Eoin Lenihan discusses how to ensure theory meets practice when teaching values, using collaboration and empathy as tool.

Typically, State curriculum documentation is designed around three core elements - Values, Skill and Knowledge. The latter two are well known to every teacher, making up the bulk of their daily planning, instruction and stress. The former, however, is almost universally neglected in the classroom, thought of as a collection of nice sentiments but ultimately too ephemeral in the era of PISA and increased narrowing of academic expectation to STEM subjects. The Values element in curriculum documentation will typically take the form of a preamble and this may be distilled to help inform the Mission Statement and Learning Goals of any school. The problem is that without giving specific space for Values in planning meetings and documentation, there will inevitably exist a disconnection between theory and practice. Values will simply remain slogans used for advertising and official documentation but they will not inform daily action in the classroom. By explicitly planning for and teaching Values in the classroom, student understanding and school community is enriched mightily.


The International Baccalaureate Organisation’s (IBO) Mission Statement for all schools reads: “The International Baccalaureate Organisation aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” This Mission Statement should underpin all daily actions at the International School of Augsburg (ISA), Germany. Preparing, then, for a Unit of Inquiry on WW1, certain elements of the Mission Statement, i.e. “caring”, “more peaceful world” and “intercultural understanding”, seemed especially relevant. It was an interesting concept to challenge students to be “caring” and understanding of people that they had never met, who had lived and died long before they were born. The purpose of this study shifted from being simply a factual study of WW1, to fostering empathy in students for others regardless of space and time. These aims aligned neatly with ongoing attempts to guide children towards the upper echelons of what Maslow (2011) defines as “self-actualisation”:


It is an overcast Friday morning and 30 Grade 8 students sit cross-legged in a circle in the corridor outside of their Humanities room. Inside, Elisabeth Feist, a talented hobby artist and mother of one of the students, is being assisted by Melanie Thalhofer and Catharina Brecht, also mothers. They have transformed the room. It is no longer a classroom but a theatre for action. Outside, there is a focused silence. The students must place themselves in the trenches of WW1. They have assessed the facts, now they must articulate empathy. The door opens and students enter in small groups. They take their places beside large foam canvases that will, by the end of the day, be fixed together in a large mural that will tell the story of war and those who experienced it. Elisabeth explains that they must move beyond symbols, from simply seeing a gun, to seeing the damage done by a gun: a son lost, a father lost, a future doctor, artist, leader gone. This is not art nor is it history; it is empathy and something special is about to occur.

students collaborating with art

Students collaborate to express empathy.


Low strains of classical music play softly and the room is indeed transformed. Students take up their places in set pairings – based on who they believed would be a good emotional partner. Elisabeth explains the process of abstract art and asks only that the students experiment with tools and emotions. All will have to be completed in one day. As work begins there is little evidence of conflict in accommodating two students, complete with differing emotional attitudes and interpretations of the War, on one canvas. By late morning student voices clutter the room through the vast wheel of colour on display. Having created a base layer of paint on their canvases, students are asked to name the piece and reflect upon it before continuing with the more nuanced aspects of the work. What follows in the captions on the photographs are their personal reflections, which chart a remarkable level of analysis and empathy.


2 students with their art

"Indeed" - The red and yellow represents the quickness of emotion the soldiers felt. The red symbols represents the end of their lives. The lightning shows how quickly it happened. Find the other pictures and captions here


By 14.00 the theatre once more resembles a Humanities classroom and no physical trace of the day’s activities remain except for the paint-speckled students who have remained to help tidy up. They reflect as they shuffle their canvases to the wall. Lukas explains that he was inspired to print a bold peace sign on his because of the graffiti he had seen on the Berlin Wall, a conflict more tangible to him. Steffen points to the steel cage on his and muses on the strength of emotion displayed by men during the war. He is fascinated by the courage that boys, not much older than himself, demonstrated in leaving the safety of a trench to the certainty of death in the field. The symbols of the cross and crescent moon that rise above the cage represent the social and political challenges he fears his generation will face. Anna has noticed a change in how students interact with one another: “I was really happy with my group because our personalities were so different. We created a stunning piece of art. I am so proud of every single student in Grade 8. I don’t remember being so proud in a long time.” Leaving the room it is clear that all students take pride in the fact that it is hope, to greater and lesser degrees, that they have discovered. And it is this hope that students take home.


When a school writes a Mission Statement, it is defining the characteristics that students of that school will carry with them into the world outside of the school gate. In order for a Mission Statement to be meaningful, it is essential that there is a connection between theory and practice and that the Values a school believes in are explicitly taught in the classroom with just as much emphasis as Skill and Knowledge.


Final art piece with students


This piece was written by Eoin Lenihan and originally featured on his website. You can find the original article here.

Eoin and his work can also be found on Twitter and Facebook


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