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The value of a cognitive approach towards values education

Written by: Jonathan Beale
11 min read

The best way to teach values is to provide a culture embodying the values to be learned, in which students become habituated into ways of life that develop characters possessive of such values. Values education is, therefore, best approached by embedding values within a school’s culture. This is not a cognitive exercise; rather, character traits are developed which reflect values. What, then, is the role for a cognitive approach towards values education – e.g., where values are part of a curriculum?

This article argues that even if we accept the points above, a cognitive pedagogical approach plays an important role in values education. An important component of values education is providing students with the best tools and methods for reaching independent critical judgements about their beliefs. Logic and critical thinking offer the best skillset for independently critically assessing which beliefs are rationally defensible. This skillset can be used effectively in values education by teaching critical thinking and applying it to fields where the values and beliefs that influence the ways we live are often acquired.

One such field is religion. The article outlines a course and teaching methodology the author has designed which integrates a study of critical thinking with living religions, using the latter as the subject matter to which the concepts and methods of the former are applied. Among the benefits of this approach is that it equips students with the skills to reach independent critical judgements about their beliefs.

1. Values and character

How should we teach values? This takes us to a perennial philosophical question addressed by Plato: ‘Can virtue be taught?’. This article assumes that virtue can be taught but emphasises how difficult it is and draws connections between the development of virtue and the teaching of values. These are perhaps best addressed through the ideas of Aristotle rather than Plato, as at the core of Aristotle’s moral philosophy are the questions of what constitutes the most virtuous life and how to reach it.

In his Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle offers a conception of the good life – ‘eudaimonia’, meaning, roughly, human flourishing – centred around cultivating a virtuous character. This requires rigorous practice, such that virtuous practices become habits. Through habituation, virtues can become character traits. When virtues are constitutive of one’s character, one is a virtuous person. To be a tolerant person, for instance, one must rigorously practise being tolerant over many years, learning from those whose characters manifest excellent examples of tolerance. Through such practice, tolerance becomes a habit; through habituation, tolerance becomes a character trait.

Values are distinct from virtues; but the two are intimately connected. Virtues are not always a manifestation of values – someone could come across as polite, for instance, without endorsing the value of politeness. But values are often manifest as virtues and, for the virtuous person, their virtues reflect or are a manifestation of their values. A person is, therefore, more able to develop virtues with the corresponding or underlying values in place.

Values education aims to improve a person’s character such that they become virtuous (or more so) and their virtues reflect important values. When we educate students about values, we aim to inculcate values within them. Through inculcation, values education aims to cultivate virtuous persons. Values education is, therefore, closely related to character education.

A lesson we can learn from Aristotle is that teaching values requires far more than classroom lessons. To develop a character possessive of any value, a student needs to practise activities indicative of the values to be learned across contexts over a long time. It helps significantly if the student is a participant in a culture embodying these values. The best environment to acquire the values to be learned and develop the virtues reflective of such values includes people whose characters and ways of life manifest those values and virtues.

To successfully teach values a school must, therefore, do much more than teach about values. Values have to be embedded within a school’s culture. Values, when successfully embedded throughout school life, help students’ character development and help students to flourish.

That is the approach towards teaching values most likely to achieve the objective of cultivating virtuous persons. It is the most difficult to achieve, because it requires the support of a school’s entire culture.

2. Explicit values education

A second approach towards teaching values is what we might call ‘explicit values education’: the more straightforward approach of teaching values in the classroom. But this faces the limitation that the teaching of values is far from straightforward. Values are things in which we believe, manifested through our characters, often taking the form of fundamental principles which guide our conduct and in which our worldviews are rooted. Values education therefore requires a more holistic pedagogy, central to which is the first approach towards teaching values.

Explicit values education often takes place in tutor group lessons. Such lessons face significant hurdles in meeting the aim of cultivating virtues, such as little time; no homework requirements; few means of assessing the extent to which values have been learned; the teacher often not having expertise in values education; and the lessons often functioning as part of a mixed programme, much of which is not values education.

It is extremely unlikely that explicit values education, if taken as the only or predominant approach towards teaching values, can cultivate virtuous persons. By contrast, the first approach can cultivate virtues, even if it is the only approach taken. Values can be taught and virtues can be cultivated without explicit values education.

