Friday, February 12, 2016

Exploring Personal Values to Promote Critical Thinking, Mindfulness, and Empathy

In this article, I share a classroom unit that facilitates exploration of culturally based values, value clashes, and the shift of values with experience, age, and circumstance. The unit leads students to make choices upholding what's most important to them and provides tools for successful cross-cultural communication. First published in NCTE’s The English Journal, July 2015. Vol. 104, No. 6, 61-67. Print.

         Several years ago, while designing a media literacy activity for my high school English class, I came across a list of 418 value words on Steve Pavlina’s website, “Personal Development for Smart People” (“List of Values”).  I printed this list for my students to use when analyzing advertisements.  I wanted students to discern that when a watch advertisement uses a picture of JFK along with his quote, “We choose to go to the moon,” they are receiving a message that Ambition and Striving should be important to them.  My students found this task difficult.  I discovered that for them to think critically about what the media was telling them should be important, they first had to spend time thinking about what values meant in their own lives.  They had to explore which values their parents, teachers, and cultures had embedded in them, and identify examples of how they expressed these values in their lives.  Finally, they had to ask themselves, what is important to me?
         In recent years, Values-based Education has become increasingly common.  While headmaster at a school in Oxfordshire, Dr. Neil Hawkes pioneered a version of Values-based Education in his school community, and then founded the International Values-based Education Trust.  Hawkes now works as an international education consultant “leading 'a quiet revolution' to support hundreds of schools to be values-based,” and has helped the Australian government introduce Values-based Education into its schools (VbE: Values Based Education).  In his model, ethical vocabulary, such as Respect, Courage, Honesty, Compassion and Integrity, is introduced to young children with the expectation that embracing these values will elicit positive dispositions and self regulation.  Hawke reports that such an approach “improves student and teacher wellbeing, academic diligence, the teaching and learning environment, student-teacher relationships, and partial parental and family participation” (VbE: Values Based Education).
         Using Pavlina’s list of values and an adolescent-appropriate adaptation of Hawke’s approach, I created a Values Unit in which students explore their culturally-based values, value clashes, and the notion that values shift with experience, age, and circumstance.  The unit builds rapport between the students and myself, establishes my classroom as a safe place to take risks and celebrate sharing, and leads to their first major writing assignment. Ultimately, students will write an essay answering the question, “Which three values define you most?
         I begin by putting students into pairs and giving them the list of values. I ask them to figure out what these words have in common. If they are stuck, I ask them to start with what part of speech the words are, and then whether they are abstract or concrete nouns.  Dr. Hawke argues that we cannot assume that the vocabulary of values will be introduced to children unless schools include it in their curriculum (VbE: Values Based Education). Students typically come up with, “characteristics,” “ways to describe people,” and “beliefs.”  Finally, we arrive at the definition of a value: something a person thinks is important in life. 
         We then discuss where values come from. Are we born with them, or do we learn them?  From where do we learn them? Students easily come up with family members, friends, and teachers. I help them see that media and religion also play a role.  When they offer “society” as an answer, I lead them into a discussion about culturally based values.
Since my classes consist of immigrants and international students, this discussion aids their understanding of their experiences in the U.S.
         I preface the discussion by sharing that sociologists have observed that Eastern and Western cultures typically cherish different values.  I share opposing value statements, and ask which statements belong to Western cultures and which belong to Eastern cultures.  For example, two opposing statements are, “Time is the greatest value” and “Relationships are the greatest value” (“Contrast in Values” 1).  For each statement, I present a scenario.  For this one, I tell a story about spending time with my grandmother and how her long-winded story and her continuing to pour tea for me is going to make me late for class.  Do I stay with my grandmother and arrive late to class, or do I cut her off and tell her I need to go because I am going to be late?  If Relationships are more important to me than Time, I will choose to stay with her until she finishes her story and we drink our tea.  If Time is more important to me, I will interrupt her, and tell her I need to go. Of course, there are other values clashing here as well, such as Family vs. Education.  It is difficult to narrow down a dilemma to just two opposing values, but still, it is not hard for students to decide which choice they would make depending on their cultural upbringing. They don’t hesitate to answer that Americans or Western cultures typically value Time above Relationships.  We come up with examples of the importance of Time in the United States: a teacher marks you tardy to class if you are five minutes late, workers are expected to produce as much as possible in as short a time as possible, lunch breaks are clocked, and we are annoyed if traffic makes us late or if we have to wait more than five minutes for a friend to meet us.
         I have also facilitated this discussion using Yang Liu’s “East Meets West” minimalistic visualizations, in which a series of pictures compares Eastern and Western tendencies on societal aspects such as Attitude Towards Punctuality, Independence vs. Dependence, Waiting in Line, and Problem-Solving Approach (Liu “East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu”).  Yang Liu based these drawings on her observations from living in both China, where she was born, and Germany, where she has lived since she was fourteen.  Each picture is divided into a blue background (The West) and a red background (The East), and contains a caption. 
Independent vs. Dependent: 

