Whatever Happened To Values Clarification?

In the mid-1960s, prompted by a bestselling book among educators, a classroom approach called “Values Clarification” spread swiftly among elementary and secondary school teachers. The thrust of the approach was to have students use texts and new instructional materials to identify their  values and reflect on them in discussion, writing, and small group work where the values often came into conflict. In effect, help students work through their positions on such values as loyalty, truth, trust, lying, etc.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

Louis Raths, a professor at New York University in the mid-1950s, working with John Dewey’s ideas about the importance of values in education, developed for his classes materials and teaching strategies that got his students to think about what they prized in life. He, Sidney, Simon, and Merrill Harmin published Values and Teaching: Working with Values in Classrooms in 1966. The book went through subsequent editions and became a staple in university teacher education programs and innovative urban schools. For example, I used it in the late-1960s in training former Peace Corps returnees to become social studies teachers in a Washington, D.C. high school.

As one of proselytizers for the teaching strategy, Howard Kirshenbaum said:

Values clarification was arguably the most widespread of the innovative approaches to values and
moral education that were popular during this period.
Kirshenbaum said “arguably.” Like many other teaching strategies, tracking how many teachers,
schools, and districts adopted  and then implemented it is impossible to nail down. In 1972, one of
the authors of the best selling book on the topic could only list a few schools that adopted
it, but talk, oh so much talk, about the strategy flooded educational publications, staff rooms,
and educator conferences. Moreover Values Clarification as a teaching approach was squirmy
since it varied classroom to classroom as teachers adapted it to the contours of their students.
Nonetheless, among many teachers and administrators throughout the 1970s, the talk and
adoption of the teaching strategy was widespread.


What is Values Clarification?

Here is an exercise that teachers in a junior high school used in their classes in the early 1970s,
according to the principal of the school:

A. You are on a Congressional Committee in Washington. D.C. $10 million has been given for three

worthy causes. Which would you do first, second, third?

You must spend all the money on one thing:Clean up rivers, garbage, sewage, and pollution.

  1. Clean up rivers, garbage, sewage, and pollution.
  2. Train those who do not have jobs.
  3. Divide the money among 10,000 needy families.

B. Which would you find hardest to do?

  1. Drop a bomb on Vietnam?
  2. Electrocute a man who has been judged to die in the electric chair?
  3. Run over someone who is threatening you with harm while you are driving a car?


The above exercise is typical of what many teachers embracing Values Clarification would use.

Louis Raths and his colleagues explained the thinking guiding the strategy and what teachers have

to do in using the approach.

Valuing involves one’s beliefs and behaviors. Valuing means students engage in seven processes:  


(a) choosing freely; (b) choosing from alternatives; (c) choosing after thoughtful consideration of


consequences; (d) prizing and cherishing one’s choices; (e) publicly affirming one’s choices; (f)


acting on one’s choices; (g) acting with some pattern incorporating one’s choices.


In using this strategy, teachers must:


*Accept and encourage student answers;


*Expect diversity in student answers and do not assume that there are right or wrong answers for


these value questions;


*Respect student’s right to participate or not;


*If student responds, respect student’s answer;


*Encourage each student to answer honestly;


*Listen carefully to student responses;


*Ask clarifying questions of student answers; avoid questions which may limit or threaten student thinking;


*Ask both personal and social questions.

Values Clarification avoids instilling values in students; the approach seeks to have students
examine the values they already have.



What Problem Did Values Clarification Intend to Solve?

Emotional needs of young children and youth seldom get dealt with in public schools–what students prize, honor, and feel strongly about. It is those values embedded in emotions, feelings, and ideas that lay behind the choices that students make in and out of school. In most classrooms such clarifying discussions never arise and the value-choices get swallowed by both teachers and students.

Content and skills dominate classroom lessons and value-laden choices they have to make in life (e.g., take drugs, have sex, report law-breakers to authorities, lie to parents) are absent. Such discussions, such clarification of choices students make, need–champions said–to find a place in academic subjects in elementary and secondary schools.

Does Values Clarification Work?

No evidence beyond single, small studies has shown that Values Clarification improves student decision-making, alters their existing values, changes choices they make in life, or bolsters academic achievement (see here and here).

What Happened to Values Clarification?

The short answer is that it disappeared from the vocabulary of school reformers and teachers by the early 1980s. Poof, gone. Few mentioned the phrase a decade later.

But if the phrase disappeared, some proponents of Values Clarification migrated to an old stand-by in public schools for the past two centuries:  “character education.” Character education (see here and here) has existed in U.S. public schools off and on for the simple reason that tax-supported  schooling was always expected to strengthen personal character and the community (e.g., love of country, help neighbors, do the right thing for yourself and family). Schools, advocates for character education said, instill the correct values. Clarifying values can shake the core values children and youth bring from home.

Formal programs of character education have entered and exited public schools. Since the 1980s, Character Education has spread across elementary and secondary schools in urban, suburban, and rural schools (see here and here).



