Considering the Role of Values in Public Policy


One of our mandates as teachers is to help students become active citizens by entering into the national dialogue on public policy issues. Consideration of values is central to these discussions. However, some students enter the discussion unsure of what is meant by values. This simple values exercise can clarify the concept and allow the student to move forward.

Although we probably do not all work from the very same value system, we do tend to share some values or beliefs. It is because we prioritize those we have in common differently, and mix them with others that we do not share, that we often disagree on policy steps. Thus, beneath our disagreements on public policy choices we can often find areas of common ground. Identifying this is helpful as we try to understand the views of others and work together to find ways to form policy despite our seeming disagreement.

If you need a concrete, real–life example of how competing interests and values shape U.S. foreign policy, we recommend this short, student-friendly article concerning the role that Taiwan plays in U.S.-China relations. Why Are We Still Talking About Taiwan is reprinted, with permission, from Education About Asia Magazine, Volume 17, Number 3, Winter 2012.


Values Cards

In the Classroom

Print the Values cards found in the Resources section. You can print them on cardstock or regular paper. Cut them into small cards, and give each student a complete set of cards in an envelope or a small plastic bag. So each student now has in front of him/her a set of cards with the following values on them:

Have them separate their sheet into individual cards. Read two values and instruct students to put these two cards in order, with the one on top being the one they consider most important. Read a third. Now have them reorder their list. And so on until each student has a stack of ten organized in order of priority to him or her. (They will be arranging them as they might a hand of cards.) Pause to let them reorder them if they wish. You may also want to invite them to add one or two that were not on the list.

When they have finished, ask the students if they found this easy or hard. What was hard? Some of these values will be easy to prioritize. Others will involve trade-offs that make prioritizing very difficult. This is the point of the exercise. And different students will probably have difficulty with different choices. You may want to ask for a couple of volunteers to tell about their lists.

Take one or two and carry them back to core values, e.g., What is it about democracy that you value?

You may find that, for some people, one or two of these are core values. For others, those same values may be secondary to other, more foundational values.

You will find that some of these words can mean different things to different people. Some students may want to argue over meaning. Since the object of the exercise is to get students thinking about the values they hold, the words can carry different meanings for different people and still hold together as an exercise. Don't let this bog you down. The purpose of this short exercise is only to raise the issue of values in public policy and demonstrate that making choices among values is not always easy.

This activity can be used as an introduction to any of the curriculum units developed by The Choices Program. It is particularly useful for units addressing current topics or any of those in Teaching with the News.