Values in Action and Vice Versa
Toward an Integrated Framework for Jewish Education in the Social and Emotional Domains
There is no shortage of terms for education in the intra- and interpersonal domains. Character education. Moral education. Education for ethics. Whole child. Social-emotional learning (SEL). Values or Middot. Identity. Meaning and purpose. Spiritual development. Positive psychology and Thriving. While there is a place for delving into differences, I suggest that there are areas in which these approaches intersect in ways that either reinforce or complement one another.
What is my rationale for this? To paraphrase a quote that I have heard attributed to both James Comer and Seymour Sarason (if anyone has an original citation, please let me know!), we don’t teach character education (or moral education or values or SEL, etc.), we teach children (or adolescents or adults, etc.). That is, the real lived experience of an individual cannot meaningfully be subdivided into the categories we’ve established to frame our work.
In considering the actual experience of the learner, I find it helpful to think of a number of intersecting elements. While some of these might be more strongly associated with one or another of the subfields of intra- and interpersonal education, I believe it is important to see these as intersecting in the lives of individuals.
A Substrate of Social and Emotional Skills
A comprehensive list of skills that comprise social and emotional functioning would be lengthy, yet it is possible to speak about broad categories such as those iterated by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This list includes self-awareness (e.g., recognizing one’s emotions in a given situation); self-management (e.g., managing stress; staying motivated toward a goal); social awareness (e.g., empathy and perspective taking; reading social cues); relationship skills (e.g., communication skills); and responsible problem solving. As CASEL states on its website: Self-awareness is “the ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms.” Realistic decision-making is “the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.”
A Framework of Values
One might use appropriate skills for inappropriate ends. “Please hand me that pencil” can be followed by “so I can finish my assignment” or “so I can throw it at Yossi.” Values, such as the middot that are part of the resurgent Mussar movement, provide the prescriptive framework for the pro-social uses of these skills. The value of kavod (respect or honor), for example, adds that not only must the skills of “polite requests” be implemented, but also that they be used for the benefit and not the harm of others. At the same time, the skills are the substrate for the enactment of values. Though one might intend to show kavod, a demand of “Gimme!!” would not be taken as such.
Values are strongly linked to social and emotional competencies. In fact, putting values into action often involves using multiple skills in unison, and value-laden situations are, in turn, opportunities to hone social and emotional skills. This applies to even the most seemingly basic cases; asking for a pencil with kavod requires an array of social skills such as choosing the right words and tone of voice, gauging the emotional state of the pencil-possessor to ascertain, among other things, “Is this a good time or does that person seem to want to be left alone?” and “Am I asking for something that the other person may not want to part with?” One needs to control impulses and not grab the pencil or not ask for it if the time is not right.
Welcome to the real world. We all face circumstances in which it is particularly difficult to enact values. In fact, one can say that the Jewish tradition flags some notably challenging situations, making them a part of Jewish practice and thus integral for us to teach as part of one’s Jewish education. Think about bikkur holim (visiting the sick), hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), and kibbud av va’em (respecting parents). In real life, enactment of these practices may involve emotional triggers (our own sadness about a loved one’s illness or the intensity of emotions that characterize parent-child relationships).
Even adults confront situations in which the way to enact values is unclear (e.g., might there be situations in which showing kavod might actually entail refraining from visiting a sick person?), and those in which values conflict (e.g., should we demonstrate achrayut, responsibility, and intervene in an argument, or use savlanut, patience, and hold back?). As such, we can’t show learners the “right way” to handle complex situations. What we can do is scaffold a framework for approaching such situations—considering the values at play and the emotional dimensions involved, planning proactively for social interactions and anticipation of roadblocks to our best intentions, and reflecting afterward to consider how things went.
Integration with Self and Beyond
The exercise of values-guided social and emotional skills and behaviors sometimes seems to run counter to cultural norms. Actions marked by impulsivity and lack of interpersonal consideration may be easier than value- and empathy-driven behavior. To hold fast to this mode of being, one must really value values-guided action in the world. Such behavior would go beyond “what I do” to become part of “who I am.” While this (and the rest) is of course a lifelong process because our identity continually evolves, Jewish educators can promote reflection that allows learners to place their actions in the context of their developmental narratives, which allows them to thrive both within the self and in an interpersonal context. Indeed, this process cannot start and end with “self.” Educational settings are natural places to both develop a sense of community and a sense that having a community is important, as well as how one can act to enhance the overall functioning of that community. One should come to feel connected to something beyond one’s self.
How do we foster growth in values-guided, socially skilled, self-integrated, community-enhancing behavior? Certainly a subject for another essay (or series of essays). For now, two thoughts. First, we aren’t starting from scratch. There are longstanding, research-validated efforts that can inform our work. Second, the best framework for this work may not be teaching or educating. Instead, consider parallels to coaching: When one works intensely with a coach to learn a sport or craft, the goal is a holistic one. Action, abilities, and guiding values must come together; skills, an understanding of how to put them into action, and the ability to actually put them into action under stressful situations are all intertwined. As is, ultimately, a sense that the sport or craft is central to how one defines one’s self, and one’s responsibility to the team. Good coaches motivate, model, and promote practice and reflection, and they always remember that the players and the situations in which they find themselves are constantly evolving.
Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress is the Bernard Heller Associate Professor of Jewish Education and director of the Research Center at the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.