Tag Archives: schools

A caricature of character education? Morgan needs a broader vision

Another contribution to the wider narrative – including some very useful comments. Let’s keep the discussion alive.


John White

The Department for Education has just invited schools and other bodies to bid for money to support projects in character education. Since her appointment last July, Nicky Morgan has shown an especial interest in this area. In a recent talk at Birmingham University, she spoke of “ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit”.

She went on: “We want to ensure that young people leave school with the perseverance to strive to win…. We want pupils to revel in the achievement of victory, but honour the principles of fair play, to win with grace and to learn the lessons of defeat with acceptance and humility.” These values are reflected in the bidding invitation. Pride of place is given to perseverance, resilience, grit, confidence,

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Character Education is a Waste of Time

Some very useful contributions here to help those concerned about the growing move for the explicit teaching of character. The focus on humanity, experiential learning and the opportunities (time and space) that may exist with the current lifeworlds of the individuals and the school to explore, question, build and reflect on values underpinning character is most welcome and very much in tune with the approach we take through the http://www.learningthroughvalues.org project. All of our experience suggests that the imposition of values (or character) is a non-starter. This is about deep personal identity and being. There is a level of neglect in the way this is being approached by those with power in education at the moment and this is where I feel we get to the elephant in the room – power and the need and desire to control.
Society needs to be challenged and remodeled to reflect the changing realities of our liquid modernity – holding onto a past that has caused so many issues is misguided and short sighted and the imposition of those character traits that underpinned this is simply nonsense – unless of course you are one of the (increasingly) few who benefit from this.
We need an honest debate around these issues and not a short term election response from a dept that does not even know what values are and seemingly from the current funding process, even know what the school year is. Where is the sense in a grant to work with schools running April 2015 – April 2016 – which school year does that fit with? Nonsense.

Speak up, share other voices, create a broader narrative, join in.

Trivium 21c

One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts

Today I had the honour to debate the following at the Policy Exchange Think Tank in London: ‘Is Character Education a Waste of Time?’ This was further explained by the Chair, Jonathan Simons in this way: “The issue is… can we teach it [character] in the formal way, in the same way as we teach other subjects…?” (You can hear the debate on the audio link below)

This was my contribution:

I never thought I’d be sharing a platform with Toby Young let alone debating a motion where I am on the same side as him. Toby is an extraordinary character as is Anthony Seldon and James O’Shaughnessy, extraordinary characters all. I feel a bit of fraud, a walk on part, sharing the stage with these lead players in our national narrative.

I must admit to something, paradoxically, my day job is…

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Michael Rosen on Gove’s “British” values

Thanks to colleague Sheila Tucker for sending through a link to a Guardian article by Michael Rosen.  He deftly whips through Gove’s list of “British” values and in doing so raises some of the very real concerns that, in part at least, led me to start Values Soup.

What I like however is that it is not just a diatribe (there are plenty of those out there), but an enjoyable raising of key questions and in the last a recognition of precisely what we at Lifeworlds and Learning Through Values see as the key to all of this…

So, I look forward to these guidelines on British values, if only for the fact that it will give our children the chance to put them up for scrutiny. By the way, did it ever occur to you to call them just: “Values”?

…the need to drop the “British”, focus on values and develop the dialogue by better equipping teachers with the necessary time and space to better understand values for themselves.



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The values metric and data heavy diets

We live in an era obsessed with measurement.  Just think about it.  Virtually every news item has some form of metric in it about growth, loss, comparison, change, targets and so on and it doesn’t limit itself to any one subject area either.  This is true of the economy, of education, of leisure, or sport and of virtually anything.  In fact watching the odd bit of the World Cup at the moment it is almost impossible to escape measurement and comparisons and I feel so much the better for knowing that Brazil have not lost a home international since 1975  – or do I?

I am not alone in thinking this and I have many colleagues within sustainability learning and global learning who are very familiar with the notion of trying to ‘measure what we value rather than value what we measure’ but there is still that obsession with measuring!  I found myself straying back into this mindfield yesterday evening when I ended up watching a Channel 4 documentary called ‘The World’s Best Diet’ which took a global look at 50 world diets ranking them from worst at 50 to best at 1.  The list was compiled based on a number of fixed criteria in consultation with nutrition experts looking at issues such as fat, salts, alcohol and ailments including cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart attack etc.  It was interesting (if light) viewing, but I found my mind back in the whole area of values and measuring.  A number of points triggered this:

The measurements used in the programme were based explicitly on health factors.  OK, but what about the impact of diet on the environment?  Many of the ‘best’ diets has a large proportion of fish in them for example, but there was no mention of the regular concerns voiced in the environmental media around declining global fish stocks and empty seas.  Another avenue not explored was that of diet and enjoyment?  I am reminded of an inspiring talk by an Indian professor (whose name escapes me at the moment) some 5 years ago at The Battle of Ideas who talked about economic growth and the rising middle class in India.  He told us that once Indian’s died from starvation and cholera but that now they aspired to die of diabetes, cancer or coronary heart disease!  I could go on – in short I found myself thinking about how do we measure ‘best’ in relation to this programme or anything for that matter.