Notwithstanding the limitations facing explicit values education, this is an important part of values education. It is important to teach students what, for example, democracy is and why it matters, and to discuss its strengths and weaknesses. But explicit values education plays a supporting role to the first way of teaching values, since the ultimate aim is to cultivate virtuous persons.

3. The role of critical thinking in values education

A third approach towards teaching values concerns the role of critical thinking in values education. An important component of not only a good values education but a good education in general is developing the skillset to make rational, independent, critical judgements about values and beliefs.

Critical thinking is the elementary study of arguments and reasoning, fundamentally concerned with the way arguments are structured and produced. It aims to develop skills in extracting, analysing, constructing and evaluating arguments.

Critical thinking involves studying the following areas, among others:

  • the distinction between arguments, rants, explanations and information;
  • the structure of an argument, its constituent parts and their roles (premises, conclusions and intermediate conclusions);
  • extracting an argument using indicator words and phrases to identify premises (e.g. ‘because’) and conclusions (e.g., ‘so’);
  • joint and independent reasoning;
  • evaluating arguments by identifying informal fallacies, appeals (e.g., to popularity), and identifying loaded language in arguments;
  • necessary and sufficient conditions;
  • the concepts of consistency and inconsistency, and a contradiction;
  • identifying assumptions and enthymemes;
  • assessing the credibility of sources in terms of whether the evidence is reliable;
  • developing and responding to arguments, by counterarguing and constructing counterexamples;
  • argument mapping.

Critical thinking can support values education because it offers a means of teaching students how to critically assess which beliefs are, among other things, ill-founded, inconsistent or unethical. Most importantly, it teaches students how to do this independently. That is especially important when we are concerned with values.

The most fruitful way to address pernicious or potentially pernicious beliefs is to equip students with the skills to reach their own independent critical judgements about such beliefs. If a prejudicial belief is among those beliefs that are partly constitutive of a person’s identity or worldview, teaching someone that the belief is prejudicial without at the same time equipping them with the skills to independently identify and critically evaluate why it is so is likely to be futile, if the ultimate aim is for them to see this for themselves and to no longer assent to the belief or the form of prejudice underlying it. Logic and critical thinking offer perhaps the best skillset we can provide for individuals to independently critically assess which beliefs are rationally defensible.

4. Integrating critical thinking with the subjects where we most often encounter values

To best utilise critical thinking to support values education, it should take as its subject matter those fields where the values and beliefs that underpin worldviews and influence the ways in which we live are most often acquired. The clearest examples of such fields are religious studies and politics. One way to utilise critical thinking to support values education is to integrate it within these fields.

Here are three examples. A course on Christianity might involve studying some of the major contributions to Christian theology and the philosophy of religion of St Augustine. Students might learn about Augustine’s contributions to three Christian doctrines, by reference to Augustine’s City of God: the church and sacraments; grace; and the Trinity. They might study Augustine’s attempt to reconcile a literal interpretation of Genesis with the evil in the world, in his theodicy arguing that evil is the privation of good.

Concomitantly, students could engage in a philosophical analysis of the problem of evil, learning about the concepts of consistency and inconsistency, specifically through the context of the inconsistency argued to arise between the divine attributes of omnipotence and supreme goodness, on the one hand, and the existence of evil, on the other (see Mackie, 1955). Students could develop their skills in counterarguing by studying responses to Augustine’s theodicy.

A course on Islam might involve an introduction to key Islamic theologians, including al-Ghazālī (Abū Hāmid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazālī) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Among the topics covered in lessons could be the roles and significance in Islamic scholastic theology (‘Kalām’) of al-Ghazālī and Averroes, such as al-Ghazālī’s contributions to Sufism and Averroes’ historical significance in the perception of Islam in the medieval Christian West. Among the topics covered during the philosophy lessons over those weeks could be a philosophical analysis of the Kalām cosmological argument as it was proposed by al-Ghazālī (see Craig 1979, p. 42-50), and the ‘omnipotence paradox’ facing God’s purported omnipotence as it was addressed by Averroes.

Concomitantly, students could study the structure of the arguments and learn about the concepts employed, such as a paradox, a contradiction and an infinite regress. Students could consolidate their understanding of concepts learned throughout religious studies, such as the divine attributes, including omnipotence and divine perfection.

Texts by the likes of Augustine and al-Ghazālī are unlikely to be core source texts on the majority of secondary school religious studies syllabi. But this integrated method can be applied to more common areas of such syllabi.

