Schools have their own values, but those values alone are not enough to guide our kids to fulfilling lives and work. Actively providing students with this kind of direction is something all of our schools should be doing.
When it comes to values, schools most commonly foster environments where I should respect you and you should respect me. Extraordinary schools extend this by encouraging you to care for me and for me to reciprocate in a caring way towards you. Tolerance for another’s viewpoints is another school value, as is encouraging active engagement as citizens in the community.
What schools are aiming for with these positive values is something that looks a lot like this—with the well-meaning community outreach going on in the distance.
What our schools are not doing is actively helping students identify what is most important to each of them, in terms of their values?
That many of our schools are providing a righteous and nurturing environment is certainly a good thing, but positive environmental factors alone don’t help students connect with their most basic operating principles. Because most schools aren’t helping students “to make sense” of their education at this level, more and more rudderless young people are leaving our classrooms and stumbling their way into work and into life.
Most school values, like respect and tolerance, don’t leap into the hearts of students, providing clarity around questions of life and work. Instead, they essentially provide a warm bath where a student can feel safe and supported enough to potentially identify what he or she believes in. While the kind of active, mutual caring championed by education scholar Nel Noddings could lead to purposeful living and working, few schools today can help to ensure that if you care for me I will care for you back. As a transmittable value to students, mutual caring seems unrealistic in all but the most intimate school environments.
Encouraging civic engagement in the ways that Thomas Sergiovanni has talked about it also would not work as a vehicle for transmitting values from school to student in most of our schools. For Sergiovanni, students become “virtuous” by actively practicing virtues (like hope, trust, civility and piety) while working with “moral teachers.” As with “mutual caring,” a student’s own value choices are more actively encouraged in “the virtuous school,” but this model also seems unworkable in all but the smallest and most elite institutions.
In most schools, student engagement in civic affairs is limited to activities that leave everyone “feeling good” about themselves at the end of the day, but encourage neither commitment nor personal growth from the participants. It’s planting the community garden, reading to the elderly in a rest home: low impact activism that requires minimal effort for minimal impact. Schools, students and parents can pretend that some kind of value training is going on here, but everyone knows that it’s not.
So while schools often provide students with a warm Petri dish of tolerance and respect in the hope they’ll flourish, most fail to add the critical ingredient—which is actively teaching our kids how to cultivate their values so they can integrate what they’ve learned in school with what’s most important to them as individuals.
Earlier this month, I talked about some of the things schools can do in terms of building value awareness and helping students plan for their lives and their work. Exercises like this give students a roadmap that can help them to seize their futures instead of wandering aimlessly into them. We’re doing a very poor job providing our kids with this kind of preparation. It’s a problem for students leaving school at all education levels, and as I’ve written about before, even for the best and the brightest among them.
This is a tragedy that can be avoided.
It has profound implications for families, employers, communities, and most importantly the students who are graduating into life unprepared for its most basic challenges and opportunities.
Why are we so passive about this as parents?
Why aren’t we more concerned about this as teachers?
Policymakers and business correctly provide financial support and expertise for our non-performing schools. Why aren’t they also concerned about the purposeless students coming out of our performing schools, and the associated opportunity costs for our nation and our economy?
These aren’t just rhetorical questions.
I’d really like to hear your thoughts.