Values are central to this for me.  What you measure (and how you present it) will depend on what you value?  So here we are existing in a world of data overload where statistics bombard us and compete for our attention, and all of these are value laden and values led.  Think about the debate on immigration that I am listening to right now on the radio in the background.  The data on immigrants shifted from 1.8 to 2.2 million in one sentence.  So which is it and why were both stated – what are they trying to do by using this data?  What is their frame?


So how do we measure values?

The complexity of values and measurement is fresh in my mind right now also because of the impending duty on schools to actively promote ‘British Values’.  This is apparently something that the inspectorate Ofsted will measure on their visits, but how do we even begin to measure values and what values lie behind this measurement anyway.  This is an open book for me and I know there are many others trying to evidence the impact (or otherwise) of values-led work in schools.  I look forward to these discussions and to the opportunity to try out new approaches, but I think central to all of this is to remember and reflect upon the values underpinning our desire to measure in the first place.  Data is noise and schools and education are a noisy places these days.  How do we cut through this and find the signal within the noise.  That depends on what you value perhaps.

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Character Education vis-a-vis Learning Through Values

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.





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Learning Through Values – reflections on the longest day…and the longest journey.

21st June 2014 and it is three years to the day since we held our first ‘Festival of Learning’.  The festival was titled ‘Transforming Education, Transforming Ourselves: inspirational spaces for learning and change’ and in some ways it was the first public outing for our work on Learning Through Values.  The event brought together a diverse range of educationalists from a range of subject areas and agendas as well as from across different organisations and phases of schooling.

What held the space was a shared concern with the changes about to come in education in England (the impact of the new coalition government was just starting to become clear at this point) and in particular about the values (though we weren’t explicitly using this yet) that were inherent to those changes. It was a transformational event for many of those there and certainly for me and for my organisation, Lifeworlds Learning, that had organised the festival as its first major community event.  It led to the first conversations around values and in turn this led to the formation of the Leading Through Values pilot project working alongside several partners who had been involved in the Festival and a follow up event in November 2012.

So much has happened in 3 years – the establishment of a new Learning Through Values community and website, the completion of the Leading Through Values pilot project, the development of new values professional learning opportunities, the emergence of new values work and connections in China, fledgling values partnerships with new organisations and authorities, and several new publications and resources for release in 2014-15 school year – and yet it sometimes feels we have gone nowhere!

The announcements just a week or so ago about the expectation for schools in England to actively promote ‘British values’ suggests that Learning Through Values as we perceive it has barely got off the starting blocks and that there is a long journey ahead.  Reassuringly, I believe we are now better equipped for that journey than we have been, and that we have some incredibly supportive and wonderfully challenging traveling companions.  It is not a done deal though.  We have a long way to go and the road ahead will be bumpy, will have its crossroads and dead ends, but the meandering and progress (no matter how gradual), will I believe continue to open up new and exciting avenues for learning and teaching and to inspire the resilient communities necessary to embrace and resolve the issues that will come their way.

If you’re new to this area of thinking and learning, then I warmly invite you to get involved and add your voice to the growing dialogue that has become the soundtrack for our individual and collective journey’s.  Now to enjoy a full 12 hours + of daylight!

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“British values” and Global Citizenship: seeing the bigger picture

The announcement by UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove that all schools in England would be expected to “actively promote British values” from September 2014, has provoked an avalanche of comment with strong voices of support, but equally strong voices of dissent.  What has been largely missing however, is a balanced and rigorous debate.  Instead discussion has been dominated by personal opinions, attitudes and platitudes.  This is perhaps not surprising given the idea emerged in response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in which a number of schools, centred on Birmingham, were accused of promoting (or at best failing to prevent) the spread of extreme Islamist agendas.  This is inevitably an issue that raises tensions and opinions, and immediately frames the use of (and reaction to) the term “British values” as used in the governments response.

I do not believe this is the sole explanation for the less than rigorous debate however.  I believe it is also partly due to an unfortunate by-product of values; a living contradiction that must be overcome in order for there to be informed and meaningful progress.  So what is this?  Well in simple terms, values are what motivate us and they reside for the most part within our deep sub-conscience.  They are rarely worn in public, but rather inform our public persona that comprises our attitudes, opinions and actions (what we think, say and do).  Our values tend to only become more visible when something stimulates or aggravates our deeper sub-conscience and brings them to the fore.  Such stirrings are often linked to emotion (an image or story that upsets, a work dilemma that angers for example) and are therefore often experienced as absolutes.  Values are the essence of who we are after all, so when felt, they are often felt strongly.  Most disagreements, conflicts and tensions (of whatever scale) can normally be related back to values clashes.

