One of the most often encountered challenges in our work around Learning Through Values is the idea that we are somehow seeking to impose a particular set of values upon those who work with us (whether teachers, pupils, parents or organisations). Of course we are not value neutral, on-one is, and neither would it be true to say that we did not have our own ideas about the future we might want to share and the manner in which that might work. But this is not unique to us. Anyone engaging in any form of values related education, including those who choose not to engage in values, are making choices and actions based on values.
The key for me is to be open about this and to be willing to air and share your own values, but to give others the same opportunities. This is what much of our work revolves around, providing the time and space for people to expose, explore and reflect upon their own values and those of others. Through a process of dialogue and discovery, people frequently then come to have greater ownership of their own values, but to also recognise that there is often a common core of values that they share with others. This participatory and empowerment approach is of course imbued with its own values and the framing that these have is in and of itself a challenge and research area that we continue to grapple with.
The problem with Character…
We find that the root of suspicion, concern or even outright rejection of the values pedagogies that we are developing and exploring is frequently based on them being seen as ‘character education’. From where I stand this is a very different, but not completely separate, area of practice and research. Most mentions of Character Education appear to be traced back to political or religious interests (sometimes both) and are about a certain set of character traits decided by a relatively small group as desirable and deliverable to a much wider group. This is, I know a great oversimplification on one level, but is made because this is how many perceive it and how we are frequently labelled when talk of values is seen as synonymous with the more powerful voices around Character Education. Note the recent British govt report on Character and Resilience for example – no mention of values in the headlines or title.
The dominance of Character within these discussions is largely as a result of interests in the USA and in schemes such as KIPP that has been on the radar of Gove and is, I suspect, at least partly behind recent announcements on schools promoting ‘British’ values. This dominance extends to funding too, with much of the major work taking place on Character Education being funded by US-based interests who have pioneered research and development in this area.
Not everyone has been an avid supporter of Character Education however and in particular with the so-called ‘brainwashing’ that it suggests. I came across this short blog (http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2014/05/20/problem-character-education) from the US via our friends at Character Scotland with whom we are having great discussions around these challenges. An extract from the blog serves to illustrate part of this challenge:
“Parents nowadays are growing weary of government attempts to indoctrinate and condition their children according to statist principles. Endless class recycling initiatives, writing assignments on “social justice,” and even collective homework projects all aim to shape children in the progressive mold. In reaction, some insist they want schools just teaching knowledge and not delving into character, habits, and so forth.
Those are worthy sentiments, but they ignore the impossibility of teaching knowledge in a vacuum. What these parents really mean is that they want their children taught values that correspond with their own”
Character of Values
What I find most interesting about the above extract is the way it shifts into talking ‘values’ when critiquing character. This gets to the nuts and bolts of the issue for me which is not to have a polarised view that it is either character or values, but to instead come together to more robustly explore these two approaches. I feel that at the heart of this is to greater understand the character of values – how they work, where they come from, how they are influenced, framed and shaped, and how they inform our character which is to me the public face of our values. In short I don’t think there is a ‘problem’ with Character Education, but rather a wider problem with the level and quality of public engagement and discourse around values, character, education, and most significantly what all of this is for? What is the point? What is learning for?
We will be holding discussions of this sort with Character Scotland and others in forthcoming events and would welcome other voices to work through this challenge and help to draw out the commonalities, overlaps and distinctiveness of these approaches. This is not about competition, but about clarity. It is not about seeking any form of dominance over the language used to engage schools, but instead to explore those spaces that might be mutually beneficial and to expand each others horizons and extend our own learning further.
Get in touch through www.learningthroughvalues.org if you would like to contribute and get involved in the coming meetings.