Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Ethics and Values Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_167



Ethics and values education encompasses a wide variety of aspects, conceptual frameworks, topics, and approaches. Arising out of the field of ethics, it foremost has to be sensitive to a multidimensional and deep anthropological nature of human being and the recognition of this in educational processes. The relational and communitarian nature of ethics (arising out of the recognition of a human being as relational being, a being of community, and a being of dialogue) is extremely important and dictates reflections on justice, solidarity, compassion, and cooperation in the spirit of a genuine dialogue in the field of ethics and values education, which further call for openness, reciprocity, and mutual recognition. These aspects are of key importance for ethics and values education, since one of its main goals is to strengthen such dialogical and emphatic stance on all levels of educational process. These should not address and stress merely basic ethical norms and values (such as liberty, dignity and respect for life, equality, truthfulness, nonviolence, social justice, solidarity, moderation, humility, nondiscrimination, well-being, and security) but also turn to virtues that are at the heart of each individual development and development of a community as a whole. The dialogical nature of ethics and with this also of ethics and values education therefore stipulates openness toward the other and thus invites us to be open in the process of mutual growth and learning. In the formal educational process, an all-encompassing nature of ethical reflection and ethical awareness calls for an integrative approach, in which ethical topics are addressed in most if not all the subjects in school, trans-circularly, and in school life as a whole.

The global recognition of the importance of ethics and values education is well reflected in the 1996 UNESCO report of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century. “In confronting the many challenges that the future holds in store, mankind sees in education an indispensable asset in its attempts to attain the ideas of peace, freedom and social justice. The Commission does not see education as a miracle cure or a magic formula opening the door to a world in which all ideals will be attained, but as one of the principal means available to foster a deeper and more harmonious form of human development and thereby to reduce poverty, exclusion, ignorance, oppression and war” (Delors et al. 1996). Since the field of ethics and values education is very broad and includes changing trends, this entry addresses just some of its key aspects, especially those related to more recent views and approaches, which stress the aforementioned integrative, holistic, and comprehensive nature of it.

Ethics and Values Education

In a narrower sense the term ethics and values education applies to all aspects of the process of education, which either explicitly or implicitly relate to ethical and axiological dimensions of life and are such that can be structured, guided, and monitored with appropriate educational methods and tools. Evaluative and ethical dimensions are an integral aspect of every educational process. “Education implies that something worthwhile has been intentionally transmitted in a morally acceptable manner. It would be a logical contradiction to say that a man had been educated but that he had in no way changed for the better or that in educating his son a man was attempting nothing that was worthwhile” (Peters 1970, p. 25). Ethics and values education specifically converts this implicit goal into an explicit one, following a recognition that vital presence of moral and value dimensions cannot be sensibly denied and the idea of a value-free education process proved to be a delusion. Among the main aims of ethics and values education are the following: to stimulate ethical reflection, awareness, autonomy, responsibility, and compassion in children, to provide children with insight into important ethical principles and values, to equip them with intellectual capacities (critical thinking, reflection, understanding, decision-making, compassion) for responsible moral judgment, to develop approaches to build a classroom or school environment as an ethical community, and to reflectively situate an individual into local and global communities with a mission to contribute to them. All this enables children to overcome prejudice, discrimination, and other unethical practices and attitudes and at the same time shape proper attitudes toward themselves, relationships they form, society, and environment

Ethics and values education steers children toward the search and commitment to fundamental values, meaning, and purpose in their lives. Ethics and values education is also oriented into nurturing respectful attitude toward others (both individuals and communities alike) and putting one’s beliefs, attitudes, and values into practice. As such it cannot be limited to one school subject or a set of subjects, since the initial all-encompassing nature of ethical reflection and awareness calls for a trans-curricular, integrative approach. If one regards values in a broad way as comprising of principles, fundamental convictions, ideals, standards, or life stances that guide individuals, their evaluations, and behavior (Halstead and Taylor 1996) both in their personal and social lives and include in this also a broader reflection upon them, then in a sense a field of ethics education overlaps with values education. In a narrower sense values education refers to a process of educational transmission of dominant social values to individuals to somehow incorporate them into the society.

