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Values education: A foundation for sustainability

Amzad Hossain and Dora Marinova
Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University

The paper emphasises that integrating values education into Australian university curriculum is crucial for the sustainability agenda. It is anticipated that the acquisition of moral values by students will help produce eco-citizens who will be culturally involved in the practice of sustainability.

The main message of this paper is: "Values are acquired, not learnt" and the role of the educator is to help develop/implant values, related to the social, economic and environmental facets of sustainability, in the hearts of students. The paper outlines a model of the teaching-learning processes, which complies with this concept. It is imperative that students first understand why a certain value should be acquired before actually learning about its meaning. Values have to be integrated and taught in a manner which enables students to intrinsically acquire them. The mere knowledge of values cannot ensure that people endorse them in their actions, which is fundamental in achieving sustainability.

The paper argues that theories, concepts and methodologies can be taught, however values cannot just be taught, they need to be implanted in the hearts of students; as the art of cooking cannot just be taught through texts and lessons but needs to be demonstrated and practised. The conventional teaching-learning strategies alone are not sufficient for achieving the desired outcome - eco-citizens.

The paper concludes that the curriculum framework should provide students at all levels of education with opportunities to appreciate the indissoluble relationship between knowledge and values on the one hand, and eco-citizenship and sustainability on the other.


The present curricula in educational institutions primarily address the academic, social and physical development of students but do not provide adequate opportunities for the development of the moral and intrinsic 'values' necessary to make the transition to sustainability. Aspin (2002) raises similar fundamental questions regarding the purpose of education and the objective of educational institutions in relation to sustainability. He asserts that values education is necessary for educating citizens to understand the past and envision the sustainable common future for the coming generations of their country.

Values are a set of principles that underpin human actions and behaviour in the pursuit of a vision in life. They determine a person's understanding of goodness, worth or beauty, and underlie qualities such as respect, responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, integrity, honesty and civic virtue. All these components of values are found in one form or another in the belief system of a person or the social group to which this person belongs. For example, the components that constitute individual or social values are mentioned in the Scriptures. By virtue of the nature of values, people relate themselves with fellow humans as well as with their physical environment, and their actions today have significant implications for the future. The value system also provides a basis for judgement of what is valuable and meaningful in life. Eco-citizenship, or the importance and stewardship qualities people display towards nature, is an essential component of a value system with a vision for sustainable future.

Values as a 'thing' are not lucidly describable, and so not definable. "Throughout the values education literature, values have been defined as everything from eternal ideas to behavioural actions" (Superka et al., 1976:xiii). According to these scholars, "(t)here appears to be as many definitions as there are writers" (ibid). The term 'values' is ambivalent to the writers on values education. Consequently, it is unachievable to learn values, because learning is difficult without a clear description of the matter to be learned. Then how should values be learned?

A proverb says: "things which cannot be learned, have to be earned" (Shah, 1984:201). Values have to be earned or acquired through realised, not memorised knowledge. The Semitic Sufis and Bangladeshi Baul-philosophers (Bauls) are popular for their excellence in values education. Both traditions are naturalist and devoted to nature's sustainability management. They hold the view that values and sustainability go hand in hand. One is not complete without the other. This suggests that values (education) includes sustainability (management) and vice versa.

An integration of values education into Australian university curricula is crucial for the sustainability agenda of the country. The curriculum framework should be designed to provide students with values teaching so that they can get opportunities to appreciate the indissoluble relationship between knowledge and values in the one hand, and the practice of eco-citizenship on the other. Only the earned understanding of the importance of the environmental, social and economic facets of sustainability can provide progress in the transition towards intergenerational equity. The objectives of the 'values education', thus, can be set as follow:

  1. To understand values education strategies;
  2. To reflect values through awareness, patience, perseverance, actions and eco-citizenship lifestyle;
  3. To apply values for a sustainable future; and
  4. To develop curricula aiming at transmitting values into the hearts of the students.

Values education and sustainability

Halstead and Taylor (1996) argue that a certain group of values should form a central part of contemporary education. As the issues pertaining to 'sustainability' are now on the global agenda, the indicated central part of education must be of values underpinning sustainability management. American schools, for example, are teaching ethics covering topics such as euthanasia, abortion or capital punishment but nothing is taught about honesty, responsibility or honour, which can underpin greater values for social sustainability. In this regard Sommers (1993) highlights that ethics without virtues are hardly of any importance.

