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Morals in the Classroom

“Do you believe in God?” Mike Richardson was boldly asked this question while an undergraduate student working in a group home for struggling youth in Mona, Utah.  While faith and religion are generally kept out of the classroom, Richardson spoke to the student about God and chose to share his personal beliefs about God and the purpose of life with him.  Mike Richardson, assistant professor in the Teacher Education department at the McKay School of Education, opened his presentation with this personal experience, and continued to discuss the role of values and morality in the classroom on February 25 in the McKay School of Education.

Richardson explained that he felt that the student approached him regarding spiritual matters because his religious and personal values had been reflected in his mannerisms. Values pervade the classroom, and whether they realize it or not, teachers reveal everyday their own personal values in their teaching.  While educators often feel they are supposed to teach in a neutral style, this may be impossible.

Richardson reminded the audience that whether or not we realize it, religious values guide many aspect of the classroom.  How do we address these values?  Or do we? Richardson used the example of how in American culture, stealing something from another’s backpack is considered immoral and bad.  If caught stealing from another’s backpack, a student would be punished.  Why?  Because the notion that stealing is bad stems from a Judeo-Christian value that commands “thou shall not steal.” However, this value may not be universally accepted.  What if a student is from a different culture, one where taking from another’s backpack is viewed more as sharing than stealing?  How does a teacher help a student who is coming from a completely different culture without making explicit the values of their own culture?  A teacher may be imposing Judeo-Christian values on the student that the student may not be familiar with, and so not fully understanding. The question is less whether values do or should exist in the classroom, and more whether and how we make them explicit. Richardson believes a more complete understanding—a common goal in education—requires honest comparison and contrast of different perspectives.

For example, Richardson accepts that the best classrooms are those that are built on democratic values.  However, he believes that it is still important for teachers to recognize and address other points of view even on this issue. Richardson advocated that teachers not exclude conflicting ideas and values but allow them to be brought up and addressed.  Values should not be swept under a façade of neutrality, creating a hidden curriculum, but instead need to be examined and understood. In considering other values, there can be at least two outcomes, explained Richardson.  “One, we can have the possibility for change because we may find that better values exist. And secondly, by addressing the alternatives, we may come out with a deeper understanding of why one’s own values are right and why we live by them.”  So both change and true commitment are made possible by a deeper understanding of one’s own perspectives in light of other points of view. Another positive aspect of open discussion, Richardson believes, is that students will be comfortable sharing their own personal values.  With the goal of understanding different perspectives—rather than imposing one point of view or pretending to have no point of view—students of diverse backgrounds are more likely to both share their perspectives and learn from each other.

Richardson’s presentation ended with a lively open discussion with McKay faculty offering their opinions and insights.  It was enlightening and educational for all in attendance.

12 April 2010