Following up on everyday moral leads

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Values are already part of a teacher's informal job description, for better or worse, says Margaret Johnstone. The Education Act of 1988 stipulated that the school curriculum should: "promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils". The idea that such an enormous task is a legitimate part of the teacher's job places a heavy responsibility on the profession.

How (and indeed whether) such aims can be realised in a pluralistic society is a matter of debate, but values education is now embedded in the national curriculum for England, Wales and Northern Ireland and, in a rather different form, in the Scottish 5-14 programme.

It would be naive to assume that before this formal recognition of values education there was no teaching and learning of values in schools. All schools convey values messages to their pupils, intentionally and unintentionally. Pupils learn about values from the content and delivery of the whole curriculum and from the hidden curriculum of day-to-day behaviours in the school. Attempts to develop a school ethos are attempts to ensure clarity and consistency in the teachers' promotion of values in that school.

Nevertheless, formal recognition of values education as part of the school curriculum, especially if this is accompanied by some form of assessment of attainment outcomes, changes what is expected of teachers. There is much discussion of these ideas, but little research on the understandings and activities of practising teachers in relation to values education. This article briefly describes how teachers in five randomly selected Scottish primary schools saw their role in relation to values education.

In each of the schools, all of the teachers agreed that it was part of their job to foster values in the pupils. A minority queried what we meant by "values"; they wanted to be clear that we were not focusing solely on religious education. The promotion of the religious or spiritual development of the child was an agreed responsibility only in the one Roman Catholic school. In the other four schools, a few individual teachers spoke of their Christian commitment, but hesitated to give themselves the right to foster "Christian values".

There was generally debate and confusion over the line between fostering values and imposing values. The majority of the teachers preferred to err on the side of caution, by focusing on what was seen as legitimately part of a teacher's job, the personal and academic development of pupils. For instance, examples of values fostered were that the teachers tried to develop self-discipline, self-control and respect for others in their pupils. The teachers also spoke about work and work standards, often identifying apparently trivial pupil behaviours such as "being tidy" as a value.

Basically, the kinds of values the teachers took responsibility for fell into two groups:

* values relevant to the individual child (for example work habits, self-discipline, patience) * values seen as socially cohesive (for example sharing, kindness, co-operation, tolerance)

Whether or not these were all "values" (as opposed to behaviours or attitudes) was not really debated by the teachers. Their concern was to develop the child within his or her social group, the class. Success was assessed informally through pupil behaviour and pupils' expression of feelings or emotions.

In the teachers' detailed and meticulous records of class work and pupil progress, little or nothing was noted in relation to values acquisition or values progression by the pupils. Fostering values was not seen as teaching in the same sense as the teaching of number or language skills. Outcomes were not recorded, although informal targets might be set.

The idea of teaching values in a direct or formal way was far less acceptable to the teachers than the idea of fostering or promoting values. The teachers saw this as an everyday part of the overt curriculum and of the hidden curriculum of classroom relationships and classroom organisation.

The formal curriculum offered situations to emphasise a value, for example by using a language project to develop ideas of honesty or by using number work to promote ideas of fairness.

Any aspect of the primary school curriculum could be utilised to make a values point. The management of the classroom also played a part. For example, a teacher would group certain pupils together for a specific joint task demanding co-operation and consideration for others. Classroom incidents were also used to praise what teachers saw as evidence of values and to proscribe what teachers saw as wrong.

A minority of teachers made the point that personal example was important too. For instance, there were teachers who tried to model values they saw as desirable, both with their pupils and in their relationship with colleagues in the school. As one of these teachers said: "Children aren't stupid. They can see the difference between what I say and what I do." These teachers were highly aware of the importance of the hidden curriculum in relation to promoting values.

Nevertheless, the most common approach to fostering values appeared to be seizing the occasion, building on some concrete example which arose. It was less common to create situations whereby pupils were enabled to practice or express values. Yet, although the idea of values education in a formal sense was criticised, the teachers could and did take an intermittently directive role on values.

This might be in relation to a specific pupil or group of pupils, or in respect of something seen as a key value. Fostering or promoting values was sometimes a softer phrase for telling the pupils what was expected in the classroom. This was particularly the case when the teacher felt that school values and home values were dissimilar.

Overall, values were part of the teacher's job but few teachers expressed the hope that they might in some way help to shape their pupils' adult lives. This minority felt that promoting values was "part of me", "part of the person I am" as much as part of the job. The majority accepted responsibility for their pupils' behaviour in the classroom and were reluctant to make further claims, even although their approach in the classroom rested on ideas of what was right and what was good. In neither case were outcomes assessed or measured, other than by monitoring pupil behaviours or pupils' expressions of feeling.

If values education is formally to be part of the teacher's job, with consequent assessment of pupil attainment, how will the variety and complexity of day-to-day values education be taken into account?

This article is drawn from work by Pamela Munn, Margaret Johnstone and Mairi-Ann Cullen, Moray House Institute of Education, Heriot-Watt University, who carried out five case studies of values education in the primary school.

Based on this work, a survey of Scottish primary school teachers was carried out by Janet Powney, Ursula Schlapp and Peter Glissov at the Scottish Council for Research in Education.

Both parts of the research were funded by the Gordon Cook Foundation. A final report on the work will be available from SCRE later in the year.

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