Harun Baul advocates returning to an older notion of values education - one that offers clear notion of right and wrong. The Bauls teach that no right is right and no wrong is wrong to all at all times. Harun Baul says that most rights and wrongs are site, time and person specific, and this is to be accepted as an inescapable values phenomenon. The time and locality specificity is a feature shared by value systems as well as by sustainability.

Vallone (2001) asserts that students need to learn that it is more important to know how to treat other people rather than the marks achieved. Without this, the educational system will miserably fail. Only recently have we discovered that another way education can fail is if it does not teach how to treat nature. These are issues, which need not only to be covered in the curricula, but above all to be practiced by educators and students.

Achievement of sustainability has to be taught through best practices of addressing social, economic and environmental issues. Most scholars in this field are engaged in teaching sustainability education to interest groups. The lessons are delivered generally in terms of concepts, theories and innovative technologies. Likewise, the interested scientists and technocrats are devoted largely to the innovation of mechanical tools for sustainability management. Only knowledge of these achievements is not enough; the best practices need to be implanted in, hence become part of the value system. When knowledge is implanted into the heart only then it becomes 'values' - the realised knowledge, and this is a long process marked with difficulties, concerted efforts and sacrifice (see Box 1).

Box 1
Nasruddin stood up in the market place and started to address the throng: 'O people! Do you want knowledge without difficulties, truth without falsehood, attainment without effort, progress without sacrifice?'

Very soon a large crowd gathered, everyone shouting: 'Yes, yes!'

'Excellent!' said the Mulla. 'I only wanted to know. You may rely upon me to tell you about it if I ever discover any such thing.' (Shah, 1968:123).

Values education is not primarily to explain but to guide (Chittick, 1983:8). The teacher is both illuminated and illuminating with such capacity. It has yet to be acknowledged and explored that values education has underpinning as well as driving roles for all other sustainability tools. Baul guru (teacher) Aziz Shah Fakir maintains that education, devoid of 'sustainability values' can be even detrimental to sustainability. Examples of this are environmental pollution, overexploitation of natural resources and lack of individual socio-economic security. The Fakir also emphasises that to live longer (longevity) is embedded with the other forms of sustainability, such as technological or environmental.

The emerging global desire for a successful transition towards sustainability is likely to remain far from accomplishment unless values education is assessed as an intrinsic tool for sustainability management. Values education, related to the social, economic and environmental facets of sustainability is required to be firmly implanted in the hearts of our generation. Sustainability has to be clearly perceived as a process of change and to be deeply rooted in human values.


Theories, concepts, formulas or methodologies can be learnt; however values need to be acquired. For example, the final product of a person cooking a gourmet dish following a recipe and the final product or outcome of a person who has acquired the essence of the art of cooking will be quite different. The art of cooking cannot be learnt from text or even lessons. It has to be acquired through observation, analysis, understanding and experience. There are different levels of acquisition of the same value until it is adequately transmitted to the students so that it becomes part of their culture. The expectations from, and role of higher education are crucial in acquiring values. The conventional teaching-learning strategies alone are not sufficient for achieving the desired outcome - eco-citizens whose lifestyle would demonstrate social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Bauls teach sustainability by way of nature: winds, heat or sunshine and water. Overindulgence in natural resources for gratification alone is threatening our sustainability and can be disastrous. Guru Aziz Shah Fakir stresses that values for sustainability are to be gained by closely following the teaching; and nature itself is the best teacher for those who want to learn about the technology of nature. Nature's diverse manifestation and its management of ecosystemic health are not only sustainable in themselves, but also examples for sustainability education (see Box 2).

Box 2
Observing nature's mysterious play (Lila-khela), Lalon Fakir cries:

The games of Sain are played in order to enable Nature to be renewed. Nature deploys members of the ecosystem as tools to play various games. Soil, water, air, fire, animals, plants, humans - all take part in the games with diverse assignments. Soil, among others, plays the game for fertility and barrenness, water for sweet and salty, air for breeze and wind, fire for energy for cooking and burning, animals for gentleness and wildness, plants for softness and hardness, and humans for right and wrong.

Baul wisdom reveals that all members do their duties as they are assigned. Their activities are meant to appear paradoxical, especially to skeptic minds. This is the source of great puzzlement to many pundits (scholars).

Tarlinton and Oshea (2002) discuss values acquisition from a catholic point of view which emphasises learning by example rather than from texts. Values of an educational institution are reflected in the buildings, furnishings and decorations. The values related to sustainability should also be reflected and integrated into the teaching environment.

