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Values education: what, how, why and what next?

John DeNobile
Erin Hogan

Dr John De Nobile, Senior Lecturer in Education at Macquarie University, has been involved in researching values education and related pedagogy in schools for a number of years and is currently involved in research projects investigating school communication, culture and values as well as the effects of the Global Education Curriculum on student values and attitudes. Prior to that, he was a member of the University Associates Network in the capacity of advisor to the Merrylands cluster project, part of the Values Education Good Practice Schools Project.

Erin Hogan has worked in faith-based independent schools and investigated values education in that context as part of work required for a Master’s degree.

Values education is a process of teaching and learning about the ideals that a society deems important (Department of Education, Science and Training 2005; Lovat & Toomey 2007; Robb 2008). While this learning can take a number of forms, the underlying aim is for students not only to understand the values, but also to reflect them in their attitudes and behaviour, and contribute to society through good citizenship and ethical practice.

In other parts of the world moral education, character education, ethics and philosophy have attempted to do similar things. Character education, for example, has been a growing movement in the USA. Dovre (2007) described six character education programs in US schools that aimed to teach important values, such as friendship, fairness and social justice, and influence student attitudes and behaviour. A recent study by Marvul (2012) reported how character education and moral education were combined to teach students values such as respect, responsibility and trustworthiness, in order to improve student attitudes to school.

So we know that values education is used to influence student attitudes and behaviour for the better, or at least in line with what a society would consider appropriate and morally acceptable. It is also accepted that those attitudes and behaviours can be developed, at least in part, from a range of pedagogies that include critical reflection on issues relating to values (Knight 1988; Lovat et al. 2011). All of this sits in alignment with the goals for Australian schooling set out by the Melbourne Declaration, which seeks to develop active and informed individuals who are capable of acting morally and ethically and who are socially and culturally knowledgeable and responsible (MCCEETYA 2008).

The last decade has seen a lot of work done in Australia to raise the profile of values education. Two Commonwealth funded projects, the Values Education Good Practice Schools Project (VEGPSP) from 2005 to 2008 and the Values in Action Schools Project (VASP) from 2008 to 2009, have investigated how values education can have positive, constructive influences on matters as wide-ranging as pedagogy, teacher–student relationships, and student wellbeing and social cohesion (Hamston et al. 2010). These projects built on the work of earlier exploratory studies (for example Zbar & Bereznicki 2003), involving clusters of schools and their communities.

The achievements of those two national projects have already been documented through several reports (see for example De Nobile 2006; Lovat et al. 2011). This article describes some examples of the impacts of these projects on students and schools that the authors have observed. The article then offers some directions and speculations about the future of values education in Australia.


How does values education happen?

Values education may be seen on three levels: classroom, school and community. The levels interact with one another, as illustrated in Figure 1 below. 

 Values ed DeNobile

Figure 1: Three levels of values education

 The classroom level

At the classroom level students engage in a variety of activities designed to make them more aware of certain values and how they apply to everyday life in and out of school. The activities range from discussions based on moral dilemmas through to philosophical activities such as Socratic circles, to the analysis of media and communication to reveal underlying value messages.

In one example from the VEGPSP, a classroom teacher from one of the schools in the Merrylands cluster described how she used the New South Wales core values (Refshauge 2004) to set up her class rules for the year. She spent the first few weeks of the year exploring these core values with the class, using some explicit teaching as well as children’s literature. She and the class then co-constructed a set of class rules based on these values. Signs around the room such as ‘We respect one another’, ‘We act responsibly’ and ‘We cooperate’ reminded the students of the rules, but more importantly, provided a code of ethics for the students to live by and perhaps develop morally.

There were several examples where classes from the same cluster of schools were involved in an explicit values education curriculum and related pedagogy. For example, senior primary students were engaged in lessons that aimed to explore a particular value in terms of its meaning, its relative importance to different people and how it might be enacted in day-to-day life. This necessitated the use of values analysis, a strategy consistent with critical pedagogy through the processes of reflection and evaluation involved (Wink 2011).

The school level

At the school level values are taught directly and indirectly as a result of school history, background or religious affiliation. This will obviously influence the shape of the curriculum and the pedagogy at the classroom level.

For example, St Aloysius’ College is a school for boys from years 3 to 12 in northern Sydney, run by the Jesuit order. The College aspires to the formation of their students in the Ignatian tradition of education, producing students who combine spiritual maturity and academic excellence and rounded social and physical development: ‘men of competence, conscience and compassion’ (St Aloysius’ College 2007).

The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP) aims to transform the way people think, act and live in the worldThe most marked manifestation of the IPP at the school is a strong commitment to service learning. Service learning is a significant part of values education as students critically explore and enact values in a real life setting (Knight 1998). All students at St Aloysius’ College are required to participate in service learning through activities ranging from fundraising for local charities to cultural immersions in other countries such as the Philippines.

These particular initiatives are invaluable and exemplify the Jesuit tradition of forming people who are thoughtful and respectful of the needs of others, and who are not afraid to act on values related to this such as compassion, understanding and integrity.

The community level

At the community level, values are explored as a result of interaction with the wider community or other schools.

Service learning is, of course, also an example of how values education works at the community level as well as being a school level activity. There are other ways in which schools and their communities can interlink to provide values education experiences. The Interschool Harmony Committee (IHC) provides an example of how several schools and their communities have joined forces to provide dynamic and engaging values education. The IHC was the brainchild of Mohammad Mokachar, Director of Al Zahra College, who formed the group in 2003. It comprises two Islamic schools, two Catholic schools and four state schools in southern Sydney.

