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


Original published in educational Horizons 

Apprehensive about Dick and Jane lying, cheating, stealing, even murdering, many Americans are demanding that educators teach values. But what is it they want the kids to know? After all, there are at least three types of learning involved in values education: “learning that,” “learning how” and “learning to.” And these distinctions are not mere hair-splitting. They are directly tied to what will happen if educators further emphasize values.

Teaching Values and “Learning That”

“Learning that” is knowledge of facts — what cognitive researchers call declarative knowledge. Some simple examples are: “learning that” Columbus sailed from Spain, or that electrons have a negative electrical charge. Getting kids to “learn that” about values is no more difficult than getting them to learn any other fact. If this is values education, the task is comparatively easy. Presuming rudimentary community consensus on what is “right” and “wrong,” 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 wrong.

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

4. Stealing is wrong.

Notice students only have to know what lying, stealing, and so forth, amount to, and that they should be regarded as wrong or immoral.

The desirability of “learning that” type values education depends on how many kids lie, steal or are destructive and cruel because they actually don’t know what they are and that they are wrong. How many kids are like that? Some, surely; but it is hard to believe significant numbers have missed these messages. 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 given their “unique” situation in life. Consider this actual court statement of a juvenile murderer which was quoted on my local news. “Sure I shot him. What else could I do? He wouldn’t give me the money.”

Other more dangerous kids have learned that stealing, destructive cruelty, and so forth, are wrong; and that is precisely why they do it. Their dominant passion is destructiveness. Consider an adolescent Charles Manson; John Wayne Gacey, or “Son of Sam.” A common interpretation of their behavior is that they were mentally ill or at least saw the world differently. But if we allow for the possibility of wickedness, they may, instead, have known right from wrong and reveled in choosing the wrong. Their sense of self-worth and ability to escape their own insignificance may have depended on how evil they succeeded in being. In other words, wickedness validated their existence.

Provide this sort of person with “learning that” type values education, and they simply add new wrong things to their “to-do” list. And at this very minute parents in every corner of this land are parenting in ways that inadvertently teach their children that they are evil people. They tell their kids in dozens of overt or subtle ways, “You are no good! You never have been any good; and you never will be any good!” Hammer that home to a child a few hundred times across a developmentally critical span of years and it is unwise to give them details about what bad people do.

Will kids be positively influenced by instruction that stresses the “learning that” dimension of values? Nope. Learning more facts about values will not deliver the civil society the values education advocates are after.

Teaching Values and “Learning How”

“Learning how” involves what researchers call procedural knowledge: knowledge of how to do something. For example, “learning how” to be honest involves knowing that if you find someone’s wallet, you should return it with money and credit cards intact. In such an instance, that’s how to be honest.

“Learning how” is probably a big part of what values education advocates think educators should be doing more of. Pupils do need assistance in developing values “learning how.” Like learning to play the piano, ethical decision making requires learning how. But we should we assume that when benighted kids learn “how to” be nicer, kinder and more decent, they will be? Not by a long shot.

How many kids lie because they literally haven’t learned how to tell the truth; how many cheat because they haven’t learned how to be honest? Surely, very few do. Some might engage in mayhem because they haven’t learned how to otherwise 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? They enjoy inflicting pain on others. It may be one of the few things they are good at. Moreover, it is often profitable and the risks are relatively low.

In the case of youth gangs, strife even 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 potentially lethal enemies. In short, gang conflict is often functional. That is why gang youths with enough sense to 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” won’t change that behavior either.

Teaching Values and “Learning To”

Now let’s examine values education using our last type of knowing, “learning to.” This is the type of knowledge that leads to action. A person who has “learned to” can be counted upon to do particular things in specifiable circumstances. If, for instance, an individual “learns 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.

“Learning to” is the type of knowledge West Point’s famous honor code is intended to promote. When it comes to honor, Academy officials are not interested in cadets merely “learning that” or “learning how” about honesty. Their intent is to graduate cadets who have “learned 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 “learn that” and “learn how” will automatically “learn to.” They could not be more mistaken. Many people who “learn that” honesty is the best policy, and “learn how” to be honest, still are dishonest. (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton come to mind.) There is a quantum leap from “learning that” and “learning how,” to “learning to.”

Generally, youngsters develop “learn to” knowledge about values only when the important people in their lives live that way. And the best way for educators to really help pupils “learn to” act more morally is for those self-same educators to conduct themselves more morally. 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 because protecting pupils “was not part of his job description.” In taking that action the Board taught values to Chicago school kids, but was that the lesson what they wanted to teach?

Summing Up

Sermons and how-to instructions are largely worthless when it comes to “learning to.” Children learn what they live. So if we want them to act more morally, adults must set the example act more morally themselves. That’s real values education. The rest is mere recitation.

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