In his introduction to a new column, Dr Graham Haydon focuses on choice and discusses how the decisions we make influence our everyday life.

Being able to choose for ourselves is something that most people value. But how far can we choose what to value? The question is important for teachers of PSHE, because PSHE puts weight on young people learning to make their own, informed, choices.

In Britain in the 21st century we live in a world in which no one’s life is mapped out for them in advance. As adults we can’t rely on the state, our teachers, our parents or anyone else to provide what is best for us; whether we like it or not, we are asked to take responsibility for our own choices. As consumers we choose what to buy, and in more and more aspects of life the mainstream culture encourages us to act as consumers, not just of goods, but of services and even of relationships. We are expected to choose what kind of work we want to do, what kind of food to eat and where to get it from, where to go for health advice or care if we need it, where we want to live, whom we will live with, which school we want our children to go to, and so on.

The value of informed choice

It falls to PSHE, probably more than to any other part of the curriculum, to help prepare young people for life in a world of so many choices. Some of the choices that PSHE should be helping people with will be more or less immediate ones: what subject should I take if I have a particular career in mind? What should I do if someone offers me drugs?  Should I be eating something different and taking more exercise?  We want people to be well informed when they make these choices, because even if we think that more choice is not always better than less, it would be hard to argue that anyone’s choices are better for being based on ignorance.

PSHE should also be able to help prepare young people for the choices they will have to make later in life. Since no one can predict all the possibilities that may come along in future, teachers cannot now give young people all the information they will need. We may be able to give them now skills that will help them in future to find out what they need to know then. But the influence that PSHE can have on students’ future choices is likely to be more through the values that students take with them into their adult lives: those values will underpin what they do with the information when they get it.

But the values students have now will not necessarily be static. People’s values can change through experience and reflection.

Informed choice of values?

Once we recognise that people’s values can change, and when choice is so central to PSHE, it is easy to slip into thinking that people can, and should, choose their own values. But if we are professionally involved in PSHE in any way we should be careful about that idea. It can be difficult to sort out where we can choose and where we cannot, within the whole world of values. But if we can’t think clearly about this, we risk misleading young people about the nature of that world.

If the idea of informed choice is so important, can we extend that idea, and say that people should make an informed choice of what to value, what to put weight on, what to give priority to in their lives?  Can we think of the whole range of values as being like items on a supermarket shelf?

Take that example literally for a moment. If we are serious about informed choice, then we will hope that the consumer doesn’t choose a particular product just because of the attractiveness of its packaging or the image of it presented in the TV ads. The informed customer will be thinking about the fat content and the value for money and the energy consumed in producing the product and so on. In the process, her own system of values may be gradually developing: perhaps she starts to think that organic food is best. But that opinion is not the result just of information. It rests on some underlying values that were there before; perhaps she already thought it was important that her family should be healthy and that the environment should not be spoiled. Without some underlying values like those, the information by itself would mean nothing.

That shows what is wrong with the idea that anyone could just choose their values, from among a whole range of possible values, like items on the shelf. Without some values to underpin our comparison of one thing with another, we can have no basis for choosing at all.

What are the limits on our choices?

PSHE needs young people to be aware of their own values and reflect on them; but when they do that, what happens will often be more like discovering what it is that they really value, rather than choosing what to value. PSHE also needs young people to take account of what matters to other people. So when it comes to values, there are limits on our choice. Much of this column over the coming months will be about exploring those limits. When we have to make up our own minds, how should we do that? And when we have to accept values that are not of our own choosing, what is the basis for that?

Useful websites

Action on Smoking and Health  www.ash.org.uk

British Humanist Association www.humanism.org.uk

Eatwell  www.eatwell.gov.uk

Frank www.talktofrank.com

Institute for Global Ethics  www.globalethics.org

Schools Health Education Unit  www.sheu.org.uk

TACADE www.tacade.com

SAPERE  http://sapere.org.uk

Dr Graham Haydon is course leader, MA in Values in Education, Institute of Education,  University of London. He is author of Education, Philosophy and the Ethical Environment, RoutledgeFalmer (2006).

First published in Learning for Life, September 2006

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