The importance of teaching values to young learners


Katharine Scott is a teacher trainer and educational materials developer with over 20 years’ experience as an English language textbook author. She’s co-author of the new Pearson Primary course – English Code and is based in Spain. In this article, she explores the importance of teaching values to young learners and shares four strategies you can use in your primary classroom. 

Values in education 

The long years children spend at school are not only about acquiring key knowledge and skills. At school, children also learn to work together, to share, to exchange opinions, to disagree, to choose fairly, and so on. We could call these abilities social skills as they help children live and flourish in a community that is wider than their family circle.

Social skills are not necessarily the same as social values. Children acquire social skills from all kinds of settings. The tools they use to resolve problems will often come from examples. In the playground, children observe each other and notice behavior. They realize what is acceptable to the other children and which strategies are successful. Some of the things they observe will not reflect healthy social values. 

Part of a school’s mission is to help children learn social skills that are firmly based on a shared set of values. Many schools recognize this and have a program for an education in values. 

What values are we talking about? 

Labelling is always difficult when we are dealing with an abstract concept such as social values. General ideas include:

  • Living in a community, collaborating together
  • Respecting others in all of human diversity
  • Caring for the environment and the surroundings
  • Having a sense of self-worth

At the root of these values are ethical considerations. While it may seem that Primary education is too early for ethics, children from a very young age do have a sense of a sense of fairness and of a sense of honesty. This doesn’t mean that children never lie or behave unfairly. Of course they do! But from about three years old, children know that this behavior is not right, and they complain when they come across it in others. 

In the school context, social values are too often reduced to a set of school rules and regulations. Typical examples are:

  • Don’t be late!
  • Wait your turn!
  • Pick up your rubbish!
  • Don’t invent unkind nicknames.

While all these statements reflect important social values, if we don’t discuss them with the children the reasoning behind each statement gets lost. They become boring school rules. And we all know that it can be fun to break school rules if you can get away with it. These regulations are not enough to represent an education in values.

School Strategies

At a school level, successful programs often focus on a specific area of a values syllabus. These programs involve all members of a school community: students, teachers, parents and administrative staff. 

Here are some examples of school programs:

Caring for the environment

Interest in ecology and climate change, has led many schools to implement programs focused on respect for the environment and other ecological issues. Suitable activities could include:

  • A system of recycling
  • A vegetable garden
  • Initiatives for transforming to renewable energy
  • A second-hand book store

Anti-bullying programs

As bullying can have such serious consequences, many schools have anti-bullying policies in place to deal with incidents of bullying. However, the most effective programs also have training sessions for teachers and a continuous program for the children to help them identify bullying behavior. Activities include:

  • Empathy activities to understand different points of view (POV)
  • Activities to develop peer responsibility about bullying
  • Activities aimed at increasing children’s sense of self-worth

Anti-racism programs 

Combating negative racial stereotypes has, until recently, relied mainly on individual teacher initiatives. However, as racial stereotypes are constructed in society, it would be useful to have a school-wide program. This could include:

  • Materials focusing on the achievements of ethnic minorities
  • School talks from members of ethnic minority communities 
  • Empathy activities to understand the difficulties of marginalized groups.
  • Study of the culture and history of ethnic minorities

As children learn from observed behavior, it’s important that everyone in the school community acts consistently with the values in the program.

Classroom Strategies

The most important space for developing positive social values at school is in the classroom and the most useful tool for developing positive social values is through discussion. 

Here’s how to develop a framework for classwork:

1. Find a values stimulus

All discussions need a starting point. With children, it is easier to approach abstract, ethical concepts from concrete examples. Possible starting points could come from:

  • An incident at school
  • An event in the news
  • A piece of reading text, especially a story

2. Identify a “big question” from the stimulus 

Stories are a very rich source for discussions, as many revolve around ethical dilemmas or decisions. Even a very simple story like Goldilocks can contain a big question:

Why did Goldilocks go into the bear’s house? Was this a good thing to do? Why? Why not?

English code, level 4, page 30

In the story ‘The Blackstone’ in English Code level 4, Jacobo finds an old stone that leads him to a hidden treasure. At the end of the story, the treasure goes to a local museum. 

A big question from this story could be:

Why does Jacobo give the treasure to the museum?

Read more about Big Questions

3. Initiate a class discussion about the question

Students often need to be prompted with questions, especially if they are working in a second language. Here are some examples:

  • Was it Goldilocks’ house?
  • Was she careful with the things in the house?
  • Who did the treasure belong to the past?
  • Who does the treasure belong to now?

Move away from a close focus on the story, or other values stimulus, to a more open discussion. For example:

  • How do you feel when people spoil your things?

Help children to develop essential empathy skills by encouraging them to investigate the events from the point of view (POW) of different characters in a story.

At this stage, children can:

  • Reflect on different points of view 
  • Imagine themselves in a similar situation
  • Consider the impact of decisions on different people

4. Student activity

Learning becomes more meaningful when children do something. A session discussing values should end with a productive activity. Students can make, write, act out or draw something to reflect the class discussion and their ideas. For example: A letter of apology from Goldilocks to the three bears

The advantages of educating in values are multiple. Children develop into responsible citizens and the school community flourishes. Values also help students to develop as individuals. They learn to:

  • Navigate the world
  • Develop moral reasoning 
  • Have a degree of self-awareness
  • Have a healthy sense of self-value

These are crucial abilities and skills. As children are constantly developing, an education in values should be part of the curriculum through all the school grades.

About English Code

Making phonics fun with English code

English Code is a 7-level course for 7-12 year olds, offering 5 hours or more of English study per week. Available in both American English and British English versions, it promotes hands-on creative learning, investigation, fun projects, and experiments. 

Throughout the course you’ll discover stories like The Blackstone to help students understand and reflect on core values such as community, respect, protecting the environment and self-worth.  

Learn more about English Code or download a sample now!

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