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How Do We Develop Values?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Those who attempt to develop and/or alter values and beliefs including character educators use a number of different approaches. Some of these approaches utilize questionable propaganda techniques, even to the point that they appear to be nothing less than types of indoctrination. A teacher should have ethical concerns about such approaches even when motivated by unselfish caring and concern. Other approaches, at first glance, seem unlikely to have any influence at all. However, the teacher should realize that any single approach can be used ineffectively as well as effectively. Ryan (2000) has pointed out that talk about character education is easier than doing it. He outlines six methods which he calls the six "E's" of character education: example, explanation, exhortation (praise and pep talks), ethos (ethical environment), experience, and expectation of excellence. The six "E's" are one way of conceptualizing how we go about teaching value-laden material. However, I have found the following five basic categories of methodology to be more useful.

  1. Teaching values through pronouncements, rules, and warnings: Many times adults simply tell young people what to believe. This may occur very openly or it may be much more subtle. In school, for example, it is common to begin by giving children a set of classroom rules. There may or may not be discussion of these rules, but the fact is that the children are told that these rules have to be obeyed. The rules tell them what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what to admire, and so on. Values are also taught very directly when certain behaviors are expected in children. Teachers, parents, and other adults imply what is good and bad by the behaviors that they demand or expect. Values are taught directly through home and school rules, requirements, and individual and group orders and statements. The teacher says, "Stand up straight! Do your homework! Work carefully and neatly!" The teacher wants expects work to be on time and complete. The headings have to all be alike. Paper and writing utensils have to meet certain standards. Children are to be quiet except when the adult wants them to talk. All of these actions imply compliance with authority, responsibility, taking pride in work, and other attributes that constitute at least part of being good. The pronouncements are often supported with consequences.

    Young people vary in the extent to which they may be influenced by this way of teaching. They are not as likely to believe something that contradicts values they have learned earlier, especially strongly entrenched beliefs. Nonetheless, a constant and unvarying repetition of the same message or of the same expectations has a conditioning effect. For instance, when children are quieted whenever they speak out in class, when they are required to sit in the same seat every day, or when at the same hour and on the same cue they are required to get out a particular book and turn to a prearranged page, they grow to believe that this is the way things are supposed to be. When behavioral expectations are accompanied by a consistently applied punishment and reward system, over time behavior and beliefs fall into line. Some systems of classroom management are based on this approach.

  2. Teaching values through examples and models: Children like heroes and they want to be like their heroes. Their heroes include people they know, people they see in television and movies, and people they read about or hear about. Characters in nearly every story children encounter serve as models for children. Children are watching characters from history, from school reading books and library books, from comic books, and from television and movies every day as models. Even toys such as Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels, which are advertised for children, become models of ideals. When used in school, the modeling approach involves getting children to look at figures in stories and history as the kind of people that they should aspire to be. As a way of teaching values, modeling involves making children more aware of people, of accomplishment and principle, and makes children feel more positive toward these people.

    Teachers often model values unconsciously. They show who and what they think highly of or, conversely, do not think highly of by their emotional reactions. They share personal heroes, preferences among activities, approval and disapproval of the actions of people and other qualities with emotional signals that communicate in infectious ways to children. We also should not ignore the fact that the teachers become models themselves. As they work with their students, these children grow to like and admire different qualities that they see in their teachers. Teachers, for children, are often models of fairness, of a caring personality, of intelligence, of dress, and so on.

    Teachers may also unconsciously or consciously be using a modeling approach when they hold students up for praise or when they display students' work. They are saying to the children that this is the way I want you to be.

    The most obvious use of modeling in the social studies involves identifying heroes in history, heroes from real life today, and heroes from fiction or from radio, motion pictures, or television. Teachers do this by reading to children, by telling stories, by encouraging discussion, and by having children read. Teachers who use this approach most effectively present desirable heroes in exciting ways and bring out the most admirable qualities of these heroes.

    Among the major plusses for this approach is that it makes school more interesting and positive and may even make the teacher seem more aware of the real world in which the children live. Schools tend to ignore the many positive characters in television shows and in movies, and this is one place where this set of child-selected experiences can be brought to good use. Folk tales are rich in heroes and can provide a way of helping children to see qualities that are admirable while examining cultural values and beliefs. Most children's fiction involves protagonists who represent the good versus antagonists who are perceived as bad.

    A major danger of the modeling approach with real-life heroes is that real people all have weaknesses, shortcomings, and even vices. Whenever we deal with heroes we risk later disillusionment. Children find out that some of the stories that they learned as "truth," stories that even their teachers thought were true, are merely legends and are probably not true at all. The George Washington stories about throwing the dollar across the Potomac and chopping down the cherry tree are prime examples. Even worse, children may discover that the heroes they thought were perfect have made bad mistakes, shown prejudice or other very negative emotions, or been unfair or even dishonest. It is often difficult to maintain admiration for what heroes have stood for when their imperfections and humanity are revealed. Disillusionment with a hero may also mean rejection of the positive values he or she represents.

    The problem is that there are no infallible heroes. This may be an argument, at least, for reliance on mythical and fictional heroes. These kinds of models have a distinct advantage. Their lives are limited to the stories in which they appear. Hidden flaws cannot be discovered outside that context. But the advantage is also a limitation. Most story heroes lack depth, and because of this they do not always seem real enough to serve as models. The best solution seems to be to continue with a combination of historical and fictional heroes, teaching children to admire the positive aspects of their heroes while recognizing shortcomings and weaknesses.

  3. Teaching values through stories with morals or lessons: Another way of approaching morals, values, and worldviews is through stories and examples that speak directly to particular values. A story is told with a lesson embedded in it. Typically, the stories show how to behave or how not to obey in situations where a decision has to be made. Often in these stories right behaviors and actions are rewarded and, of course, wrong behaviors bring undesirable consequences.