Attitude Towards Punctuality: 

Problem-Solving Approach: 

Waiting in Line

I put students in groups and hand out several different pictures with the captions removed; their task is to figure out what the visualizations are depicting.  Eventually, students discern that the blue background pictures represent The West, and the red represent The East.  Students enjoy this activity very much, and the classroom is filled with laughter of recognition and a sense of affirmation of the cultural differences they’ve noticed and felt while living in the U.S.  It is important to remind students that the pictures are broad generalizations, and that no culture fits perfectly into either the red or blue categories, but that it’s interesting to note tendencies and patterns.  In fact, Liu herself expressed that these depictions were “only based on personal experiences” in the 26 years she’d lived in both countries (“Interview with Artist Yang Liu – East Meets West”). 
         After this discussion of our culturally based values, students begin their prewriting activities for the essay, starting with a Values Survey.  This survey asks students to circle five values from the Values List and rank them in order of personal importance.  Then they must answer questions such as:
·  How can these values be recognized in your culture? Give specific examples.
·  What are the sources of these values- parents, media, teachers, religion, etc.?
·  Select one source and one value and explain the connection between the two.
Because I assign this for homework and it can be a difficult first exercise, I share with them a model of my own answers.  I pick Integrity, Adventure, Creativity, Mindfulness, and Balance.  In answer to the question about how these values can be recognized in my culture, I explain that since American culture celebrates Individualism, I have been taught to value my uniqueness and to express my true self to others, which is probably where I learned to value Integrity.  Also, Fitness is important in American culture, so my sense of Adventure, which entails rock climbing and skiing, partly stems from this cultural emphasis.  For the last question which asks me to connect a value and source, I choose my parents as a source of my Integrity, and write a few sentences about how my mother always said, “The truth comes out eventually,” which taught me to be pro-actively honest with others.
         When students return the next day with this prewriting activity completed, I put them into small groups to answer several discussion questions.  I ask them if they notice any similarities or differences in the values they chose, or patterns based on age, gender, or culture.  This activity works well in groups where some similarities are found, but not so well in groups where everyone chose different values.  However, a few interesting theories arose which led to a whole class discussion.  For instance, one young Asian man said, “Both Asian males in our group have Talent or Skillfulness as one of his values, and in our Asian cultures, the man provides for the family, so it is important he is good at something.”  Another group noted that the Asian members of their group had written Courtesy or Respect, and that Respect is an important cultural value in the East.  In one group, the oldest student mentioned that he chose Love while his group members did not, and that perhaps because the others were younger, they didn’t feel the need to meet a partner and create a family yet.
         In a group containing Asian and Middle Eastern students, one student commented that they all had chosen Family; as a class, we discussed how this value was higher on the hierarchy of values in Eastern cultures than in Western cultures. When I implemented this activity in my monocultural classroom in Turkey, 85% of the students chose Family as one of their top values.  In contrast, I gave them the example of myself.  While Family is important to my American family, it is not as important as Career and Passion.  This can be seen by the fact that my family members are all living in opposite ends of the country due to where our jobs and interests took us, whereas families from Eastern cultures typically stay in the same town and maybe even house.
         An additional activity is to ask your students to poll their parents and grandparents for which five values are most important to them. Ask your students to reflect on the similarities and differences between the values they selected and those of their parents and grandparents, and to draw some conclusions based on variables such as age and gender.  In my Composition course, these activities serve as brainstorming for their essays, and later, they will use some of this material to write their introduction and conclusion paragraphs.
         While students are planning their essays, I supplement our in-class instruction of essay writing skills with an online discussion on values.  Since our course is hybrid, that is, 25% of the instruction is online, I can use our online learning space, CANVAS, to ensure they continue to think critically about the topic.  I post an excerpt from Pavlina’s website called “Reexamining Your Values,” in which he writes that we don’t have to continue living the same values throughout our whole lives (“Living Your Values”). 
In the online discussion, I ask students:
·  Do you agree with the author that it is possible to consciously change your values?  How can one do it?
·  Would you ever want to change your values from the ones you were raised on? Why?
·  Have you had any experiences that caused you to change your values? Describe one.
         The level of critical thinking this article elicited impressed me.  No one disagreed with the author, and they seemed to understand the subtleties of re-examining one’s values.
         Overall, the students unanimously concurred that “People's values will change by the changing of circumstance[s]... When you live in a new environment, you need to get used to it [by] changing your important values,” as one student commented.  Many of my students could relate to this concept, as they are international students who have just experienced a major change in life circumstances that has naturally caused them to re-examine what is important to them.
         At this point in my Composition course, I proceed from the prewriting activities to their essay planning.  Now that they’ve explored parental and cultural influences on their values, I remind them of the culminating essay question: Which three values define you most?  I ask my students to create a Mind Map for their three top values.  I encourage them to explore these items:
·  their personal definitions of each value
·  the sources of their values
·  examples of how the values express themselves in their lives
·  why they think these values are important
I share with them my own Mind Map as a model: 
From here, we move on to idea development and essay organization, and they continue with the planning, writing, peer editing, and revising process as they produce their final essay draft.
         In their Final Drafts, students, for the most part, were able to provide concrete examples to support their generalizations.  For instance, one student illustrated her Optimism with her daily morning practice of reading from the book, Daily Life of Positive Questions.  She shared a quotation that inspires her to smile when she gets out of bed every morning.  Another student illustrated Love with, “In my family, since we think that the chicken legs are the best part of the chicken, my parents always saved the chicken legs for me when I was a child. Today, I will give the best part to my little brother who is nine years old. At that moment, the chicken legs represent my love.”  No matter how trivial the detail seems, when incorporated as a specific supporting example, it expresses so much about the value’s importance to the writer.