This group of schools have explored core values such as respect, understanding and inclusion through combined interschool activities. The students have in the past produced public drama performances and even a commercially published children’s book. The book, Going Bush by acclaimed author Nadia Wheatley (2007), was based on what the students learned about these values in relation to harmonic relationships between different communities and respect for the local environment and its Aboriginal custodians. The book has since been awarded several prizes, including the 2008 Wilderness Society Environment Award for Children's Literature and the CBCA Picture Book of the Year Award from the same year. This is a fine example of how values education at the community level can yield tangible results which in turn may benefit a far wider community, national and international. 

In 2007 staff members from seven member schools participated in a professional development program about the various methodologies used in values education. Strategies included discussion of moral dilemmas, values analysis and structured inquiry (the latter two being relatively new strategies for the teachers). Over the following six weeks the teachers tried out these strategies in their classrooms. Their work was presented at a follow-up professional development session, which this time included parents and other members of the community as a participative audience.

The seven schools later held a formal concert for members of all their school communities. Each school presented a dramatic performance that demonstrated certain values in action. For example, students from one school demonstrated the values of care and compassion in a slow-motion action sequence where the leader in a running race sees a competitor fall and abandons their place to help the fallen athlete. Students from all the schools then combined to perform a play about respect and responsibility. For the very proud students this was a great opportunity to work with one another again and demonstrate what they had learned together to a wider audience. For the community audience (which also included representatives from school systems and ethnic associations) it was a chance to see how values education could bring people from different backgrounds together and work on common goals.

Conclusion and looking forward

Several factors contributed to the success of these activities. The most important was support from school leadership. In each case the principals did not just pay lip service to values education, but were actively involved in the activities and encouraged staff, students and the wider community to get involved. Another important factor was the use of a whole school approach. Links with the community were also vital, as values education activities are then connected to the real world, which includes students’ families and wider social networks.

The national projects mentioned above have provided educators with a range of possible strategies and teaching resources on values education. This material is currently available on the Values for Australian Schooling website, which includes range of relevant links to the Australian Curriculum.

The research literature referred to in this article provides strong evidence of the many benefits of values education. However, there appear to be few studies covering the impact of values education over the longer term and the evolution of students’ attitudes as they develop into young adults. The authors therefore recommend longitudinal studies where attitudes, achievements and relationships and other indicators of values might be investigated.

Given the focus of the goals of the Melbourne Declaration, especially the vision espoused for the formation of young Australians as creative, successful, active and informed members of a democratic, just, cohesive and culturally diverse society, there is a strong future for values education. As the Australian Curriculum continues to be rolled out, there appears to be recognition of a need for values education to underpin student learning about various concepts. For example, the science curriculum, through its Science as a Human Endeavour strand, deals with issues of ethics and decision-making. The Literature strand of the English curriculum requires students to explore different cultural and social perspectives in ways not too dissimilar from character education and moral education.

In an educational climate where it is all too easy to focus on standardised testing and content knowledge, it is reassuring that there is an important place for values education to develop sound decision making capabilities in young people going into the future. The challenge for teachers and schools is to find ways to do it, at the various levels, so that the experience is relevant, engaging and has meaning through connections to the outside world beyond school. This article, hopefully, helps to point the way.



De Nobile, J 2006, ‘Values education and quality pedagogy: the Merrylands experience’, paper presented at the NSW Board of Studies Education Forum, Sydney, 21 November

Department of Education, Science and Training 2005, National Framework for values education in Australian schools, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

Dovre, PJ 2007, ‘From Aristotle to Angelou: best practices in character education’, Education Next, Spring 2007, 38–45

Hamston, J et al. 2010, Giving voice to the impacts of values education: The final report of the Values in action schools project, Education Services Australia, Carlton South

Knight, GR 1998, Philosophy & Education: An introduction in Christian perspective, Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, Michigan

Lovat, T et al. 2011, ‘Values pedagogy and teacher education: Re-conceiving the foundations’, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36 (7), 31–44

Lovat, T & Toomey, R 2007, ‘Values education: A brief history to today’, in T. Lovat & R. Toomey (eds), Values Education and Quality Teaching: The double helix effect, David Barlow Publishing, Terrigal NSW, xi–xix

Marvul, JN 2012, ‘If you build it, they will come: A successful truancy intervention program in a small high school’, Urban Education, 47 (1), 144–169

MCCEETYA 2008, Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, retrieved from http://www.mceecdya.edu.au/verve/_resources/National_Declaration_on_the_Educational_Goals_for_Young_Australians.pdf

Refshauge, A 2004, Values in NSW Public Schools, NSW Department of Education and Training, Sydney

Robb, B 2008, ‘Values education – What is it?’, Centre for Alleviating Social Problems Through Values Education (CAVE), available at www.valueseducation.co.uk

St Aloysius’ College 2007, Mission Statement, St Aloysius’ College, Sydney, viewed 16 November, 2012, http://www.staloysius.nsw.edu.au/about/mission.asp

Wheatley, N 2007, Going Bush, Allen & Unwin, Crows Next NSW

Wink, J 2011, Critical Pedagogy: notes from the real world (4th edn), Pearson, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

Zbar, V, Brown, D & Bereznicki, B 2003, Values education study: final report, Curriculum Corporation, Carlton South


Subject Headings

Values education