    Fables and parables have been used to teach right and wrong for thousands of years. This approach is most effective when the listener or reader is provoked to think by the story and then through discussion and thought discovers the lesson embedded in the story. Obviously, the lesson in the story can be too difficult to figure out or too obvious. When either is true, the approach is not very successful. It also fails if a lesson runs contrary to the existing worldview of the audience and when the story seems to be an attempt to force a belief that they do not want to accept. The story approach offers a lot of possibilities for the teacher. Most importantly, stories have plots, characters, and settings—all factors that make them both interesting to listen to or read and, at the same time, memorable.

    Nonfiction or fiction stories provide a way to look at different cultures, different times, and different beliefs. Every folk story tells a great deal about the culture from which it came. It shows what those people believed and, more importantly, what they thought was worth teaching or passing along to the younger generation.

    Stories offer opportunity for discussion and thinking, for questions, for focusing on alternatives, and for comparison both with other stories and with personal experiences. Students can learn through dramatizing experiences with stories, through looking at character motivation, through examining alternative outcomes and beginnings, and through looking at the author's viewpoint, for example.

  4. Teaching values through examining personal actions of self and others: One of the ways that teachers can help children to develop their values is to give them experiences where they can become more reflective and analytical about what they do themselves and what they see. The teacher needs to get children to examine more carefully the occurrences of everyday life, how they acted and felt in particular situations, and the reasons behind these feelings. This kind of values analysis involves looking carefully and sequentially at the details of what happened, making special note of behavior, then looking at the causes or reasons contributing to that behavior as well as the outcomes of it. The analysis does not end there. The next step is to speculate about alternative possible behaviors and consider what might have been more reasonable, moral or right, and effective in the situation. There must be constant reminders of what the principle people involved did and did not know at the time.

    One of the outcomes of this approach is that it gets students to look at their own lives instead of just two-dimensional characters in media, storybooks, and history. The teacher may begin with autobiographical anecdotes or description of events in the classroom that the students have experienced. The autobiographical stories serve as models to provoke examples from the students and as one way of communicating the real humanity of the teacher. Often the stories point out times when the teacher did not act in the best way. If the teacher can share an embarrassing moment, it may have a releasing effect on the students. The shared class experiences need to be carefully selected, however, and developed as a group effort. The teacher should not be using the approach as a way of criticizing or scolding students. Rather, it should be an honest joint exploration of an event that was not exactly satisfactory in its outcome. Used well, the approach also has a bonding effect for the class.

    Usually the approach goes through a series of definitive steps beginning with a narrative description of the situation, which is then discussed from the standpoint of identifying the central issue, concern, or problem. This last may require considerable time because it is critical to really get a clear vision of the heart of the matter. The next step is to look at all sides of the matter, examining the most minute detail and looking for things that may appear trivial, but, upon examination, are critical. This is essentially an information gathering stage. That information is then examined and sifted to remove the clutter of irrelevant or unimportant observations that are not needed for judgment. The final stages take the students through tentative judgments that are evaluated and appraised before final assessments are made.

  5. Teaching values through problem solving: Many of the approaches to effective teaching that have been developed in recent years have involved problem solving. They begin with dilemmas or conflicts where decisions are demanded and ask the learner to make a judgment and then explain it. Both the moral reasoning approach, which involves moral dilemmas, and clarification approaches are essentially of this type.

    Moral reasoning approaches, popularized by Lawrence Kohlberg (1984, 1985), involve the development of a sense of justice through a series of progressive stages. The basis of Kohlberg's approach is that individuals can be guided and accelerated in these stages, developing their reasoning ability by thinking about a series of dilemmas in which there are no clear-cut right and good actions to take. In essence, the individual has to choose between alternatives where it is a matter of determining the "lesser of evils." An example of such a dilemma follows:

    In the 1840s, a boy who was traveling by wagon train to Oregon becomes the head of his family when his parents sicken and die. Other families in the wagon train are too much occupied with their own survival problems to try to take all these children under their wings, so the boy is pretty much on his own. Soon, the boy and his brothers and sisters are the last wagon in the train, struggling just to keep up. Because the wagon train has been slowed by a series of difficulties, the food supply for the boy's family soon begins to run out. One day, the boy sights a herd of deer crossing the trail in back of the wagon train. If he stops to hunt, the wagon train will move on without his family and the winter may close down on them in the mountains. If he does not hunt, he and his brothers and sisters may starve. Should he have his own family make camp while he goes after the deer or simply try to keep up with the rest of the wagons?

    If they are shown dilemmas such as the one described here, students can soon develop the ability to create their own in a guided discussion format. The dilemmas themselves, which can be designed to fit the age level and to relate to content being studied, should create involving points of departure for discussions of moral values. The essential position of the Kohlbergian research is that the development of moral reasoning occurs through exposure to such dilemmas and that growth is both irreversible and important in influencing moral behavior.

    Values analysis approaches are designed to help students become clearer about why they act and think as they do. The essential view is that people should reflect their values in the way they act, but they do not always do so. The reason they do not is that they do not see what implications their belief systems have for their lives. The approach confronts students with decisions that simply have to be reasoned out or clarified. Teacher questions that probe the reasons for feelings and decisions are at the heart of this technique. The student is often confronted with open-ended situations where the question of what the meaning is becomes most important. Students may be asked to set priorities, choose from among alternatives, and examine choices. The overall concerns are, "What do you choose and prize?" and "How would you act?"

    Problem related approaches can be adapted for use with practically any topic or theme under study. They allow the student to examine questions of right and wrong as well as other values in the past, in other cultures, in hypothetical and fictional settings, in current events, and in their own lives.

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