The living contradiction here, is that it is often precisely those moments at which our values motivate us to act with additional fervor that we need to be able to see beyond our own values; to better understand how they have been formed; and to more effectively engage with the values of others and the manner in which these are articulated and encountered.   But how do we do this?

Seize the moment.  Own the learning.
I have been engaged explicitly in the field of values and learning for the past 5-10 years, and without calling it that, for a good decade beforehand.  More recently I acted as the project lead for a national pilot project in English schools called ‘Leading Through Values’.  This was a collaborative action research/learning project developed by Lifeworlds Learning in partnership with Oxfam, British Red Cross, Think Global and Practical Action.  These five, very different organisations were drawn together by a common interest in the nature of values and how these connect to learning in formal schooling.  As organisations that are all variously involved in Global Citizenship, the project was also concerned with whether (and if so how) a focus on values could support and enhance such approaches.

The findings of the project and the implications for schools have been written up and shared in various forms and can be further explored at http://www.learningthroughvalues.org/projects.html, but two key lessons from the project and my wider engagement in values are pertinent to this piece.

The first relates to giving time to explore values.  Within the project, and subsequent professional training being used in schools, one of the most significant factors has been enabling school communities (leadership, staff, students and parents/carers) to explore values (their own and each others) and to become more familiar with how values work.  What this has revealed is that values are complex and varied for sure, but that there is also not as much disparity in values as might at first be assumed.  Instead it has been possible to identify significant common purpose informed by a largely shared set of values, and this has been used by schools as a driver for whole-school change, seizing the moment and building on this positive energy.

The second (and related lesson) is around the nature of learning – of what is learned and how learning happens.  Again, through the prism of values, schools (and specifically teachers) were asked to audit the learning in their schools against that needed to encourage those values they collectively held or aspired to as a community.  This takes the form of an appreciative enquiry, recognising what already exists, but providing an honest appraisal of what is missing.  Accepting the varied nature of individual schools, there is without exception a point within this process at which those involved experience a disconnect between what it is they are doing and what it is they say they are motivated to do.  Variously termed a ‘dissorientating dilemma’ or a ‘living contradiction’, the key at this point is to provide ownership of that challenge.  It can go either way here.  It is easy to become disheartened and to default to what we do in such circumstances, even if we know that is not necessarily what is right.  Education is rife with examples of this.  What is harder, slower, and certainly more challenging is to use this as a turnaround moment and to take ownership of the learning.  This will require change and it will take time, but it is an energising and ultimately rewarding process that has been shown to reinvigorate teachers and to inspire and motivate learning.

These then, are the two key lessons that inform this piece, and they were chosen with intent, because yet again teachers (and particularly those in a lead role) find themselves approaching a summer break from which they will return to another new requirement on their already overcrowded desks (especially so in September 2014).  This time it is this expectation that they should ‘actively promote British values’, so what exactly does that mean and what we can learn from our existing engagement in values and learning to inform and support schools in this.  More specifically how can we encourage them to seize the moment and own the learning that comes from it?

Seeing the Bigger Picture
My greatest frustration in the week or so since Gove’s announcement on British values has been the apparent inability of politicians and pundits to see the bigger picture.  In the same week as schools have been asked to promote ‘British’ values we have also had stories about ‘White British’ children underperforming relative to other ethnic groups, and heard about the challenges of getting ‘British’ workers to perform the same tasks as workers from East European nations.  So what are the very ‘British’ values that underpin all of this and are ‘British’ values that lead to underperformance in education and work really worthy of promotion?  I am being purposefully provocative here and I recognise that it is far more complex than this, but that is precisely my point.  There are those who will respond to the above with statements like “well that’s because they don’t have good values” and there is hidden in here some truth, but also a great deal of naivety.  No-one is devoid of values and indeed research suggests that there is considerable unity in a set of values held by us all, but enacted very differently according to our context and capability.

A grossly surmised analysis of these two related stories can help us to understand this for it is the “White British” working class children and unemployed from former industrial heartlands that appear to the focus of the aforementioned stories.  But are these not the very same industrial heartlands that made Britain “Great”; that fueled the empire through long hours of arduous work and toil?; that built resilient communities that stood together through adversity forming structures such as the currently struggling co-operatives?  I did say this was grossly surmised, but it hopefully illustrates the point that there is a much bigger picture to any discussion on values and that this discussion is rooted in and informed by our history, literature and art, through sport, landscapes and settlement patterns, and in great advances in science and innovation.  What motivated and continues to motivate all of these and what motivates the selection of what we choose to teach about this is all values laden and values rich.

