©1999, edited 11/13/16 

Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University


Apprehensive about youngsters lying, cheating, stealing, even murdering, many Americans are demanding that educators teach values. But what is it they want the kids to know? There are three distinct kinds of knowing: “knowing that,” “knowing how” and “knowing to.” And these distinctions are urgently tied to teaching values.

Teaching Values and “Knowing That”

“Knowing that” is knowledge of facts — what cognitive researchers call declarative knowledge. For instance: “knowing that” Columbus sailed from Spain, or that electrons have negative charges. Getting kids to “know that” about values is no more difficult than getting them to learn any other fact. If this is values education amounts to, the task is comparatively easy. Presuming rudimentary community consensus on what is “right” and “wrong,” we’ll take lying and stealing as examples, pupils would only have to learn enough to pass a test like this:

True or False?
1. Lying is making false statements with intent to deceive.

2. Lying is usually wrong.

3. “White” lies, to shield someone from a hurtful truth, are a possible exception.

4. Stealing is taking the property of others without permission or legal right.

5. Stealing is wrong.

Students only have to learn what lying and stealing amount to, and that they are regarded as wrong or immoral.

How important is it for kids to “know that?” Well that depends on how many kids lie or steal because they don’t know it is wrong. How many kids are like that? Some, surely — especially the very young. But it is hard to imagine that most school-aged children beyond the primary grades have missed out on this information. Even the most hardened delinquents probably know the right and wrong of things. They just think these classifications are for “fools,” or at least wrong for them. Consider this actual court statement of a juvenile murderer quoted in my local newspaper. “Sure I shot him. What else could I do? He wouldn’t give me the money.” Did he not know that killing another is wrong? Or did he know, but not care?

Other, more dangerous, juveniles know that stealing, destructive cruelty, and so forth, are wrong, and that is precisely why they do it. Their dominant passion is destruction. Consider Charles Manson; John Wayne Gacey, or “Son of Sam.” The standard interpretation of their behavior is that they are mentally ill or at least see the world differently. But we should allow for the possibility that they know right from wrong, and revel in choosing the wrong. Their sense of self-worth and ability to escape their own insignificance may depend on how evil they succeed in being. Wickedness validates their existence. “I matter because I destroy.” A “knowing that” type values education simply adds new evil things to their “to-do” list.

How does any youngster come to think of themselves as evil? Here is one way. Parents in every corner of this land parent in ways that inadvertently teach their children that they are no good, bad, evil. Over and over they verbally and/or non-verbally tell their kids: “You are no good! You never have been any good. You never will be any good!” Hammer that home a few hundred times across a developmentally critical span of years and it is not a good idea to provide that child with information about what bad people do.

Will kids be positively influenced by instruction that stresses the “knowing that” dimension of values? Generally they will not. Merely knowing facts about values will not deliver the kind of society that values education advocates hope to foster.

Teaching Values and “Knowing How”

“Knowing how” involves what researchers call procedural knowledge. Put simply: knowing how to do something. For example, “knowing how” to be honest. That involves knowing that if you find someone’s wallet, honesty requires returning it with money and credit cards intact. That’s an example of “knowing how” to be honest.

Helping kids “know how” is certainly a part of what values education is about. Youngsters do need assistance in developing values “know how.” Like learning to play the piano, ethical decision making requires knowing how. But we should definitely NOT assume that when kids come to know “how to” be nicer, kinder and more decent, that they necessarily will be. Not by a long shot.

Ask yourself: how many kids lie because they literally don’t know how to tell the truth? How many cheat because they don’t know how to be honest? Surely, very few. Some engage in mayhem because they don’t know how to peacefully resolve conflicts — the point of training kids in conflict resolution. But a lot of juveniles who turn to mayhem know both “how to” be good and “how to” resolve conflicts peaceably. They just don’t want to. Why is that? In many cases they simply enjoy inflicting pain on others. It may be one of the few things they are good at. Moreover, it can yield both material and psychological benefits; and the risks can be relatively low.

For instance, in the case of youth gangs, strife is indispensable to the perpetuation of the gang. Struggle defines the group, revitalizes its traditions and provides a way of getting information about the strength of potential enemies. In short, gang conflict is often functional. That is why gang youths who can figure out the “how to” of avoiding conflict, still don’t do it. It would undermine the group that gives their lives perverted meaning. Values “know how” certainly won’t change that behavior.

Teaching Values and “Knowing To”

Now let’s examine values education using our last type of knowing: “knowing to.” This is the type of knowledge that leads to action. A person who “knows to” can be counted upon to do particular things in specifiable circumstances. If, for instance, an individual “knows to” be honest, they will not cheat even if they can get away with it, they will return lost belongings regardless of their value, and so forth.

“Knowing to” is the type of knowledge West Point’s famous honor code is designed to promote. When it comes to honor, Academy officials are not interested in cadets merely “knowing that” or “knowing how.” Their intent is to graduate cadets who “know to” be honorable even when they could easily get away with lying, cheating, and so forth.

A surprising number of the nation’s values education promoters seem to assume that kids who “know that” and “know how” will automatically “know to.” They could not be more mistaken. Many people who “know that” honesty is the best policy, and “knowing how” to be honest, still are dishonest. (Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump come to mind.) There is a quantum leap from “knowing that” and “knowing how,” to “knowing to.”

Generally, youngsters develop “know to” knowledge about values when the important people in their lives, parents are the prime example live that way themselves. So the best way for educators to really help pupils “know to” act morally is for those self-same educators to behave that way themselves. Consider the Chicago teacher who was shot while protecting his students and now finds himself abandoned in his application for Workmen’s Compensation by the Chicago Board of Education. Why? Because protecting pupils “was not part of his job description.” In taking that action the Board taught values to Chicago school kids, but was it the lesson we want kids to learn? Of course the teacher’s selfless act was also a lesson. One wonders which lesson, the Board’s or the teacher’s, won out in the hearts and minds of involved children?

Summing Up

When it comes to teaching values, lectures, sermons, even how-to instructions, are of limited value. If we want kids to be moral, it is essential that the important adults in their lives, teachers certainly included, be moral and set a worthy example. That’s real values education. Anything less, also teaches values. But NOT the ones that we want kids to learn.


See related article: Pluralism & Rationality 
Also, a PowerPoint, “What is Values Education to Accomplish?”