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Teaching children what's worthwhile

VIVIAN GUSSIN PALEY, a teacher at the University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools, has spent 30 years working with small children. When it comes to instruction in values, she says, ``dramatic play'' is the key. Through their play, says Mrs. Paley, ``almost every concept of fairness and friendship is actively being interpreted in terms of the children's own needs.'' The perceptive teacher learns to understand the play, the make-believe, a group of four- or five-year-olds is engaged in and uses that understanding to suggest ways of getting along with others, she explains.

Her emphasis on play as the context within which young children learn values wouldn't necessarily be shared by all in the early-education field, says Paley. Others, for instance, may give more weight to the ``modeling'' of values by adults. In fact, the question of how children can best be taught values elicits a range of answers.

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Illustrating her view of the subject, Paley sets a typical classroom scene: What if one child is monopolizing all the blocks to build his spaceship - to the exclusion of his classmates? A typical adult reflex might be to take charge of the situation, rebuke the selfishness, and proclaim that everyone will get 10 blocks.

That's one approach, and it can work if the teacher has enough authority, but Paley's tack would be different. ``Look at it from the child's point of view,'' she counsels. Ask him what he's playing, suggest that if he's the captain, he might need a crew, and perhaps he might need someone to build some other part of his spaceship.

The secret, she says, is recognizing that teachers and children share the goal of working together ``to have as much good play as possible.'' Then, she says, this early classroom experience ``becomes a year-long study in some of the great ideas of the world - friendship, fairness, consideration, concern.''

True, she adds, a teacher inevitably has to lay down some ``plain and simple rules'' - for example, ``Don't hit,'' or ``You may not tell Johnny where to sit.'' ``But we're talking about a much deeper practice of listening to what another person is saying. That's democracy in action.''

One thing you observe about first-graders, says Allan Shedlin Jr., director of the Elementary School Center in New York, is that ``they are wonderful school citizens.'' True, children tend to forget some of this good citizenship later on, he concedes. But the early years in school can provide a core of values that can reemerge, Mr. Shedlin says.

``It's clear that values are taught in school,'' he says. He cites some relevant instances from his own experience as principal of a large independent school in New York. To emphasize and reward positive behavior, he made a point of ``catching a kid being good'' - sometimes even sending a congratulatory note home to parents.

``My own opinion,'' Shedlin sums up, ``is that the best way to teach values, especially to young children, is to model good values yourself.'' That view is seconded by Larry Schweinhart of the High Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich. ``It's important to recognize that values are behavioral rather than verbal. ... Modeling the values is what counts,'' he says.

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The models that children are going to be most familiar with are their parents, and they have ``a very strong dependency on parents for values,'' Mr. Schweinhart adds. But with more single-parent families, two-wage-earner families, and teen-age mothers, the patterns of parental authority are changing ``radically,'' he points out. Thus the question of who's responsible for teaching values - parents or schools - becomes more difficult.

The value of greatest importance to children, emphasizes Schweinhart, is a sense of self-worth. If, in the early school years, ``they gain the fundamental values of self-worth and respect for themselves, they're more prepared later to be responsive to other value messages,'' he says.

Pat Carini, co-founder of the Prospect Center in North Bennington, Vt., and a teacher there, says the relationship of school to family should be founded on ``the mutual concern both have for the child.'' Schools, certainly, ought to respect parents' knowledge of their own children. Then, she says, educators can avoid ``that awkward situation of the school feeling it has one set of values and the parents another, inferior, set.''

To her, proceeding toward the development of values in young children has little to do with formal instruction in ethics. ``The capacity to think something through ethically doesn't mean ethical behavior,'' she asserts. What's central, to her, is ``a child's impulse to value'' - his or her innate ``impulse toward the worthwhile.''

``You can't put a group of children together and help them be active without having all kinds of values come up. Value is all there in the living. You need to be attentive to it and not dodge it.... Everything we teach is value-laden in itself - history, the arts. These provide ways for children to think back on their interests and thoughts.''

Vito Perone, a longtime educator who's now with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, observes, ``Teachers obviously stand for something. I don't think there's anything neutral about a school.'' The stories teachers choose for a class, the field trips they plan, the films they select, convey values, according to Mr. Perone.

``Rules of civility, how one exchanges ideas, respect for persons and for their property - these are all issues I think people in a classroom have to deal with. A classroom is a community of a kind. It has operating principles, issues that one normally associates with values.''

``I suspect there are some communities where pressures are enormously powerful to ... dictate certain values,'' he says. This can lead to friction between teachers and parents, he acknowledges. But ``my sense is that a teacher who is very clear about purposes and has conveyed that sense of purpose to families - my sense is these teachers are all right and aren't struggling.''

It's crucial, adds Perone, to understand that ``values are larger than the question of right and wrong.'' The values essential to education, in his view, include intellectual interest and a love for art, literature, and community.

These values, as well as those involved in learning how to work harmoniously with others, are educational constants - equally important to first-grader or graduate student.