The ‘HOW’ of Education: Teaching Values Instead of Rules

January 25, 2008

By Dov Seidman

The goal of education is to help students prepare for life. In the 20th century, the education system largely did this by teaching specialized knowledge and skills that matched the needs of that time. Students learned to pass tests and get good grades. The biggest achievers aimed for the best colleges, the best specializations and, ultimately, the best jobs. Once in the workplace, they succeeded by out-performing and out-producing everyone else.

This approach, which created a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce, made sense in a world where what you did mattered most. But in our flat, connected and transparent 21st-century world, specialized knowledge and expertise may differentiate you for a moment in time, but it likely won’t carry you through an entire career.

What you do still matters a great deal, of course, but it is not enough. We still obviously need knowledgeable, highly skilled individuals, but there has been a shift. How we work matters too.

Today’s world connects us–and reveals us–in new and interesting ways. Near universal access to information has dramatically changed the ways in which people and institutions operate. The ones who thrive over time in this environment are those who can reach out, who can make connections, collaborate and build trust, and earn a reputation for doing so.

Kids today already operate in this new world. They know how to connect in fascinating ways and have mastered new technologies–from text messaging to MySpace. But what guides them in this environment? With neither textbook nor rules to follow, students are navigating this world alone. Schools must help them by cultivating values, and teaching them how to live these values.

We’re used to controlling kids from the outside, by giving them rules: Do your homework. No TV. Go to your room. This over-reliance on rules has taken away opportunities for children to develop the critical habits of thought and behavior that will help them navigate new situations and make good judgments. We need kids to have the ability to ask–not what they can or can’t do but what they should do in any given situation.

We live our lives in a world we can’t fully control, which is why character development means so much. Schools can help this process along by thinking of their role differently. Teachers need to create great human beings and not just great human doings.

The implications for educational institutions are profound. How do we start teaching values earlier in life? How do we develop kids who know how to govern themselves based on principle? How do we get kids to think in terms of should? Not only would an approach that addresses these issued benefit students now, it would give them the mind-set they need to connect and collaborate in the 21st-century workplace.

I’m not arguing for a return to classic liberal arts education–it’s not as if sixth-graders are suddenly going to start reading Aristotle. Still, we need to tap into the spirit of this tradition if we are to help students adapt to the future. We need to support educational approaches that emphasize values, that build cultures in our classrooms, and schools that help kids navigate this newly connected and transparent world, achieve success in their lives and out-behave the competition.

Originally posted on Forbes