So for educationalists, the call to actively promote values (I will come to the ‘British’ bit in a moment) might not be seen as another burden, but instead as a fantastic opportunity to engage in learning with new and reinvigorated eyes; to see values as integral to the lifeblood of the school and evident not just in what it chooses to teach but in how it chooses to deliver this and in the feel and ethos of the learning environment.  With schools expected to foster their own ‘local curriculum’ to sit alongside the national curriculum, a values approach provides enormous potential and once initiated is hard to disconnect from the knowledge-heavy foundations of the national curriculum.  Indeed I would suggest that using values in the local curriculum as a lens to interpret and connect to the knowledge of the national curriculum can do much to create wise learners capable of finding meaning and purpose for their education that exceeds that of the necessary grades to proceed in a target driven environment.

There is a big picture to values and learning, but the nature of the term ‘British Values’ risks this being obscured (intentionally or otherwise) by a parochial and patriotic shortsightedness that may only further the differences and alienation that apparently motivated its introduction in the first place.  Writing this on the day that England may well find themselves departing the World Cup party in Brazil, this is tantamount to a disastrous own goal in the first few minutes.

Britain: Island Nation or International Island?
So it is here that I turn to the most contentious element of the past weeks’ discussions – the nature of that term ‘British’ and just what are ‘British values’.  This has been the focus of much of the discussion and has to my mind distracted from the more necessary discussion around the interplay of values and learning as touched on above.  Concerns aside, it can not be ignored.

A YouGov poll carried out within a few days of Gove’s announcement revealed that 79 per cent of people felt that schools should explicitly ‘instill ‘British values’ in pupils,’ but interestingly the same poll went on to reveal that only 70 per cent (of the same sample) felt there were such things as distinctly ‘British values’ which already suggests the need to talk about this as 9 per cent of the sample think they should be instilled but don’t think there are such things.  Furthermore, if you dig into the poll data then there are some considerable questions to be asked.

I will focus on just one – the observation that opinion as to whether there are specifically “British values” varies considerably by age group.  Among the 60+ age group, 85 per cent of participants feel there are specifically ‘British values’, but this steadily declines to 75 per cent in the 40-59 year bracket and 58 per cent among those aged 25-39.  Within the 18-24 year bracket only 49 per cent felt there were distinctly British values, with 33 per cent believing they are much the same as in other countries and can not be specifically defined.  This is significant as it is the closest age group to those upon who these ‘British values’ are to be instilled.  It is also significant because it suggest there is room for a much wider discussion around values that is less ‘British’ in its outlook.

This is where Global Citizenship with its more global and holistic approach to thinking, learning and action has so much to offer to this debate and opportunity.  Unlike the knee-jerk reaction of ill-informed politicians, Global Citizenship has been shaped and reshaped by educationalists, with educationalists and for educationalists and has involved genuinely global dialogue.  There is also considerable evidence from schools that have engaged with such approaches of positive change in the very directions that the government is seeming to want out of this current crisis – greater understanding of diversity, greater responsibility for self and others, greater participation and empathy etc.

What makes it different to the response of government and to my mind compelling, is in how it positions Britain.  Whilst providing space for expressing identity as distinctly British, as part of an historic island nation, it places this within a very firm understanding of Britain as part of a global community replete with all of the messiness that this involves whether around trade, immigration, international relations, or a history of slavery and Empire.  But good learning is often messy so rather than ignore this, Global Citizenship embraces this as a rich context for learning and a meaningful conduit for young people to think, learn and act.

Moreover when combined with the more detailed understanding of values as introduced earlier in this piece, Global Citizenship becomes a vital ally to learning, enabling teachers and learners to access other voices, to think from varied perspectives, and to recognise similarities and more effectively understand differences.  The two create a powerful vehicle for whole-school change and  for creating the kind of wise learners that parents, teachers and learners themselves aspire to.  I find this approach to learning much more relevant and palatable than the potential of an isolated Britain upholding poorly considered “British values” that signify an international island mentality, refusing to accept our place within a changed Britain and an ever changing world.

Rob Bowden is the lead practitioner at Lifeworlds Learning and co-ordinator of Learning Through Values, a community space for dialogue and progress in values and learning.  To stay informed with  latest resources, releases and learning opportunities join the community free via rob@learningthroughvalues.org and to follow current discussions follow the Values Soup blog at https://ltvblog.wordpress.com/

This post was inspired by a conversation with colleagues and friends at Oxfam Education in response to the announcement on promoting British values.  The views expressed are entirely my own however.

