Often I hear in conversations with my colleagues, peers, or friends, “That person has to be admired because he is a man of his words,” or, “She is inspirational because even in these times, she has values.”Does that mean that a person with values or principles is a rare species?
In ancient India, the rules were very clear. People lived by the “maryadas” in all stages of life – gurukul, grihasta, vanaprasta, and sanyasa. Today that clarity no longer exists. Over the years, parenting and teaching have undergone various transitions to reach the present state of fluctuation. Nothing is unanimous. Each family, each household has varying ethos. Plurality has led to a state of chaos, where each school of thought struggles to establish its own superiority. We have different styles of teaching, schooling, and learning. In a time where fashions change overnight, we see the trends of bringing up our children in as wide a range as the varying hues of a rainbow; is it really a surprise?
So what can turn this chaos into productivity? Some semblance of order! And what can bring order amidst chaos? No doubt some rules and regulations. Here again we have two choices, either rules or regulations should be enforced with authority or we can ensure that they are internalized through an awakened consciousness.
Values are those internal motivators and guidelines which hold a person in check and also bring the best to the fore. So do we need them?
Values are necessary
Being a teacher, parents often confide in me that their children don’t listen to them. We can also see that such children don’t perform to their best potential, have poor social skills, and generally have discipline issues.
On the other hand, I have found students who are able to tackle their tasks, enjoy all activities, including extracurricular ones, display good social skills, and be sensitive towards peers, adults, and the environment.
In the formal environment of the school where it is imperative that everybody – students and teachers – works cohesively to achieve their goals, rules have to be followed. In most cases students understand this as well, some can be seen to change their attitude and demeanor when the focus is achieving goals in a stipulated time frame.
Children who follow rules are better able to use their time, learn more, and overall seem happier as their horizons broaden. They have stronger bonds with family and most importantly understand there are repercussions when rules are broken or boundaries transgressed.
Inculcating values through the school curriculum
With a lot of parenting duties falling into the laps of teachers, more than ever, inculcating values is also becoming the prerogative of the teachers. Values ideally should not be foisted on students, rather a role model who walks the talk will be more effective in communicating subtly the expected and desired behaviour among students. As each academic year begins, teachers introduce their students to a set of rules to be followed. Some may go a step further and have them read out, written down, and endorsed by each student. But the most effective educators will discuss them too, so each student can contribute his/her perspective and make it a collaborative effort, understand such rules in spirit, and then follow them.
But why should we have rules? Is it only to teach values? It seems imperative that in a society, to progress, morals and values need to be held in high esteem, reflecting as well as reverberating at home, in schools, and in the community. A person with values in place will not have to be taught ethics. Such a person will also be able to weigh his decisions ethically and not be bogged down by the dilemma of taking difficult decisions. Thus we are empowering our students to face challenges.
Parents should become role models for their children. Differences of opinions shouldn’t always lead to a war of words. Instead children should be taught to stay calm and talk with each other. Siblings should be encouraged to share, discuss, and empathize with each other. This will give rise to open mindedness along with an acceptance of different views without necessarily agreeing with them.
A wide range of tools like posters, appropriate reward systems, reminders, etc., could be put in place to reinforce family values. Maybe notes under the pillow, in lunch boxes with a loving message? I remember writing such messages and putting them in my daughter’s lunch box. In the evenings I saw that she wrote me loving messages in return! Yes, it takes time, but the rewards are phenomenal.
To teach values effectively, the teacher may share examples from either her own experience, or of pupils she has dealt with, or may be read about, allowing students to fathom incidents, values, and their outcomes.
She can make room for discussing open-ended questions with an ethical dilemma, of course relevant to the experience of the students, such that they are forced to think, analyze, question, and weigh the pros and cons. Letting the students discuss among themselves will also expose them to a wide range of possibilities. Defending their own thinking will lead them to either stick with what they first said, accept another’s line of argument, or synthesize a new one synergistically. In all cases the teacher who allows a coexistence of various possibilities without imposing her way of thinking as the only correct way is laying the foundation for open mindedness and acceptance of divergent views.
