A Literature-Based Approach to Teaching Values to Adolescents: Does It Work?

Article excerpt

The intentional teaching of morals and values was common in American public education for almost three hundred years and had widespread public support until the 1930s. In recent years there has been a call by some educators for a return to a curriculum that explicitly addresses moral or character education (Kilpatrick, 1992; Wynne & Ryan, 1993). The teaching of character is defined as a central educational responsibility (Wynne & Ryan, 1993) and a way to stem the increase in violent and anti-social behavior which is due, in part, to the "de-moralizing" of our schools and society (Himmelfarb, 1995:16).

Those in favor of including moral or character education argue that if schools work cooperatively and comprehensively with parents and other social institutions, the outcome will be an increase in ethical and proscocial values and behavior (Wynne & Ryan, 1993). Curriculum revision is one of the ways proposed to teach moral or character education (Wynne & Ryan, 1993), with the reading of appropriate literature advocated as a useful technique to "help youngsters grow in courage, charity, justice and other virtues" (Kilpatrick, 1992:268). Administrators like Henry Huffman, an assistant superintendent of schools for Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, have put this philosophy into practice by making character education part of the mission and curriculum of his school system for the past six years (Bates, 1995). According to the Character Education Partnership, a Virginia-based group that promotes the teaching of values in schools, about one out of five schools in the nation offers some sort of character education program (Hart, 1995:1).

Advocacy of the use of a literature-based approach has been growing for the past twenty years in the clinical literature of educational psychology and social work. This technique to enhance self-awareness and reinforce positive attitudes is sometimes called bibliotherapy and more specifically, educational/humanistic bibliotherapy or developmental bibliotherapy (Hynes & Hynes-Berry, 1986) when the facilitator is not a therapist and the participants are students. Although one scholar has cautioned that bibliotherapy has been awarded a "scientific respectability it does not have," and that the application of the technique "far outstrips the tight validating studies supporting its use" (Riordan, 1991:306), numerous articles advocate it. Dana and Lynch-Brown (1991) studied gifted children and concluded that books are helpful in teaching them to relate moral principles to real-life situations. Lindsey and Firth (1981) suggest that books can help students identify with and model appropriate behaviors of real and fictitious characters. Calhoun (1987), Lenkowsky and Lenkowsky (1978), Hebert (1991), Miller (1993) and others advocate using literature as a guide to self-under-standing and a way to improve adolescent self-concept. Others recommend bibliotherapy as an effective deterrent to substance abuse (Bump, 1990; Pardeck, 1991) or as a way to help children deal with parental divorce (Early, 1993) or their own physical abuse (Pardeck, 1990). Each of the articles reports anecdotal evidence about the technique or changes over time in one group of students. Our review of the literature found no studies of bibliotherapy or other literature-based approaches to teaching attitudes, values or character traits which use an experimental design to evaluate the effectiveness of the method. It is this additional data which our study seeks to provide.

METHOD

Study Design

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of a literature-based approach on the extent to which students develop values, one specific value, caring for others, was selected as the dependent variable and an experimental project was designed. Our hypothesis was that reading and guided discussion of books which stress the theme of caring will have an effect on the extent to which students support this value. Because current developmental theories argue that boys and girls typically proceed through adolescence in distinct ways and learn different moral imperatives relative to caring, responsibility, and personal identity (Gilligan, 1982; Bernstein & Gilligan, 1989), a second focus of the research was to explore the differences between male and female students in caring attitudes and in their responses to reading literature with a theme of caring. …