See this post at Oxfam Education

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Poor “White British” achieve less – so how does this connect to “British” values?

I was amazed this morning to listen to stories on the radio and read them on the web about the lower achievement of poor White British children vis a vis other ethnic groups in British schools with poor Indian children performing the best.  See one example here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27886925

My amazement was not at the connection between poverty and low achievement (this is not rocket science and I have seen it myself), nor at the differential between ethnic groupings in similar levels of deprivation (leaving aside the highly subjective nature of this for now).  My amazement was at the complete disconnect in all media to the debate around British Values that was so dominant last week in relation to schools.  Indeed one radio report even trailed a moral debate around British Values and whether or not they can and should be taught in schools, right after the story on the lower achievement of White British children.

I find this disconnect fascinating and worrying as it suggests a blinkered and isolated approach to policy and a complete lack of understanding (or willingness to understand) education, learning and values in 21st century Britain.

Surely this is the time for a proper debate?  Surely we need to explore the data that White British under-perform with the apparent demand to promote British (White?) Values that presumably inform those very same children?  I can almost hear the response being ‘well that’s because they don’t have values’ but our work around values in schools and communities including those in under-performing, post-industrial, poor white communities suggests there is a very different picture.

I fear that what we will get instead is a rushed consultation on British Values (with few in these communities being included in the consultation) and then an ill-conceived instruction to schools, to be measured by a poorly prepared inspectorate.  Values appear obvious, but are not.  Engaging effectively in values requires a fundamental questioning of self and an essential dialogue with others.  If we do not give teachers, governors, inspectors, parents and pupils, the space to have these discussions then we will exacerbate differences and increase alienation.  Where we give space, our work shows that it is possible to reveal (and in many cases rediscover) a common purpose that and that this can be a very strong force for positive change, in well-being, cohesion, and achievement.

The fact that poor children from Indian, Pakistani, Black African and Black Caribbean backgrounds all perform better than those from White British, surely also suggests that the discussion we need is around values and that the sooner we drop the distraction, obstacle and frame of ‘British’, the better?



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British values: democracy and respect must also apply to the way curriculum is built

These are exactly the conversations that Values Soup wants to encourage and support. Thanks Chris for some very neatly surmised thoughts.


Chris Husbands

Denis Healey tells the story. On the eve of South Yemen’s independence, its last British governor hosted a party attended by Healey, who was then minister for defence. Over drinks, as the flag was about to be lowered, the governor looked at Healey and said, “You know, Minister, I believe that in the long view of history, the British Empire will be remembered only for two things.” What, Healey wondered, were these great gifts to the world? And the governor replied, “the game of association football. And the expression ‘eff off’.”

Stories like this are a reminder, perhaps, that ‘British values’ are more complex and problematic than they appear when grabbed by politicians in a crisis. On Monday afternoon, following the OFSTED report into Birmingham schools, the Secretary of State for Education argued that all schools should be required to teach the fundamental British values of “democracy, mutual…

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Motivating and reinvigorating learning through values

This blog was originally published as a Thinkpiece for Think Global and can be seen in its original form here.


Original Title – Motivating the core: a values-led approach to owning a common future.

This paper reflects on a recent collaborative project working alongside Think Global, Oxfam, British Red Cross and Practical Action to explore the potential of ‘Leading Through Values’ for school-based transformation.


Overview (why read this?)

This paper shares a selection of the context, insights and implications emerging from a pilot project ‘Leading Through Values’ (LTV). The project took place across nine primary schools in the Midlands and focused specifically on nine active classes and their 210 learners. Pupils ranged from Year 2 – Year 6 and the active phase of the project was September 2012 – April 2013.

The focus of this paper is on exploring how the project motivated teachers to engage in critical values learning and to adapt their teaching and learning. Paramount to this was a carefully constructed learning journey, incorporating several inter-related theories, but all of the time being led by a consideration of values and their practical integration in the classroom. The paper begins with the context, setting out how the project emerged and touching on one or two of the theories and ideas driving it. It then shares some of the key insights to emerge from the active phase in schools, before reflecting on the implications of the project for those engaged, or with an interest, in global learning. The paper finishes with identifying how readers can contribute to and learn further from, the ongoing work this project has spawned and its likely next steps.


Talking the same language (how the project came to be).

At the heart of the project was an interest in values and learning shared by five national organisations. This interest was sufficiently strong to initiate a joint exploration of how values and learning intersect in formal education and what the implications of this relationship might be for global learning.

Central to this process, was the need for the organisations involved to discover and converse in the same language, for even a shared space such as ‘global learning’ is characterized by a myriad of perspectives and interpretations once one peels back the lid. Leaving that exciting, and I would argue necessary dissensus, to one side, I want to here explain some of the key terms used within the LTV project. These should assist the reader in the remainder of this thinkpiece.

