Value question protocol
It is not possible nor desirable to provide value-free education. Questions which have a value component must be answered with care -- expressing your own personal values might hurt or offend a child and their family. With some values, it's perfectly appropriate for you to express your opinion:
- Relatively UNIVERSAL values are those shared by 95% of families which the teacher should feel comfortable, and is in fact, OBLIGATED to teach.
Examples of relatively UNIVERSAL values:
- Forcing someone to have sex with you is wrong
- Knowingly spreading disease is wrong
- It's safest and healthiest for school-age kids not to have sex (this is NOT controversial, what IS controversial is when it's fine to have sex)
- Taking care of your reproductive health is important
- Sex between children and adults is wrong
- Adultery is wrong
Values that are CONTROVERSIAL are those without consensus in the community:
- which the teacher should NEVER teach or express a particular belief - providing information or facilitating discussion about the issues is fine.
Examples of CONTROVERSIAL issues that have a wide range of values in the community:
- Birth control
- Sex outside of marriage
- What age/under what circumstances it's acceptable to start having sex
NOTE: Parents, unlike teachers, should feel free to ask your child about his or her beliefs and to share yours. In fact, this sort of dialogue within families is very important. Employees of public schools and other public agencies have an ethical obligation not to side with one family or one religious perspective or one child over another. But children absolutely need a chance -- at home -- to explore feelings and beliefs with adults they love, just as they need a chance to learn factual information and to have universal, community values reinforced at school.
However, just because it's inappropriate in a public school setting to teach particular values on controversial issues, that does not mean one can't teach about the issues. It just means that it must be done with respect for the diversity of opinion within your community. For example, you can discuss abortion - what it is, the fact that it is legal in this country, where abortions are performed, etc., but it is not appropriate to share your beliefs about whether or not abortion is a correct choice.
Therefore, when answering a value question you should follow the values question protocol.
Read (or listen to the question).
- Legitimize the question.
- Identify it as a belief question.
- Answer the factual part, if there is one.
- Help the class describe the community's range of beliefs.
- Refer to family, clergy, and other trusted adults.
- Check to see if you answered the question.
- Leave the door open.
Examples of Value Questions:
Q: I masturbate, is that ok?
A: That's a great question, a lot of kids wonder about masturbation. Masturbation is when a person strokes or touches their genitals for pleasure. I can't share my own beliefs about whether or not it's ok to masturbate because families have really different beliefs about masturbation. Some families believe it's ok, as long as you're in a private place. Other families believe it's never ok. You need to check with your families, or another trusted adult to find out how they feel about it. Have I answered your question? If I didn't, you can leave another question in the box or you can talk to me after class.
You will eventually tailor your use of the protocol, only using every step the first time masturbation, for example, comes up. For now, you should practice the protocol step by step -- until it becomes a natural part of your teaching.
Values Question Protocol in more detail
- Read the question. Verbatim, if you can. Use your judgment, of course, but even reading aloud relatively crude language -- as long as you do it with a serious tone and facial expression -- conveys your respect for the child who asked the question. It is likely to promote respect in return. If the language is too crude to repeat, even with a red face and an explanation ("Someone used slang, but let me read it for you as they wrote it before I translate it."), then don’t read it directly. But when you paraphrase it, make sure you are clear enough that the author of the question will recognize it as his or hers.
- Legitimize the question:
"I am glad someone asked this one."
"That's an interesting question."
"People ask me this one every year."
"This one is really thoughtful/compassionate/imaginative/respectful."
This will encourage your students to keep asking even as it discourages snide remarks about whomever asked that particular question.
- Identify it as a belief question:
"Most of the questions you've been asking have been "fact questions" where I could look up an answer that all the experts agree upon. This one is more of a "value question" where every person, every family, every religion has a different belief."
Teaching your students to distinguish facts from opinions (and from feelings) is at least as important as any content you will convey.
- Answer the factual part, if there is one. Thus, for instance, if the question is about the rightness or wrongness of masturbation, you need to make sure that your class understands that -- values notwithstanding -- no physical harm results from masturbating:
"Before we get to differing beliefs about masturbation, let me just make sure you know it doesn’t cause people to go blind or mentally ill or to grow hair on their palms or anything like that."
Even questions that are fact questions on their face may need a discussion of the underlying values, but always start by answering them:
"Can you get birth control without your boyfriend or husband's knowing? Yes, legally in our state, you can. Now let's talk about the different beliefs people might have about couple's communicating about birth control."
- Help the class describe the community's range of beliefs, not their own.; On sensitive issues such as sex and religion, it can be really unfair (and, in Washington State, illegal) to ask individual students their own beliefs. But it is very appropriate to generalize:
"Tell me some of the things you've heard that people believe about that."
Prompt the group with a stem sentence:
"Some people believe ___?"
"Um, hmm, and some people believe ___?"
In a class that is used to thinking about the range of community values, you will be able to draw a full assortment of answers from the students. In other groups, especially younger ones, you may draw only a dichotomy ("Some people believe abortion is wrong." and "Some people believe it is right.") In any case, your role is two-fold: (1) to make sure that every belief gets expressed -- or paraphrased -- respectfully, hopefully just as the person who believed it might express it and (2) to make sure that a complete a range of beliefs gets expressed, even if you have to supplement the few values the group can think of:
"That's right, some people believe that it is wrong under any circumstances. And some believe it is right under any circumstances, as long as the woman and her doctor think it's best. Some believe it is OK to have an abortion if you have been raped or if your life is in danger, but not otherwise. Some believe, it is OK to have an abortion if there's something seriously wrong with the fetus, and it is doomed to a life of pain. Some think it is best for teens to have abortions, rather than to raise babies when they are still growing up themselves. Others disagree. Some feel it is better to have an abortion if you already have as many children as you can afford or take proper care of. Again, others disagree. They may feel that abortion is the same as murder. Whereas, some people think it is not really a separate human being with rights until it is developed enough to have feelings or until it is actually born."
- Refer to family, clergy and other trusted adults.
"Because people have such different beliefs about this, I really want to encourage you to talk with your families -- your parent or guardian, grandparent, auntie, uncle, stepparent, mom's or dad's partner -- or with somebody at your community of worship, if you attend a church or synagogue or temple -- or with some other adult you love and whose opinions matter to you. That could be your babysitter, your best friend's parent, a counselor, or whomever will listen to your opinions and honestly share theirs. Have a conversation within the next week if you can."
Notice that this encouragement didn't assume that every child has a parent they can talk with. Some may have only be newly in a new foster home and don't yet have that kind of relationship with their new "parents." Also, notice that we shouldn't assume that every child goes to church.
What if the family is likely to convey values that the child will feel hurt by (a teen who has come out to you as gay, for instance, but whose family is strongly opposed to homosexuality)? Still, knowing one's family's beliefs is developmentally important for young people. But help them think of other trusted adults, as well.
- Check to see if you answered the question.
"Is that what you were asking?"
"Do you all think that was what the person who wrote this question was asking?"
- Leave the door open.
"If that isn't what you really wanted to know, you can drop another question in the box. Or come talk with me in private. You can also get a friend to ask it aloud for you or to explain to me what you meant. Just keep asking until I understand and tell you what you need to know."
Finally, if you can do it sincerely, thank the class -- or in a one-on-one situation, the student -- for their maturity or curiosity or compassion or whatever positive qualities the Q & A session has helped them to demonstrate. That will not only increase their retention, it will improve the odds of their repeating the positive behavior on the next occasion.