Preaching does not make practice

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Maurice Plaskow considers what values we should teach children and how to impart the knowledge

Hands up those in favour of sin? Judging by their behaviour the hands would in many cases belong to some fairly top people. But then, they wouldn't have had the benefit of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's statement on Values in Education and the Community which was praised by the Archbishop of Canterbury last week.

The current debate about values in education is being conducted as though the concern about moral behaviour, the sanctions for discipline and the nature of authority are new phenomena.

We are not very good at learning from and building on past experience. One central tension was described, for example, by RS Peters in his work Authority, Responsibility and Education. "The spread of enlightenment in the form of science and morality has had two main effects in relation to authority. On the one hand it has tended to disrupt and transform it by insisting on reasons for policy rather than authoritative edicts, and by claiming that authority is only to be tolerated if it has some rational justification."

If we really are concerned to promote "lively, enquiring minds" in our young people, then we need to foster rationality and, as the SCAA document acknowledges "accept diversity and respect people's right to religious and cultural differences." One has to add that within cultural differences there will also be a spectrum of political and social beliefs.

In his chapter "Form and Content in Moral Education", Peters writes: "The choice is not simply between imposing some fixed code on the young or letting them discover some morality for themselves. There is a middle way between traditionalism and some sort of romantic protest. This middle way is closely connected with the use of reason. In order to arrive at a moral code we have to make some presumptions about the framework in which this will operate. We cherish notions of democracy, pluralism and freedom. These should allow freedom of action, an absence of arbitrary nature, a consideration of other people's needs, feelings and interests."

The central problem about moral education of the young is precisely their youth, limited experience and legal status.

It is difficult to expect consistently responsible behaviour if young people are never given the experience of responsibility. Parents and teachers are reduced to exercising authority derived from their adulthood and relationship to the child, which often retreats from a reliance on rationality and reasoned explanation into edict and despairing authoritarianism.

Of course most people would agree with SCAA that we should "support families in raising children, respect the beliefs, life, privacy and property of others" and "make truth and integrity priorities in public life" (but why only in public life?) But teachers have to take account of the fact that in any class they teach there will certainly be children who are orphans, or from broken homes, and from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.

How then shall teachers encourage the development of a sense of self-worth and help youngsters to "try to discover meaning and purpose in life"? (SCAA) It is to take a very restricted view of the education process to believe that teaching is about pinning children down and telling them things. Of course very young children tend to be egocentric and see rules as injunctions to be complied with in order to avoid punishment or to obtain rewards.

But the aim is surely, in Peters' elegant formulation, to "replace the morality of convention and constraint by the morality of consent and reciprocity".

If there is a case in the early years for providing children with a bag of virtues then one still has to obtain agreement on what these should be and how they might be taught. No doubt we - and the children - can agree on a few fundamental principles: like truth-telling, consideration for others, fairness and honesty. But even in the early years children have the capacity to discuss these principles and appreciate the need for basic social consensus in order to make life reasonably congenial.

The SCAA paper says nothing about sparkle and delight. It is largely concerned with the social dimension of morality. It does not take in GE Moore's definition of the right or moral action in his 1903 work Principia Ethica as one which leads to achieving what is good, which he describes as "the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects".

That is to postulate that a purpose of moral behaviour is to achieve happiness. And this can be for others as well as oneself. This proposition might be more accessible and more acceptable to young people that the earnest phrases set out in the SCAA document.

In the 1970s the Schools Council supported two moral education projects directed by Peter McPhail, one for 13 to 16-year-olds, the other for 8 to 13s. Both went to youngsters to try to find out their perceptions of moral behaviour. They did this not by a full-frontal approach, but by asking for their personal responses: what made them happy, sad, frightened or uncertain.

These situations were then re-presented in simple form asking pupils to act them out, or suggest resolutions. The discovery of meaning and purpose needs to be rooted in practical encounters.

Generalisations might be attempted from extracting principles from the particular, rather than from abstract propositions about values with which few will disagree.

In any day's news events there will be sufficient examples of moral dilemmas to fill a week's timetable. The task for the teacher is to help unravel the complexity and decide on the proper professional stance for a teacher confronting controversial social issues.

In presenting the Schools CouncilNuffield Humanities Project another initiative which spanned the late 60s and early 70s Lawrence Stenhouse posed the question of the appropriate role of teachers in discussing issues which divide communities.

Teachers, he suggested, can either propagate consensus values or put forward their own sincerely held views, or try to remain impartial and help students make their minds up by a reasoned consideration of the evidence.

The problem with the first approach is who decides what consensus values are? And how does one protect the views of minorities?

If teachers are to be allowed to express their own views then what dangers will be run by those with socially unacceptable views? Will teachers be screened on appointment, or made to toe a party line?

This leaves the last approach, which is not to suggest an abdication by teachers into a position of neutrality. The teacher remains in authority, but not an authority on moral issues. There are ground rules even within democratic pluralism. Tolerance is to be preferred to intolerance; justice to injustice; rationality to irrationality; honesty to dishonesty. Most difficult human dilemmas are not susceptible to simple solutions. War and peace; relations between the sexes; living within families; poverty and disadvantage; education itself have a spectrum of value positions all held with passion and integrity within our society.

One can accept the splendid pieties in the SCAA document and be no nearer a pedagogical framework for translating the principles into practice: for transforming moral education into moral behaviour.

The real task is to come: the piloting of "guidance materials in preparation for the next review of the national curriculum". But that's not until the turn of the century. How about the thousands of pupils going through the school system until then?

And there is an ominous mention of "how this area might be assessed in schools". Are we really going to run the risk of labelling some young people as failed human beings?

Is there some interim help we could be giving schools so that they could at least build a DIY set of principles, working with both pupils and parents to see whether together they might discover the tools of conviviality? Who knows, there might not then need to be any guidance materials from SCAA.

Maurice Plaskow is a former Schools Council curriculum officer

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