You will have seen in the newspapers that David Cameron believes that a failure to promote ‘British values’ in a muscular way is allowing extremism to grow in the UK. The Department for Education has launched a consultation on strengthening powers to intervene in schools that are failing to actively promote British values. Those values are defined as:
- the rule of law
- individual liberty
- mutual respect
- tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs
These proposals have caused some controversy, with some people asking what is peculiarly British about these values and others wondering whether those in public life can demonstrate adherence to such values. On the whole, however, it is probably accepted that an exploration of these values – how they have grown up and become important to us – would constitute a valuable classroom session.
What such a session would not do, however, is to change significantly the values (or beliefs) of the students. We say that because, although beliefs can change throughout life, there is evidence that by the age of 6 or so, most people’s core belief systems are pretty well formed. They are formed by their experiences in the early years, by interactions with family, friends, etc. The students about whom we are concerned most certainly have belief systems, although most of them probably aren’t used to thinking about it in those terms.
That led us to think that we could contribute something useful by developing a classroom exercise for Years 8 or 9, to slot into PSHE/Citizenship classes, which would help students to see their own belief systems more clearly and to ponder on the implications of those beliefs for how they behave.
In order to do that, we decided to use a tool called Mind Mapping. Mind Mapping is a way of visually organising information. It’s an incredibly useful tool and once the students have learned how to do it (which is very easy) they’ll be able to use it in all sorts of ways. Mind Mapping is a technique invented by Tony Buzan, using linked ideas, illustrations, key words and colour to enhance recall, creativity and to streamline the taking of notes. Here’s how it works. One takes a blank piece of paper and, at the centre, makes an image that represents the topic of the Mind Map. From that central image, one draws the main branches. These show the topics – think of them as being like the chapter headings in a book. One writes the title of each branch along the line. Then one can add a second layer of branches, showing thoughts triggered by each of the main topics. If you wish, you can add a third and fourth layer of branches as ideas occur to you.
To show the students what that looks like, we have created a Mind Map called ‘Me and My World’, for an imaginary lad named John. This is a representation of the places in which John spends his time and the people with whom he spends his time. Then we are going to ask the students to draw their own ‘Me and My World’ Mind Map, as we did for John. They will do this by putting themselves at the centre of the map, then making a branch for each of the main places they go to and, at the end of each of the main branches, making a new branch for each person or group of people they meet there. The main purpose of this map will be to familiarise the students with the technique of Mind Mapping but it will also have the benefit of drawing out the inter-connectivity and interdependence of community life.
Then we intend to move on to beliefs. Firstly, we shall explain that by a belief we mean a feeling that something is good, right, or valuable. We shall give a couple of examples: faith, generosity, honour. We shall ask the students to call out words that describe beliefs, stressing that, at this stage, we are not looking for beliefs that they necessarily hold strongly. We are just compiling a list of beliefs that people may hold. The intention is to familiarise them with the concept. Then we shall invite the students to take a new sheet of paper and put themselves at the centre. We shall ask them to choose half a dozen or so beliefs that mean a lot to them and to create a branch for each of them. We shall tell them that they don’t have to choose from the list that we’ve made, which was intended to get them thinking. We shall say that what matters is that they choose beliefs that are important to them. Then we shall look at behaviours. We shall ask the students to call out words that describe behaviour, such as hard-working, pleasant, kind. We shall then ask the students to add behaviours to their Mind Maps: off of each of the branches where they have shown their beliefs, they will add subsidiary branches that show what sort of behaviour they think would demonstrate and be consistent with that value. They don’t have to choose from the list we generated in the classroom, they should choose behaviours that flow from their beliefs.
We shall show the pupils a Mind Map that we have created for an imaginary student, so that we can have a discussion about beliefs and behaviour.
We shall invite the students to have a look at their own Mind Maps. Those maps tell them how they should behave, based on an exploration of their own beliefs. We shall stress the importance of knowing oneself and behaving in a way that is true to oneself. We shall tell them that if they find themselves in a situation where they can’t behave in that way, they’re probably in the wrong place and need to get out of it.
In subsequent sessions, we intend to involve parents, teachers, community leaders, etc, to explore the relationship between an individual’s beliefs and community belief systems and to discuss how students can cope when they come into contact with people whose beliefs may be very different from their own.
We feel that an approach that helps student to recognise and express their own belief system and to relate that to societal values is likely to have a deeper and more constructive effect than a mere recital of those societal values. Whilst there may be much to be gained from explaining to students the mutual benefits that flow from a shared observance of societal values, the lesson will be learned more powerfully if we can demonstrate that the sort of behaviour that is being proposed is actually consistent with the student’s own belief system.