Common Cause: The organisations behind LTV initially came together around a piece of work on values and frames that is most widely known through the lens of the Common Cause Handbook (Holmes et al, 2011). Common Cause provides an accessible explanation of how values work within society to influence behaviours and attitudes. Its authors make the case for better understanding these mechanisms in order to counter the pervasive power of forces perceived to be working (whether consciously or not) against a more just and sustainable future.

Bigger Than Self (BTS) issues: Associated with Common Cause is the notion of Bigger Than Self issues, a concept that proved especially useful to the LTV project which defined BTS issues as:

‘… issues that may feel simply too big to deal with. For us these include those relating to global poverty, sustainability and humanitarianism. We will call these Bigger Than Self (BTS) issues, but the terms Global, Complex, Controversial and Universal are also used. To a large extent the term does not matter, but the skills, dispositions and ability to consider these issues, to form an opinion, and to take relevant action does. Values are at the heart of this.’

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Values: The ‘universal human values’ explored in Common Cause can be categorized by type or characteristic. There is considerable detail in this and room for disagreement also, but at the broadest level the distinction is made between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Values. Extrinsic Values are generally those associated with self and could be summarized by status and success. Intrinsic Values are by contrast those associated with others and the wider world and are closely linked to notions of well-being, justice and sustainability that are the focus of many in global learning.

These terms are further explored in associated project papers (see Bowden, 2013a and 2013b), but the above explanations should provide sufficient context for readers of the present thinkpiece.


Guided by obliquity… (what we set out to do…)

The LTV project was established to explore whether the ideas within Common Cause could be applied in formal education to engage the intrinsic values of learners (here we include teachers) through Bigger Than Self (BTS) issues. The object was not to ‘teach’ or ‘convey’ specific intrinsic values that might be akin to the agendas and objectives of the partners, but rather to devise a process through which a broad values dialogue could take place. The test was to see whether providing such a space, would lead to a strengthening of intrinsic values and in doing so lead to an increase in awareness of, and engagement with learning through BTS approaches like global learning.

A critic might immediately question the merit and purpose of such a circuitous and chance-laden journey – why not simply devise a programme of activity and support that overtly introduces and promotes the desired values? The response to such a legitimate query is both easy and persuasive. It lies firstly in a growing body of evidence that the transmission of values simply does not work. Such approaches have at best a temporary pull on the values by which we live our lives, and at worst cause outright rejection because values shifts require change and change rarely works when imposed (Bowden and Wilson 2013).

A second and related response is to be found in the theory of obliquity made popular by John Kay (2011), which in a nutshell posits that goals are best achieved indirectly; if you want to achieve X, then focus on doing Y. Allowing for the obvious complexity behind this notion, obliquity has proven especially useful in guiding our work on values, which if dealt with head-on can unveil sensitivities and even confrontation. One needs only to think of the values clashes played out almost daily by our elected politicians to appreciate this. The school environment can be equally volatile and never more so than under the present changes that are widely accepted as unparalleled in living memory.


… and working from security (…and how we went about it).

Aware of sensitivity around working with values and of the current operational environment for schools, LTV practitioners were at pains to work from a position of security, at least as a starting point. This security was twofold – firstly in the idea that the work of the partner organisations was rooted in the intrinsic values we were hoping to engage, and second in the belief that the process supporting a values-led approach was more important than the content.   We therefore took faith in beginning where teachers and their learners were.

From this standpoint the project was able to engage participants openly and quickly as it did not impose or expect any specialist knowledge or insight as its starting point. Rather it was able to build confidence and motivation amongst both teachers and learners by asking deceptively simple questions and by working with what they were already doing and/or planning to do in their learning. It would be deceptive to say that this did not also cause some confusion in the initial stages, but this was primarily because teachers had become so accustomed to heavily proscribed programmes and interventions.


Towards a pedagogy of hope? (finding an inner energy)

The ideas of Paulo Freire are often cited in theories of global learning, but just as often flounder in practice when they clash with the neo-liberal models governing the system. Freire never meant for his works to be a methodology, but rather as a stimulus for adaptation and development. A key tenet of his work that seems enormously under-valued, is its inherent energy. So many educators become animated and passionate about a more just and sustainable world when they engage with his ideas. In the spirit of Freire, we set out to see whether values-led learning could provide a similar and perhaps more sustainable energy.

The energy we sought to create had three key sources. The first was in providing teachers with an opportunity to explore their own values and consider how values are formed, influenced and change. The second was in asking them to think about their learners and the aspirations they held for their future. This became the focus of a disorientating dilemma (Mezirow, 2000), helping teachers to contrast the values-led aspirations they held for their learners with the teaching and learning in their classrooms. In most instances this identified significant potential for change.