For example, one or more of Aquinas’ ‘Five Ways’ would be a staple part of a course on the philosophy of religion, which could be covered during a course on Christianity. During the religion lessons, students could learn about Aquinas’ significance in Christian theology and his contributions to our understanding of the nature of God. In the concomitant philosophy lessons, students could engage in a philosophical analysis of the three fundamental divine attributes (omnipotence, omniscience and supreme goodness) and Aquinas’ ‘Third Way’ of proving God’s existence.

In the lessons on Aquinas’ Third Way, students could be introduced to the concept of a reductio ad absurdum and how it can be used in an argument. Through this, their understanding of the concepts of a self-contradiction and omnipotence can be deepened, as can their understanding of the omnipotence paradox. Their understanding of the problem of evil, the concept of a theodicy and how to respond to the problem of evil by arguing that evil should be understood as an absence can be consolidated, by studying Aquinas’ contributions to these and the development of Augustinian ideas.

5. Obstacles facing the integration of critical thinking into curricula

There are obstacles facing the effective integration of critical thinking into school curricula. In an article offering guidance on the best practices for incorporating critical thinking instructional methods into business education, Lisa Gueldenzoph Snyder and Mark J. Snyder outline four barriers that impede the integration of critical thinking in education: lack of training; lack of information; preconceptions; and time constraints (Snyder and Snyder, 2008).

The integrated method above makes no claim to address the first three of these barriers. But it offers a way of addressing time constraints, in one respect. No additional lessons need to be timetabled to teach critical thinking in the way outlined above. The course can be integrated within existing religious studies curricula. Its integration could perhaps be extrapolated to other subjects where values are studied and acquired, such as politics and history.

Of course, curricula would need to be revised and teacher training might be required. The former of these relates to the barrier of time constraints, the latter to the barrier of lack of training. But the importance of critical thinking skills supports the argument that we should try to overcome these barriers to include it more within secondary education. In addition to playing a role in values education, the skills taught in critical thinking provide students with the ability to solve problems effectively, including social, practical and scientific problems (Shakirova, 2007). Critical thinking skills are valuable both in the workplace and in our personal lives (Snyder and Snyder, 2008).

A difficultly facing values education is assessment. It is extremely difficult to assess through any typical means how much a student has developed a value, since values education involves the development of character. This pedagogical approach does not claim to provide a panacea for overcoming this limitation. It claims to potentially provide a means of measuring how well students have learned a set of philosophical concepts and a method, and applied them to arguments such that they demonstrate the ability to engage in independent critical assessments of arguments.

Concluding remarks

An important component of values education is providing students with the best tools and methods available to enable them to form independent critical judgements about their beliefs. This can be achieved by providing an education in critical thinking and applying it to those fields where the values and beliefs that underpin worldviews and influence the ways in which people live are most often acquired. That is a cognitive exercise. A cognitive pedagogical approach plays, therefore, an important role in values education.

Teaching values is extremely difficult. Less difficult is equipping students with the conceptual tools and methods to independently critically assess their values and beliefs. Although less difficult, this is, arguably, no less important. It provides students with skills to make independent, rational, critical judgements about beliefs and values. This, I argue, is an important part of what we should offer through values education.


This article is based on a blog post for Eton College’s Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning on 24 September 2019, entitled ‘The Role of Critical Thinking in Values Education’. This article and that blog post excerpt from my article forthcoming in Ralph Leighton (ed.), Establishing Citizenship Education: Teachers’ Perspectives (Routledge, 2020). Thanks to Ralph Leighton and Routledge for permission to excerpt.


Aristotle (1984) Nicomachean Ethics. In: Barnes J (ed) The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation (Volume 2). NJ: Princeton University Press.

Aristotle (2011) Eudemian Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Augustine (2003) Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. London: Penguin Books.

Craig WL (1979) The Kalām Cosmological Argument. London: Macmillan Press.

Mackie JL (1955) Evil and omnipotence. Mind (New Series) 64(254): 200–12.

Plato (2005). Meno and Protagoras. London: Penguin Classics.

Shakirova DM (2007) Technology for the shaping of college students’ and upper-grade students’ critical thinking. Russian Education and Society 49(9): 42–52.

Snyder LG and Mark JS (2008) Teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The Delta Pi Epsilon Journal  L(2).

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