There is of course the obvious point that school attendance promotes literacy, skill-acquisition and preparedness for the workplace. Indeed attention to these is what concerns most teachers on a daily basis and what costs them many sleepless nights throughout the academic year. But what is most often forgotten is that all state curricula are constructed on three elements: Skill, Knowledge and Values. While the first two make up the bulk of all school planning and teacher professional development, it is the latter that provides the strongest argument for a student to care about school. Somehow, it is the least considered element of curriculum.
The Values element of the curriculum is inspirational. It identifies the social, personal and emotional attributes that a student should possess upon graduation. It causes the student to think about himself, his actions and his role and responsibilities in society. Most importantly, it highlights the commonalities we all share regardless of ethnicity, religion or class. This sounds like it should be the focal point of any school’s pedagogical mission. Sadly it most often is not. Even on Twitter, where progressive teachers meet to enrich their practice, there is often only lip-service given to the importance of teaching values. There is often boredom and a sense of annoyance associated with planning for lessons using the school’s Mission Statement when it (rarely) comes up in conversations. In extreme cases, some teachers flatly deny that the school should have any role in the socialisation process of the child, that to do so somehow infringes upon the rights of the parents to do so. This thinking must be rejected at all costs. Schools cannot abdicate their responsibility to teach students to live in concert with one another by adhering to basic civic principles as expressed in State law and enshrined in the schools’ Mission Statement. Were parents solely responsible for the socialisation of their children then teachers would be reduced to foremen on the assembly-line of job readiness and schools would be reduced to being a mere sifter of human talent. That is sure to elicit the response ‘I go to school because I have to’ from all but the most vocationally-minded student.
How then should values be taught? The first step in the process is for a school’s administration to identify what values are significant to their stakeholders and create a Mission Statement and set of associated Learning Principles from these. For a powerful example of Learning Principles see the IBO’s Learner Profile. To prevent the process of shaping a school’s Mission and Learning Principles falling victim to religious, political or niche interests, administrators should define the parameters of this process in reference to UN Documentation and State Constitution. The creation of these documents should be a democratic process where all stakeholders feel that their voice has been heard. Simon Walker (@PrincipalThinks), Director of the Berlin British School, recently communicated to me the steps involved in creating a new Mission Statement and set of Learning Principles for his school.
- Facilitate a whole school workshop on what staff believes effective learning to be.
- Assign volunteer staff groups to research draft learning principles.
- Facilitate school workshops where individuals write personal Vision and Mission Statements (a Vision must focus upon qualities), with student and parent involvement.
- Draft a Vision, Mission Statement and Learning Principles document.
- Review these with the Board of Management, staff and students... and reflect, “How might our school be different if we achieved our new Vision and fulfilled our Mission?
- This series of documents is used for all policies, recruitment, appraisal, school improvement etc.
What any school that undertakes this process will most likely find is that it is relatively easy to compile a list of 10 or so Learning Principles as the values that unite stakeholders are far more similar than those that divide. I recently asked the parents of students at two primary schools in Ulm, Germany to list the three most important values that a school should foster in their children. The answers were remarkably similar despite these being two of Ulm’s most ethnically, socially and religiously diverse schools (in both cases Germans were a minority ethnic group). Here is a list of the top 10 values that parents believed were most important for schools to teach their children with the number of votes each received in brackets.
- Solidarity (49)
- Honesty (20)
- Respect (17)
- Tolerance (16)
- Friendliness (12)
- Trust (11)
- Empathy (11)
- Justice (8)
- Friendship (6)
- Manners/Good conduct (6)
Creating a Mission Statement and a list of Learning Principles is not anything new. Every school has one. The problem is that few teachers know theirs and fewer still use it to plan their lessons, commonly citing the impenetrable and rambling nature of the document, a lack of passion and belief on behalf of administration or simply being too busy with teaching Skills and Knowledge. If that sounds familiar, I would recommend that you begin the process of writing a new Mission and set of Learning Principles with your school tomorrow. If you do not know the contents of your Mission Statement, write a new one tomorrow. If your Mission Statement is more than 5 years old (the normal length of stay for a single student in a single school), write a new one tomorrow because it does not reflect the values and the world inhabited by those who would live by it. Importantly, if your Mission Statement is more than 5 sentences long, write a new one tomorrow because it is not a living, practical document.
The most important step in this process is instilling these Values in students. That cannot happen if a Mission Statement is just a document displayed on a school website. It must be a lived thing. Because every stakeholder in the school will have had a say in the final product, they will have an interest in bringing these documents to life. A school director should see himself as the lead advocate for the principles and values contained therein. Passion is a powerful driver of change in schools. The most essential step in the process is to weave these documents into the fabric of school life by making space in the school’s planning documentation that specifically identifies what Learning Principles will be taught in a given class. Just as a teacher will plan to teach Pythagoras’s Theorem by identifying steps to be taken and satisfactory measures of understanding, so too should he plan to build into his lesson the steps to be taken to develop more honest, respectful or tolerant students. If we do not plan to teach our values explicitly, students will not learn them.
As an individual teacher, if reviewing the Mission Statement and Learning Principles is not considered as being of immediate importance to administration, start the revolution in your own classroom. Survey your students and parents and create your own Mission Statement and Learning Principles. Display these prominently and make explicit reference to them in both your planning and throughout the course of a unit of study. Make a promise to yourself and to your students that when they leave your tutelage, they will be primed not only to make an economic living in this world but also leave a positive social mark.
Put simply, once a school has a Mission Statement and set of Learning Principles that are owned by every stakeholder, once these are passionately lived and modelled by administration and staff, and once these are given the same attention as the Skill and Knowledge element of the curriculum in official school planning documentation, only then can we expect students to articulate compelling reasons as to why they should go to school.