Students with values in the community
Why are we creating such a din about values? A person with values and ethics seems stronger in dealing with life’s challenges. A person with values is a strong team member who will take the team above each individual comprising it. Such a person will bring accountability, commitment, and orderliness. Needless to say such individuals in any society are ever required.
Freedom to choose or rules to enforce
The requirement of rules is essential. An absence will result in chaos, and many times loss of time, effort, and resources. But what about values being chosen by our students to practice. It would be an ideal situation if each student could be allowed the luxury of time to pick values without being enforced. Where the strength of the class and lack of time denies the teacher this opportunity, a healthy mix is what seems to be the ideal way.
Again, if we have a few students who are already exposed to good values, they will act as catalysts to show the whole cohort behaviour which is warranted and rewarded.
Needless to say, the entire school, whatever be its strength or size needs to echo the same values. Where this does not happen, values are demonstrated in pockets and unfortunately bad behaviour and etiquette spreads like wild fire, demolishing hours of hard work. Reasoning, emotional appeal takes time, but once ethics and values have taken root, like a tree well-entrenched, the child is guided by the inner radar, ready to face all odds and come out a winner.
This brings me to the last part of my discussion. Can ethics be taught? What is the right age for it?
Well, at present ethics, as a subject is dealt with in “business studies” and management classes. But professors like Michael Burroughs, from UNC’s Department of Philosophy, have been conducting programmes successfully with first graders. The discussions may begin with understanding why one object is different from another, leading to how one person or personality is different from the next.
The concept of “ love” and what it means, like empathy, helping another person, taking care of someone, etc., helps create the right understanding of a clear set of dos and don’ts, leading to an innate understanding of ethical values.
Burroughs has clearly said, “I think any philosophical topic can be discussed with any age group.” Some of the students who work with Burroughs admit that the biggest issues a person has to deal with as an adult may have been pretty much the same that they wondered about as children. Thus problem-solving and critical-thinking are life skills, which need to be taught right from grade one. The teacher must also leave the discussion and answers open, thus spontaneously creating room to respect each other’s views and explore ideas beyond the ordinary.
Situational pressures lead to ethical fading, says Brooke Deterline (CEO, Courageous Leadership, an organization in the US that helps promote workplace ethics). Thus like all skills, we need to practice being ethical as well. Situations that we are wary of should be discussed and solutions, strategies put in place. I often ask my students, “When faced with a situation where you are being coaxed to try a drug, what will you do?” Leaving the discussion open has got me better strategies than any from a book.
It is a natural tendency for human beings either to be bystanders or to become followers. To foster an ethically courageous culture, we need to build courageous people. We need to be able to recognize situations where otherwise good people have behaved unethically; analyze and look for ethical alternatives, and be able to choose our responses to situations to develop our own innate capacity for courage.
Ethics can simply be broken down to “What are my principles?”, “What are my values?”, “What do I stand for?” Although there are wide ranging domain specific ethicists, the common man is an “everyday ethicist”. It’s been observed that children are innate philosophers and may raise pertinent questions, which maybe side stepped or brushed away to avoid controversy. Sometimes, the adults may also take an ostrich-like approach, hoping that situations will take care of themselves. So in classrooms and at homes we need to teach our children to respect different beliefs but at the same time stand up for their own.
- Teaching Values at School: a way to Reach a Better Understanding in Our World – By Gabriele Harecker; Padagogische Hochschule Niederosterreich, University of Education (Austria)
- How do we develop values? – By T.N. Turner – Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
- Moral reasoning approaches – By Lawrence Kohlberg (1984, 1985)
- Ten reasons why to teach your children values in elementary schools, Middle schools, Secondary schools – By Gene Bedley
- The significance of ethics and ethics education in daily life by Michael D Burroughs at Ted X
- Creating ethical cultures in Business by Brooke Deterline at Ted X
The author has been teaching for nearly 20 years, across various cities and boards. Having a wide range of hobbies and interests helps her connect with her students. Currently, she is teaching in an international school in Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.