Aims of Ethics and Values Education

Some of the main aims of ethics and values education have already been mentioned: to stimulate ethical reflection, awareness, responsibility, and compassion, to provide insight into important ethical principles and values, to equip an individual with key cognitive and noncognitive (moral) intellectual capacities (critical thinking, reflection, understanding, decision-making, compassion) for responsible moral judgment, to reflectively situate individual into local and global environment, and to enable individuals to overcome prejudice, discrimination, and cultural and other stereotypes. Next, the aims include that ethics and values education encourages children to explore diverse dimensions of values and various possible justifications for moral status of action and to apply them in school, at home, or in professional life. It paves the way for reflective exploration of different ethical evaluative standpoints and analysis of their practical implications. It also enables them to gain confidence and self-esteem, foster cooperative behavior, stimulate and deepen moral motivation, shape their character, and enable overall growth in terms of purposeful, morally excelling, and satisfying life.

All these are connected into a more general, overall goal, among others defined by Dewey. “The formation of a cultivated and effectively operative good judgment or taste with respect to what is aesthetically admirable, intellectually acceptable and morally approvable is the supreme task set to human beings by the incidents of experience” (Dewey 1980, p. 262). One can add to this that “[o]ne purpose of moral education is to help make children virtuous – honest, responsible, and compassionate. Another is to make mature students informed and reflective about important and controversial moral issues. Both purposes are embedded in a yet larger project – making sense of life. On most accounts, morality isn’t intellectually free-floating, a matter of personal choices and subjective values. Moralities are embedded in traditions, in conceptions of what it means to be human, in worldviews.” (Nord and Haynes 1998) It thus stimulates individuals to make values relevant for their lives in a concrete social context in an experiential and expressive manner. The open questions remain: How can ethics and values education be genuinely effective, how can it gain a real hold on children as opposed to a simple recognition or authoritative assent, and what are the (pre)conditions for its efficacy (Silcock and Duncan 2001)?

Approaches and Methods

One aspect related to ethics and values education is how much of it and in what form should be based upon ethical theory. The answers here vary quite a bit, but a consensus seems to be emerging in the direction that a straight transposition of particular ethical theories as the main content of ethics and values education is ineffective. “Another way of looking at ethics education, a favourite among traditional philosophers, is to see professional ethics education as an opportunity to learn about philosophical theories of ethics. Under this approach, the students are taught one or more ethical theories (usually utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, or care theory) and are then taught to apply these theories to resolve, or at least inform, ethical dilemmas. Among philosophers of education, who have dealt with ethics of teaching, however, it is generally agreed that this applied-theory approach to ethics education is particularly problematic” (Warnick and Silverman 2011, p. 274). When we move from the early education toward professional ethics education, the stress on ethical theory of course enhances but in a sense that ethical theory forms the basis of ethics education (not its main contents) since it can increase students’ understanding of particular normative or evaluative stance, increase their capacities to formulate cogent justification and moral arguments, increase their ethical reflection and capacities of good decision-making, and lastly underpin a particular ethical code relevant for the field of professional study.

In early education this role can be played by incorporation of critical thinking and philosophy with children and inquiring community approaches. These can also secure the necessary balance between individual and societal aspects of values education. “As Socrates would have it, the philosophical examination of life is a collaborative inquiry. The social nature of the enterprise goes with its spirit of inquiry to form his bifocal vision of the examined life. These days, insofar as our society teaches us to think about values, it tends to inculcate a private rather than a public conception of them. This makes reflection a personal and inward journey rather than a social and collaborative one and a person’s values a matter of parental guidance in childhood and individual decision in maturity” (Cam 2014, p. 1203). That is why reflective and collaborative approach is so essential, since it can secure a middle ground between individual relativism and a straight imposition of dominant social values, it fosters development of good moral judgment, and it enables us to put ourselves in the position of another and finally to develop a dialogic and inclusive stance.

There are several specific methods developed for the field of values education. These range from inculcation of values by teaching, storytelling, or school practices and policies to approaches that are more open and reflective (philosophy with children), address specific aspects of morality (care ethics approach, empathy approach, cognitive developmental ethics education, character education, infusion approach, etc.), or are oriented toward ethical action (service learning approach). One of the more popular approaches in the past was the values clarification approach (Simon et al. 1972), which (following the lessons of moral pluralism) rejected the idea of inculcation and offered an individual an opportunity for free personal choice or preference regarding values and their understanding. Criticism of this approach stresses particularly the questions about its effectiveness and the lack of philosophical and educational foundations, while one of the reasons for the decline of its popularity was also its erratic implementation. One of its main proponents, Kirschenbaum (1992) has later accepted much of this criticism and proposed a more comprehensive values education approach. It is based upon four aspects of comprehensiveness. The first aspect concerns the content, since comprehensive values education includes personal and social, ethical, and moral issues. Secondly, the comprehensive approach includes a variety of difference methodologies. Thirdly, the approach gets extended throughout the school life, including both classes and all other school-related activities. And lastly, the comprehensive approach includes not merely children and their teachers, but the entire community and including other institutions as agents of values education (Kirschenbaum 1992, p. 775).

