August 2017

Values play a key role in creating public policy. What do we believe about ourselves? What matters most to us? When strongly held values come into conflict, which are most important? Some values fit together well. Others are in conflict. People in the United States are constantly forced to choose among competing values in the ongoing debate about public policy. Most often, we think of values in connection with our personal lives. Our attitudes toward our families, friends, and communities are a reflection of our personal values. Values also play an important role in our civic life and influence our political beliefs. Identifying values is a way to understand the views of others, find common ground where it exists, and work together to find ways to form policy.


Students will:

  • Identify and prioritize values they hold.
  • Explore differences openly and engage in constructive civic dialogue.
  • Analyze how values inform perspectives on public policy.


Values Cards

The Activity in Action

Values and Public Policy Activity: Engaging in Civic Dialogue

Note: Be sure to establish a respectful classroom climate by reminding students about the difference between deliberation and debate, as demonstrated in the video above. The classroom provides an opportunity for students to collaboratively explore differing opinions and develop critical thinking skills. You may wish to remind the class that their opinions need not be predetermined by their peers or parents. In addition, how people prioritize values can change depending upon circumstances. Remind students to listen to their classmates with respect and an open mind.

In the Classroom

1. Focus Question

Begin by posing the question, “Why do people disagree on policy?” to the class. Invite students to share their responses. Inform students that in this lesson they will explore how values shape opinions about public policy.

2. Distribute Values Cards

Print and distribute the Values Cards for each student. Everyone should have the following cards:

  • Freedom
  • Diversity
  • Equality
  • Cooperation
  • Security
  • Justice
  • Self-reliance
  • Community
  • Stability
  • Democracy

3. Prioritizing Values

Read two values and instruct students to put these two cards in order, with the one at the top being the one they consider most important. Read a third value. Now have them integrate this into their list. Repeat this process until each student has a column of ten cards organized in a way that reflects his or her priorities.

You may wish to remind students that some of these words can mean different things to different people. Instead of facilitating deliberation over the meaning and importance of the values, guide students to focus on how this activity reveals that differing values make collective decision-making concerning public policy a challenge.

4. Debrief in small groups

Ask students in small groups of three to compare their rankings. How did they differ? Where were they similar? Did students define the values differently, in addition to ranking them differently?

5. Group Discussion

Bring the class back together to discuss. What was easy or difficult about the activity? Would any students like to report their conversations back to the class? Invite a few students to share which value they ranked first (or last) and ask them to explain their reasoning. Were students able to find some common ground across differently prioritized values?

Challenge students to identify public policy issues that they are concerned about. Have them identify how specific values influence their views about policy. Are there certain policies that students agree upon despite differently prioritized values? After students have made concrete links between values and policies, ask students to consider how constructive and respectful discussions can lead to some consensus.

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