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

17 responses to “Whatever Happened To Values Clarification?

  1. Camilo López

    Here is a representation of the presence of the terms “character education” and “values clarification” in books in English in the past century. It is interesting to see the patterns mentioned in the post. The rise and fall of values clarification and the return of character education.
    https://goo.gl/G4VsbM (If the page doesn’t display the graph, please click on the blue button: Search a lot of books)

    • larrycuban

      Thank you so much, Camilo, for passing along the Ngram of the two phrases. They do support the language I used in the post.

  2. Art Pease

    I used selected “values clarification” activities for decades, right up until my retirement in 2007. As with any of the “New Social Studies” and other curriculum from the 60s, there were excellent aspects and many lessons\activities could be well used in other courses. For example, I also used lessons from Larry’s “slow learner” U.S. books, as a way to allow special ed students access to primary sources. Just goes to show that no one curriculum “package” fits well in its entirety.

  3. Amy McAninch

    Dr. Cuban: Thank you for this post. I read your comments about values clarification with considerable interest since Louis Raths was my grandfather. Our family has wondered the same question you pose here, “Whatever happened to values clarification?”

    I can vouch for the fact that by the Reagan era, values clarification was the target of a considerable amount of criticism, some of it highly emotive, from the far right and from academics in philosophy of education and curriculum and instruction. Your link to Alan Lockwood’s piece is a good representation of criticism from the academic side. My memory is that by this time there was an impatience with values clarification–a sentiment that we ought to just tell children drugs are bad–“just say no.” Philosophers of education didn’t like the moral relativism in values clarification and would argue that values clarification teaches that all values are equal.

    The relativism issue plagued the pragmatists of Raths’s generation and I am thinking in particular of his colleagues at Ohio State in the 1940s–Larry Metcalf, Boyd Bode, and Alan Francis Griffin. They placed faith in the process of reflection. Griffin’s classic essay, “What do you mean, be Good?” captured this idea perfectly. Good citizens in a democracy reflect and take
    responsibility for their beliefs and actions. Reflection was the key value embraced by this group–and presumably the more rigorously one engaged in the reflective process, the “better” the outcome. My family has speculated that perhaps the name “values clarification” is a misnomer, since the point was not merely to clarify the values that you already hold or to discover your authentic values. The name “values clarification” doesn’t seem to convey the idea of on-going values development and reconstruction.

    Finally, I believe there were a lot of straw man arguments made against values clarification. It was accused of failing to do things it never made claims about in the first place. The original text, Values and Teaching (1966),
    speculated that certain behaviors that could be observed in school children
    (apathy, flightiness, over-conformity, among others) were symptoms of a lack of values development and that if teachers engaged children in the VC activities, then these behaviors might wane.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful post.

    Amy McAninch
    Middlebury, VT

    • larrycuban

      And thank you, Amy, for taking the time to give another view of Values Clarification. The background–particularly the generation of academics deeply committed to civic participation of students who have examined their values that your grandfather was an exemplar of–reminded me of those years. You add to the story I tell about the soaring popularity of VC and then the thud that occurred within a decade.The charge of relativism was pervasive in the criticism that your grandfather and his colleagues received. Misunderstanding is rife when innovative ways of teaching content enter the public arena.

  4. Amy McAninch

    The following is a comment for Larry Cuban on the values clarification post from James Raths:

    During our over-lapping careers, there seemed to be lots of news about teaching techniques — direct instruction, concept attainment, reciprocal teaching, cooperative learning, and, yes, values clarification.

    As I read the AERA literature I receive, I don’t see (or recognize) much information about new teaching techniques. Maybe the question is not where did VC go, but where did an interest in pedagogy go?

    • larrycuban

      You may be onto something if one looks at the AERA journals for current inquiry into pedagogy, Amy. But, then, “new” teaching techniques stripped of their hype, I have found, recycle familiar ways of teaching that both of us have experienced or read about. Thanks for comment.

  5. Writer

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been doing some research on this topic. Is it possible you could supply me with references to websites that traces the use of values clarification, especially in the elementary school setting? Thanks again!

  6. Hey, Larry, so good to bump into your blog and the discussion on values clarification. And to read the notes from Amy McAninch. Just want you to know that one of the old vc crowd, me, is still active would be happy to be in touch. Contact me at merrilharmin@gmail.com.

  7. Thomas Selis

    Is there any video footage of Louis Raths on VC? I’d like to show it to my students. We still explain VC to teachers in (non-religious) moral (or ethics) in Belgium/Flanders.

    • larrycuban

      I have not run across any video of Louis Rath’s talking about values clarification, Thomas. If any readers have, please contact Thomas. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Pingback: Is Critical Race Theory Dividing the Country? | Teacher in a strange land

  9. Rayna

    My 8th grade teacher used Value Clarifications in 1974/75. It was the most interesting facet of my education and one of my few memories of “learning”.

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