Joined to this trend was also character education as a specific form of ethics education, focusing primarily on character development, e.g., development of moral virtues, habits, and other aspects of character, which then translates into morally right action and meaningful life. Building upon an ancient tradition and educational ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, this form often obtained a more limited form of moral education through the use of role models and exemplars as key tools. With the rise of modernity, it slowly started to lose its appeal and relevance, primarily due to secularization and a focus on rules of conduct. Ryan (2015) states that in the 1980s, as a response to concern about poor academic achievements and bad behavior, educators have rediscovered character education (also as part of a wider trend of the return of virtue ethics championed, e.g., by G.E.M. Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre). Character education thus focuses on cultivating virtues and forming good character habits and at the same time eliminating poor habits. It is crucial that it begins early in childhood and rests on the assumption that parents and later on teachers begin the engraving process of habituation to consideration of others, self-control, and responsibility, and later on this individual takes over the formation of his or her own character (Ryan 2015).

In recent decades there is also a rise of other integrative and comprehensive approaches, which take into account both traditional educational goals and new findings from moral psychology and other sciences. In line with this development, Silcock and Duncan (2001) put forward the following preconditions for successful values acquisitions in schools.
  1. (1)

    Process condition: Optimal circumstances for the integration of values into students’ lives must include in part their voluntary commitment at some stage of this process. This means recognizing their autonomy, competence, and personal choice in line with their moral development.

  2. (2)

    Conceptual condition: Values education must lead to personally transformed relationships between students and themes and contents considered worthwhile, which means that the move from belief toward motivation and action presupposes “‘co-construction’, a consciously accomplished, cross-transformation where what is studied becomes a personal value through the act of commitment, while the commitment itself becomes a value-commitment via the potent nature of what is transformed (e.g., the potential a moral virtue has to change one’s life)” (Silcock and Duncan 2001, p. 251).

  3. (3)

    Contextual condition: There has to be at least partial consistency or concurrence between the values, virtues, ideals, or standards learned and wider sociopolitical context, since this is necessary for ethics and values education to be as free as possible from internal inconsistencies regarding both contents and goals of it. Thus, in order for ethics and values education to obtain lifelong lasting relevance, one must include a wider understanding and grounds of the mentioned values, virtues, ideals, or standards they appeal to.


Some Challenges

Quite a number of challenges have been raised in regard to ethics and values education. In the context of school education, one challenge is how to situate it within the curriculum, especially regarding more explicit approaches that promote specially dedicated ethics and values education classes, given ever more pressing time demands of the curriculum and a possible lack of sensitivity to age-specific moral maturity. Another challenge is the global, plural, and multicultural world we live in that puts pressure upon the question of which values to choose in the beginning. Here ethics and values education can either appeal to some core common values (e.g., Hans Küng’s Weltethos approach) or specifically include education for an inclusive cosmopolitan society (the abovementioned values clarification process was in part developed in response to this recognition).

From the perspective of teachers and other educators, one of the main challenges is the recognition that they often lack a more specific knowledge about ethics and values and related competencies to tackle them in the classroom in a coherent and integrative way. Education professionals are often additionally burdened with pressures toward more effective educational outputs, working schedule flexibility and mobility, new topics in curriculum, and increasing number of students with adjustment disorders and often also with a lack of effective lifelong learning opportunities. Often they express skepticisms about their assigned role as some sort of moral authority or role model. All this may decrease the willingness and strengthen the reluctance to actively adopt a particular ethics and values education model.


Ethics and values education is a challenging field and task, which must harbor aspect of thinking, understanding, and community in order to be effective. “Values education therefore cannot be simply a matter of instructing students as to what they should value – just so much ‘teaching that’ – as if students did not need to inquire into values or learn to exercise their judgement. In any case, it is an intellectual mistake to think that values constitute a subject matter to be learned by heart. They are not that kind of thing. Values are embodied in commitments and actions and not merely in propositions that are verbally affirmed” (Cam 2014, p. 1208). The central aim remains striving to develop an autonomous, responsible, and caring individual to form a morally good society.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of TheologyUniversity of LjubljanaLjubljanaSlovenia