The third energy source lay in the simple act of starting ‘where teachers (and their learners) were at’, as opposed to bringing additional content into already busy classrooms. By placing our confidence in the idea that all learning could be connected to values and to Bigger Than Self (BTS) issues, we were able to help teachers work within their existing planning. The effort was not expended on learning new content, but on applying new learning approaches to current content. This approach echoed theoretical understanding of work around values and allowed us to cast ourselves as facilitators exposing and motivating existing dispositions, rather than as experts educating the uninformed.

The energy released through these sources was seen to clearly motivate teachers and learners alike to engage more actively in BTS issues and to do so through a growing values understanding and dialogue. Of particular note, was the ownership that was assumed by all of those involved; an ownership that is akin to what we know about how values work. This vital issue of ownership also helps explain the failure of many initiatives based on values delivery where ownership is more normally vested in the delivery partner than the recipient. Ownership was most evident in the volume of work taking place in the pilot classrooms, with teachers engaging in much more values-based learning than had originally been planned and talking of “not wanting it to stop”.


Finding a flow (confidence and comfort)

The ownership that teachers exhibited for values approaches quickly translated into comfort and confidence in dealing with a range of Bigger Than Self issues, both locally and globally. Teachers of 10-15 years experience talked of trying things that they would “not have dreamed of exploring” before, and of being amazed at the ability of their learners “to debate and come up with really sensible ideas”. Beyond the formal learning of the classroom this newfound confidence was referenced by teachers who spoke of “seeing values and BTS issues everywhere” and by learners who began regularly bringing issues (from the community, media, family discussions etc) into the classroom for further exploration.

The values processes and emerging language were considered the ‘keys’ to unlocking a flow around this work. Flow is that state of being whereby an essentially cognitive process (such as thinking about complex BTS issues) becomes increasingly second nature, such that it not only requires less (conscious) effort, but is even enjoyable (Csikszentmihalyi in Kahneman, 2011). This state of flow was clearly seen in one or two of the pilot schools, where teachers, observers and learners themselves spoke of increased enjoyment, engagement and motivation for learning. There are several cases in which normally disruptive or perhaps struggling (in SEN terms) learners were noted for a marked positive turnaround in their learning.

Also of note, was a connection between increased confidence and the desire to act. In two of the schools I am aware of, learners (in both cases year 3) became sufficiently motivated to challenge the structures and values statements of the classroom and wider school. In one instance learners renegotiated the school rules to be the values by which they would learn and live together, and in another the learners worked with staff and governors to revisit and refresh the school mission around pupil-led values. This motivation to act, was not limited to learners. One teacher remarked quite openly about how the project and the engagement in values had afforded her a new confidence to work with senior leadership to tackle a key need for shelter in the playground. The same teacher also restructured the way in which they ran parents’ evenings, working from the values of the parent/carer rather than the largely extrinsic (performance-related) values that often dominate a schools approach to parents’ evenings. In other schools, teachers spoke of adding a values lens to their planning grids, and of looking out to BTS issues for ways to enrich and extend planned learning such that it becomes more meaningful and ‘real’.


Reaching in, in order to reach out (learning to let go)

So, what are the implications of this pilot project for those engaged in global learning as teachers, leaders or providers? The reality is that to overly state a series of implications would be both premature and misguided. Premature in the sense that this was a short-term, limited scale pilot project following a very specific pathway that is not instantly replicable. Misguided because the very nature of the project was to explore the application of values approaches and BTS issues across a wide variety of settings and the bespoke nature of this engagement raises (quite rightly) considerable caution against any quick fix ‘roll-out’.

Accepting of the above caveats, it is possible to raise a number of indicative points emerging from the project and to invite a wider dialogue around the potential implications of these. I will now deal with five of these briefly as they relate to the motivation of teachers.

Exploring ourselves: the process of exploring our own values and understanding more about how they are shaped and directed, appears to be key to the successful engagement and motivation of teachers and school leaders.

Finding your voice: the process of allowing a values language to emerge through dialogue and exploration is essential to fostering ownership and avoids the inhibitions associated with the introduction of specialist language and terminology. There is always room for translation once people are confident in their own voice.

Seeing the opportunity: approaching BTS issues not as specialist knowledge, but as an opportunity to ask questions, explore assumptions, acquire new insights, and challenge others has been key to liberating both teachers and learners to engage with confidence and to learn through the gaps in understanding or knowledge together.

Taking a risk: a process that is ready to “fail forwards”, to learn from its errors, and to understand its achievements, helps to foster a culture of positive risk taking – risk that stretches the learning, ventures into unknown responses and embraces unfamiliar concepts. The role of leaders in supporting this risk is also a key factor. It requires faith in process and strong evidencing of outcomes.

