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:
What is Values Clarification?
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.
- Clean up rivers, garbage, sewage, and pollution.
- Train those who do not have jobs.
- Divide the money among 10,000 needy families.
B. Which would you find hardest to do?
- Drop a bomb on Vietnam?
- Electrocute a man who has been judged to die in the electric chair?
- 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.
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).