         In addition, students incorporated insightful connections between their personal values and their country’s historical values.  For instance, one student wrote about Taiwan, “The country I was born [into] has been fighting alone [to declare] self-independence to the world for years. Inside my heart, Independence is a symbol to show others your merit in this society. I was trained by my parents to be an independent child, not to rely on [anything] or [anyone] and never get beaten by anything.”  She then shared a story about how her father told her she had to buy her ticket back home when she was studying abroad in Switzerland. Even though he had enough money to help her, he was instilling in her a sense of independence. “If you [can] buy the cheapest flight to Hong Kong by yourself, then you may come back,” he told her, which she was able to do. 
         I was also pleased with how students incorporated the prewriting activities and discussions in their introduction and conclusion paragraphs. When brainstorming hooks to use as their first sentences, we discussed analogies as a possibility.  I asked students to finish this sentence: “Values are like...”  Student responses included, “Values are like GPS.  They guide us when we are lost,” and “Values are like hair. You can change the style and color when you need a change.”  This prompted a discussion on whether values can be changed so easily and flippantly.
         On the last day of the unit, when I asked students to reflect in an “Exit Slip,” they expressed that this was a very interesting, personally useful topic that aids in cross-cultural understanding and communication, and that they enjoyed the opportunity to share with each other.  Many commented on how it was helpful to find out what was important to them:
·  “While I was writing this essay, I thought not only about English, but also about myself; that helped me to focus on the reason why I came here.”
·   “Now I know myself more than before.”
Several students noted that being conscious of their values changed the choices they made in their daily lives, and some expressed that writing about their values increased their confidence:
·  “I became more confident in myself, and started to [be] aware [of] more details of myself in daily life.” 
·  [Realizing I have a lot of values made me] “feel more valuable to the world.” 
         It was especially heart-warming to read their comments about the cultural awareness they gained from the unit:
·  “I realized that many people in Asia have the same values.”
·  “I learned that people can have similar values even though there are [a] hundred personalities out there.” 
·  “Sometimes I did not understand someone’s actions or decisions, but now I realize that perhaps this person was guided by a different set of values.” 
·  “If I [didn’t] write about this topic, it [would be] very hard for me to know how to live and behave with other people.” 
From these responses, I envisioned a second possible essay assignment, in which students explore how their new awareness of values promoted better understanding of themselves and improved their relationships with others.  Students’ realizations that others’ actions are based on different values can give them the understanding and empathy they need to respect others’ decisions.  In my classroom, I glimpsed a more socially just and harmonious society - one dominated by self-awareness, critical thinking, and empathy for others.
           In a classroom with a different composition than mine, such as a homogenous group of American high school students, who do not have the opportunity to interact with students bearing different cultural values, exposing them to multi-cultural literature may act as a substitute.  For instance, two particular essays from NPR’s “This I Believe” compare the Eastern emphasis on duty to one’s family and country to the Western emphasis on following one’s dreams and passions.  These nicely paired essays are “Do What You Love” by Tony Hawk, an American man who became a professional skateboarder when he was 14 years old, and “A Duty to Family, Heritage, and Country” by Ying Ying Yu, a 13-year old Chinese immigrant girl who chose the career path of a lawyer over gardener to please her parents and country.  Discussion or essay questions may include:
·  Do you agree with Hawk’s claim that if we do what we love, we may never become rich or famous, but we will be happy? Why or why not?
·  How do you feel about Yu’s claim that dreams are illusions?
·  What is your philosophy of happiness?
         Regardless of the demographic make-up of your classroom, value exploration leads to students making conscious choices that uphold what’s most important to them, and gives them the tools for successful cross-cultural communication.  Ultimately, the purpose of the final essay assignment, What three values define you most?, is to increase awareness of how our values instruct our actions.  As a result, students may act with more intention, both in their interactions with others who may have different values, as well as during decision-making.  Dr. Hawkes states, “When we actively engage with values we start to understand their implications for making choices and our attitudes and responses (VbE: Values Based Education).
         As adolescents face difficult decisions, they can pause to ask themselves, What is most important to me?  Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), a form of mindfulness-based therapy founded in the 1980s and recently highlighted by the media again, helps individuals clarify their personal values in order to inform their actions.  ACT founder, Steven C. Hayes, states, “We’ve shown this in several studies, that if you are more open to your feelings, more aware, more mindful, and more linked to your values, you will be more empowered to step up. We’re doing that now with racial minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities and also with a message for those who are in a majority status who care about these issues” (“Steven Hayes on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)”).  Echoing Hayes, Daniel Siegel, clinical professor and founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, gives this advice to parents of teenagers: “One way to support your adolescent… is actually instead of just telling them what not to do, [is] to get them in touch with what’s positive in their own values” (“Brainstorm: The Power…”).    
         While implementing the Values Unit, I suggest you do the activities alongside your students.  Not only will your students be provided with model assignments and feel a sense of connection to you, but you will feel just as empowered as your students by reflecting upon your own values.  You can start now with Steve Pavlina’s list of 418 values.  He suggests you begin by checking off the values that resonate with you in order to develop a clearer sense of what's most important to you in life.  Getting in touch with our values can develop an internal compass to “guide us – and the spears we throw and fires we make – in ways that are helpful for ourselves, others, and the wider world in which we live” (Siegel, “Teen Brains, Danger…”).