Securing the space: a process that begins where teachers and schools are, rather than imposing what may be perceived as additional burdens, can free up involvement and create genuine cross-curricula space for both values and BTS approaches to learning. As one teacher remarked “not so much a new way of teaching as a new pedagogy for what I already do”.

Not in a day’s work (seeing the limits)

The above points combine to provide an encouraging mandate for change and action within schools that recognizethe importance of global learning and are looking for ways to absorb it into their being. The project also provided some important points of caution, however. These points are worthy of brief mention by way of balance, and in particular to emphasise that the approaches used within the pilot are far from ‘a day’s work’. This work can not be replicated through a simple one-off training day and neither is it suited to a simplified toolkit available for download and delivery.Accepting that, both could of course assist those wanting to embark on such a journey.

What the project revealed was an intenselyhuman process, requiring time, openness, support, commitment, relationships, motivation and most of all time (yes more of it!). Within the pilot cohort,schools demonstrating the greatest shift had an active teacher embracing these needs. What enabled this when all schoolsreceivedthe same basis of engagement is the interesting question, and the answer it would appear comes back to the crux of this paper – the motivation of the core. And this motivation, I would suggest,is driven not by any promise of impact on learners, or any tangible gain for the school (though both were evident), but by teachers’ own learning; by the potential of these approaches to stretch, challenge and re-energise them as teachers, but also as peoplepassionate about learning. The engagement with values and BTS issues was core to this.

Where the active teacher in a school was less motivated by their own learning and engagement, and perceived the project as something to deliver ‘for’ their pupils, rather than to explore ‘with’ learners, there was notably less impact and shift. This is again to me an obvious statement, but suggests further challenges for this work given the viability of supporting all teachers to the level of depth possible within this project.



The findings of the pilot project suggest very strongly that a properly considered values approach can unleash new or renewed motivation for global learning through Bigger Than Self issues. Evidence from the study suggests greater teacher and learner engagement in BTS issues and the increased use of resources from organisations supporting such work. There is also evidence for improved attainment and behaviour which, though not in the least bit surprising to me, is useful in discussions with schools for whom these may be particular priorities. It may also be useful in discussions surrounding current curriculum change and the presence or otherwise of global learning and BTS issues.

What we are not able to draw conclusively from this pilot is the extent to which the approaches used could successfully steer whole-school development towards global learning. Anecdotal evidence from those schools where there was more active engagement from senior leadership (head and governors) alongside the active teacher, suggestssignificant potential. There is also evidence from follow up meetings in four of the project schools. These were in part at least,requested to support leadershipin considering changes to their school development plan in reaction to the pilot. What is less clear at present is what a whole-school approach would look like, especially given what we know about the very personal aspects of this work and the inevitable values clashesthat will exist within a school community (as in any community).

Negotiating a way through these necessary tensions in order to move effectively from an individual class to whole-school is a challenge that very much informs where we go next with this work. The ‘we’ is important, for the pilot has attracted interest from educators and organisations beyond the initial alliance that formed around a common cause. Together, this expanded community are actively planning a second phase of action-research in schools to address the questions arising from the pilot and to this time expand activity into the secondary phase (at least with Years 7 and 8).

In the interim the community have also committed to maintaining the traction gained during the pilot through the development of a website that will act as a depository and community space for those interested in this work. The full project report (of which this thinkpiece explores just one issue) is available there, as are other background papers and resources related to the project. The pilot delivery team have also devised a number of new professional learning opportunities designed to support schools, organisations and others who may see these approaches as contingent to their own work or direction of travel.

I would encourage interested readers to visit this website and to join the many inspiring and motivated educators who already form part of an exciting values community. If there are more specific questions relating to this work or you would simply like to see how you might contribute to, or learn from it, then please contact me in my role as coordinator of the Learning Through Values community.





Bowden, R. 2013a. Building a Case for Change. Available at www.learningthroughvalues.org

Bowden, R. 2013b. Leading Through Values: final project report. Available at www.learningthroughvalues.org

Bowden, R. & Wilson, R. 2013. Roots, shoots and fruits: learning to thrive through uncertainty and change in Inman, S. & Rogers, M. 2013. Change times: changing knowledge and pedagogy for ESD/GC. TEESNet 2013 Conference Papers.

Holmes, T., Blackmore, E., Hawkins, R., & Wakeford, T. 2011. The Common Cause Handbook. Public Interest Research Centre.

Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. London: Penguin

Kay, J. 2011. Obliquity: why our goals are best achieved indirectly. London: Profile Books

Mezirow, J. 2000. Learning as Transformation. San Francisco: Josey Bass



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