Penned more than a decade ago, the perspectives articulated by Alfie Kohn in his essay “How Not To Teach Values: A Critical Look At Character Education” (here) appear to be antiquated and irrelevant; however, a closer – and really lengthy – inspection of the commentary proves otherwise. Drawing a number of poignant anecdotal examples, he raises five main contentions against popular character development programmes within contemporary education institutions or frameworks, and strongly asserts (emphasis mine):
“What goes by the name of character education nowadays is, for the most part, a collection of exhortations and extrinsic inducements designed to make children work harder and do what they’re told. Even when other values are also promoted – caring or fairness, say – the preferred method of instruction is tantamount to indoctrination. The point is to drill students in specific behaviours rather than to engage them in deep, critical reflection about certain ways of being.”
The positive thing in Singapore– I reckon – is that we do not have the same problems with the nomenclature of character development or building (I am presuming that Civics and Moral Education (CME) and Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) are the Singaporeequivalents). There is on-the-ground scepticism, but most of the suspicion and apprehension are directed – and rightly so, at times – towards the institution of National Education (NE) per se. In the bigger picture, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has made concerted efforts to not just strengthen the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) branch, but also to progressively expand the breadth and depth of specialised programmes offered.
Practical Strategies To Strengthen Moral Education In Singapore
Against this background, I thought it would be interesting to pick out some recommendations postulated by Mr. Kohn in his commentary, and to contextualise them accordingly.
– The move in 2011 by the MOE – and the corresponding CCE unit – to empower teachers with a 195-page toolkit on how to incorporate the teaching of values into regular lessons is encouraging. The 5Ps highlighted were premised upon noble purposes, with the recognition that pedagogies had to be customised for individual students, and that teachers cannot go at it alone. They require all the support from bureaucrats, school administrators and parents.
– Parents and schools should recognise that the results of moral education are not immediate, and that educators might struggle because of the challenging pupil-teacher ratio (here). Teachers presently struggle with a number of demands and expectations given their extensive workload, so additional coordinators within schools or clusters could be a healthy boost.
Teachers And Students
– I think educators themselves would appreciate if they had the opportunities to interact and learn from one another, given the observation that different individuals may have interpretations and methodologies when it comes to moral education. The toolkit can act as a constructive starting point, but sole reliance upon it is meaningless. Teacher Wan Lin from “Reflections About Teaching” (here) asserted the importance of having educators gather to collectively share pointers through MOE-sanctioned platforms. She posited three methods for moral education, through: direct teaching, experiential learning and vicarious learning.
– From the perspective of a student, I know that most schoolchildren turn off automatically when they realise that their educators are becoming excessively didactic (lingo: preachy); however, the methodology per se is not the only potential stumbling block. Content-wise, attention is quickly lost when students are forced to imbibe prescribed moral truths or values, instead of being meaningfully engaged in interactive discussion.
However, this aforementioned point has to be done progressively (cognisant of age constraints and the varying levels of maturity or abilities for expression). I do have my reservations, with regard to students who could be more reticent (and hence uncomfortable with sharing or reflection), and the need to cater programmes for younger students who are just starting out. Because they might lack the necessary confidence and capabilities, the framework should be rendered more flexible so that the educators can customise the approaches for the schoolchildren. An element of didactic instructional inevitable, but they must be nuanced and not pedantically prescriptive.
– Naturally, constant feedback with students and teachers would be necessary; are these discursive mechanisms currently in place?
Community Service And Literature
– Community service (in the form of CIP and SL) provide excellent avenues for moral education. Based on my past experiences, learning outcomes are the most effective when reflection sessions are conducted competently, when students are given space and time to ponder their experiences independently, and when teachers refrain from forcing their students to churn out identical responses (written or spoken). Currently, there might be tendencies to regurgitate model answers – euphemised as being “PC” – to present activities positively. Mr. Kohn reflected that this practice was also endemic in the schools he had visited, sharing that “teachers are encouraged to praise children who respond correctly, and some programmes actually include multiple-choice tests to ensure that students have learned their values.”
This is not to say that there are definitely no right-wrong dichotomies in moral education (some values such as honesty, integrity et cetera do exist), but teachers should not be the ones prescribing these. Students should be given the space to negotiate around considerations, and to arrive at their personal conclusions after elaborate reflection. Teachers merely facilitate.
– Mr. Kohn also suggested the use of literature to teach values; he said (emphasis mine).
“A good example of an existing practice that might be reconfigured is the use of literature to teach values. In principle, the idea is splendid: it makes perfect sense to select stories that not only help students develop reading skills (and an appreciation for good writing) but also raise moral issues. The trouble is that many programs use simplistic little morality tales in place of rich, complex literature.
Rather than employ literature to indoctrinate or induce mere conformity, we can use it to spur reflection. Whether the students are 6-year-olds or 16-year-olds, the discussion of stories should be open-ended rather than relentlessly didactic. Teachers who refrain from tightly controlling such conversations are impressed again and again by the levels of meaning students prove capable of exploring and the moral growth they exhibit in such an environment … (Consider the quality of discussion that might be generated by asking older students to respond to the declaration of playwright Bertolt Brecht: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’).”