Because it’s worth it: Finding values in subject disciplines

Written by: Bridget Knight | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Values are at the heart of education and can be delivered through the subjects we teach. Ahead of her curriculum design workshop at Headteacher Update's Curriculum Excellence Conference in January, Bridget Knight offers some reflections and pointers


Why do we do it? Teaching is an honourable profession and most of us feel a great sense of pride in the job we do. However, we can also feel that our best intentions become submerged in the hurly-burly of school life, with its many and increasing pressures and distractions.

The struggles around teacher recruitment, retention and wellbeing are well known. But we also know that the correlation between job satisfaction and professional wellbeing is a strong one.

So, let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves what is at the source of our work. As teachers, we are motivated by the desire to ignite something in others that we have felt ourselves. We want our students to love the subjects we teach and to see their beauty, both for their own sake and for what we know they can contribute to their lives and the world.

We know that to be successful learners, we must have an emotional connection with the subject matter – learning must be “felt” for there to be knowing, understanding, and remembering, and it is this bond that makes us want to keep learning. As teachers, we need to help make that connection.

This achieved, we want those we teach to reach a point of mastery in the subject discipline as well as in cognitive tools like formal logic, reasoning and mathematical probability.

We need our students’ knowledge to be so strong that they are able to use their understanding to draw comparisons, make distinctions and suggest hypotheses. And then we want them to be sufficiently engaged to become thirsty, independent thinkers, as it were, wheeling out of their own centre.

We want our students to achieve all this, not just so they are able to go out and get a job, but to help them to be the pioneers of the future, those “brainchildren of human ingenuity” (Pinker, 2021) who will go on to underwrite the world’s boosts in wellbeing, who might apply their brainpower to, for example, making cheap, clean energy and to promoting world peace.

We know that human ingenuity will have to redouble to deal with the trials we face today, particularly climate change and sustainability – and we want our students to be the ones who might lead the charge, or at the very least make a contribution.

To accomplish this, we know that our students will need a mastery of knowledge understanding and know-how in the panoply of subject disciplines – but they will also need the skills that come from learning through a base of positive universal human values.

To be good at something is no guarantee of goodness. Intelligence needs such values as reflectiveness, open-mindedness, humility, courage or empathy to be of human use.

So how can we, as teachers, achieve satisfaction in our vocation and truly take on work of such significance – and how can the subject disciplines we teach go hand-in-hand with the development of values?

In our recent publication, On the Subject of Values… and the Value of Subjects (Knight et al, 2022), teachers showed us how subject disciplines can be the ideal vehicle for the conveyance of values to achieve deeper learning.

The contention here is that by infusing our teaching with values, explicitly and implicitly, subject disciplines can serve a greater purpose, energising and nourishing us as human learners.

Time and time again, we see that the “best” teachers – those who affect their students positively and indelibly – are so because they weave teaching and learning deftly through affirming and aspirational relationships.

These relationships flourish because they are rooted in, modelled through and led by the things that make up the essence of our selves – our values. When we are guided by values – such as love, resilience, courage, joy and integrity – we communicate them implicitly, and our students respond accordingly.

This happens most readily within schools where there is a values-led culture, one that explicitly supports and promotes values that are spoken about, felt and enacted through the entirety of school life.

People emanate their values; subjects also carry their own values systems. Take art, craft and design: in the content and pedagogy of this subject discipline the values of beauty, appreciation, creativity, diversity, insight, persistence, resilience, and rigour could be said to be its core and essence. The values are recurrent and characteristic. In the very act of studying this subject, learners will frequently come face-to-face with these values and practise them.

When we connect to subject matter through exploring the values that run through it, there’s a human connection – it speaks to the things that make us who we are, and this brings a profundity of knowledge, a depth of understanding, and links us to our fellow learners in the classroom and to people we will never meet, right across the world. Through these experiences, students become confident, critical thinkers, aware of the effect that each of us has individually and all of us have collectively on our world and one another.

This pedagogy threads beautifully through the national curriculum prescription, serving to enhance meaning, motivation and understanding.

Mick Waters, co-editor of the aforementioned book, encourages us to open the doors wide on curriculum disciplines, viewing them as the means for teaching about life itself, rather than simply routes to qualification.

For example, in geography and in careers education, as students study employment structures across this country and around the world, an invitation to consider the personal values that are vital to any workplace brings a purposeful depth of reasoning and individual engagement to the subject matter.

As one small example, in history, when studying the impact of the Anglo-Saxon way of life, consideration of how warring tribes were also capable of creating artefacts of intense beauty, leads us to consider the great mystery of our own nature and our personal values.

This approach enhances the achievement of children who engage in this way and brings a richness to our daily lives in classrooms, gymnasia, studios, workshops and laboratories. Learning elevates to wisdom. Why not turn the spotlight on values for yourself?

  • Bridget Knight is a headteacher, CEO of Values Based Education, and co-editor of the new book On the Subject of Values and the Value of Subjects (John Catt Educational, 2022). Visit https://valuesbasededucation.com/ or follow via @vbezone


Curriculum Excellence Conference

  • Bridget Knight will be presenting at Headteacher Update and SecEd’s Curriculum Excellence Conference which runs online on January 17, 18 and 19 and is themed on design, delivery, and diversity. Bridget’s session, which is predominantly for primary colleagues although will hold relevance for others too, is entitled Placing values at the heart of curriculum design and takes place on the Thursday, January 19. For details, visit www.curriculumconference.com

Further information & resources

  • Knight, Chater, Hawkes &Waters: On the Subject of Values and the Value of Subjects, John Catt Educational, 2022: https://bit.ly/3FXYxWP
  • Pinker: Rationality: What it is; why it seems scarce; why it matters, Penguin Random House, 2021.


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