Works Cited
“Contrast in Values.” Uskudar American Academy, Istanbul, Turkey.  20 August 2012.
         Presented at SEV New Teacher Orientation. Print.
Hawk, Tony. “Do What You Love.” This I Believe. NPR. National Public Radio. July 24,
2006. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <
Hawkes, Neil. VbE: Values Based Education. International Values-based Education
Trust. Web. 22 Sept. 2014. <
Hayes, Steven. Interview by Tony Rousmaniere. “Steven Hayes on Acceptance and
Commitment Therapy (ACT).”, 2013.
Liu, Yang. “East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu.”  Web. 21 Sept. 2014.
Liu, Yang. “Interview with Artist Yang Liu – East Meets West.” Nee Hao: British
Chinese and East Asian Culture. Jan. 7, 2014. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.
Pavlina, Steve. “List of Values.” Personal Development for Smart People. Web. <http:/
Pavlina, Steve. “Living Your Values, Part I.”  Personal Development for Smart People.
         Web. 21 Sept. 2014. <
Siegel, Daniel. "Brainstorm: The Power And Purpose Of The Teenage Brain." Interview
by Diane Rehm. The Diane Rehm Show. WAMU American University Radio
88.5, Washington, DC, January 6, 2014.
Siegel, Daniel J. “Teen Brains, Danger, and Dopamine: Mindsight and our Internal
Compass.” TED Weekends. Huffington Post, Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.
Yu, Ying Ying. “A Duty to Family, Heritage and Country.” This I Believe. NPR. National
Public Radio. July 17, 2006. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <

Author Biography:
Caroline N. Simpson, M.Ed. (University of Montana, 2006), is an international educator who has taught in the U.S., Turkey, and Spain. She currently teaches English for Academic Purposes and ESL at Edmonds Community College, Lynnwood, WA. You may reach her at

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