallow organisational hierarchies. Listening to the ‘voice of the child’ reflects the philosophy of cooperation and unity that he espoused.
  3. Knowledge
    Educationalists of all political and cultural persuasions agree that knowledge is central to education. Hirsch offers a list of essential knowledge for the cultural literacy of each age range whilst Gardner (1983) maintains that subject disciplines represent one of the greatest inventions of the last millennium. Whilst Hirsch and Gardner occupy very different points on the traditional-progressive spectrum, they both advocate a democratic approach in which knowledge is available to all. However, the question of who defines knowledge remains unresolved, thus opening up the potential for values discussions at every level of learning.
  4. Evidence
    Uncritically accepted, values can result in indoctrination, bias and extremism. Academic institutions are founded upon the idea that ‘knowledge’ is subjected to rigorous examination. It follows that academic freedom of speech is central to the healthy function of schools and universities. Research informed teaching is widely advocated in higher education. Furthermore, as Robin Alexander argues, teachers and educationalists need to be clear about their aims and aware of the research which supports it. Merely relying on compliance to justify educational activity is, he believes, both ‘unsafe’ and ‘undemocratic’ (p308).
  5. Innovation
    Helping children to live fulfilling lives now and in the future and developing their capabilities should be key educational objectives. Differences of mindset, culture, personality and disposition are a resource to be treasured. There is good evidence that creativity thrives on diversity and that intelligence, rather than being fixed, expands through making new links and connections (Lucas, Claxton and Spencer, 2013). Current existential, environmental, cultural and social challenges seem likely to require extraordinary levels of innovation and creativity (Hicks 2013). If teachers and students do not address these issues who will?

The aim of this article is to share the values of the primary phase at CCCU and to invite discussion about both them, both within and beyond the University

We want to stimulate discussions in schools and classrooms which will enrich the debate about values and help to reinvigorate professional practice.  We also see this a way in which partnerships can be strengthened and developed in a spirit of co-operation and intellectual enquiry.

Feedback and comment from all those involved in education – children, governors, parents as well as teachers – will broaden the base and widen the remit of our endeavour.  We are acutely aware that educators are the only professionals who work with large numbers of children on a long-term and sustained basis.  This gives teachers an important opportunity to help build a better world based on fairness, inclusion and sensitivity to ourselves and the environment.  Values provide the moral compass which will enable us to make wise choices and decisions in the years ahead.  Seeking to continually establish and re-affirm the values which underpin our work must surely be one of the most urgent tasks in education today.

References

Barnes, J.M. (2013) ‘What sustains a fulfilling life in education?’ Redfame Vol 1. No 2.
Booth, T. and Ainscrow, M. (2011) Index for Inclusion, Bristol: Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education.
Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York Touchstone.
Friere, P. (1973) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin.
Gardner, H. (1983, 2011) Frames of Mind, New York, Basic Books.
Hicks D. (2013) Education for Hope in Troubled Times, Stoke on Trent: Trentham.
Lucas, B., Claxton, G. and Spencer, E.(2013) Expansive Education: Teaching learners for the real world, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Scoffham, S. and Barnes, J. (2011) ‘Happiness Matters: Towards a pedagogy of happiness and well-being’, Curriculum Journal 22:4, 535-548.
Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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