The teachers in values education have to acquire values for themselves, for students can only acquire values from those who have already acquired it. One's health, spiritual state, lifestyle and patience - all mirror the state of one's own values. The teachers with values then can transmit and implant values in the hearts of the students. This is traditionally done through discourses with analogies in the one hand, and depicting 'self-values' through the teacher's lifestyle and deeds, on the other. Values have to be integrated and taught in a manner which enables students to intrinsically acquire them. This will facilitate the application of the acquired values in real life situations, and particularly for managing sustainability.

Knowledge at heart

People imagine that they are ready to learn; but they want to learn what they imagine is to be learnt, not what they have first to learn. When an educator can learn all this for the students, then s/he can devise an effective way to teach. That is why the Baul gurus maintain that knowledge without special capacity to teach is not the same as knowledge and capacity (see Box 3).

Teachers, including university lecturers, are required to teach in accordance with the levels of people's understanding. Guru Aziz Shah teaches: 'speak to every person according to his/her level of understanding'. "The window determines how much light enters the house, even if the moon's radiance fills the east and the west (Chittick, 1983:10). The house without a window is hell: the task of the teacher is to found windows to enter values. Rumi says from the learner's point of view that 'whoever flees from a master in this world flees from good fortune' (ibid., 121).

Box 3
'You have to learn how to teach, for man does not want to be taught. First of all you have to teach people to learn how to learn. And before that you have to teach them that there is still something to be learned. They imagine that they are ready to learn. But they want to learn what they imagine is to be learned, not what they are ready to learn. When you have learned all this, then you can devise the way to teach. Knowledge without special capacity to teach is not the same as knowledge and capacity.' (Shah, 1984:41-42)

Carr (2002) emphasises that knowledge and wisdom (values) are two different things. The educational system in Australia is based on the modernist approach built around knowledge and this is not enough for a sustainable society. Universities should not be equivocal about the worldview, how wisdom is generated and their commitment to honouring awe and wonder. In addition, Carr (2002) also expresses concern that staff are not equipped to identify their own values. Only with sustainability at heart can one teach values.


What has been the outcome from the educational efforts with regard to producing good citizens? Why are the social problems in our society on the increase? Why is our natural environment deteriorating? The fact is that the values and methods of teaching do not equip students for a sustainable lifestyle. The values which are taught are not sustained by people simply because they have not been taught to be sustainable. Values can only be successfully applied in real life on an ongoing basis if they are unconsciously or intrinsically acquired. There needs to be an inbuilt mechanism in the hearts and minds of students, which automatically prevents them from engaging in harmful and detrimental activities and encourages sustainable living.

Quisumbing and Leo (2002) stress the importance of values education, including the need of learning to live together, tolerance, development of a whole person and promotion of a culture of peace. The authors recommend that educational institutions should essentially be laboratories for learning tolerance, where a culture of peace prevails and values, which are taught in the curriculum, transcend to students daily life and behaviour. The development of values which are holistic, humanistic and sustainable is emphasised. The notion of building a culture of peace (Pascoe, 2002:41) through civic education will remain far from achieved without the abundance of eco(logical)-citizens in a locality. Civic education (without eco-values) cannot stand by itself independent of cultural norms (ibid. 31) underpinned by eco-values.

Civil citizenship is related to family, religion and local communities. Eco-citizenship, in addition to civil-society, includes obligations vis--vis values to eco-management. It is, like a culture of peace, a governing body of shared values, attitudes, and lifestyle based on non-violence (Pascoe, 2002:41) to nature.


The curriculum framework should provide students at all levels of education with opportunities to appreciate the indissoluble relationship between knowledge and values in the one hand, and eco-citizenship and sustainability management, on the other. We need a values education system in which the learners can be taught to understand the difference between sustainability and un-sustainability. Educational institutions should demonstrate and teach tolerance of and delight in the diversity of human beings, the communities they create and the harmony with nature.

The curriculum framework articulates values and acknowledges that values underpin and shape the curriculum. The majority agrees that values need to be incorporated in education. How well students are equipped with values, however, largely depends on the method through which the values have been taught. If values are simply defined and told to be "important", it is highly unlikely that this method will engrave the values in the hearts and minds of students.

Has the curriculum framework made adequate provisions to enable students to realise that knowledge and values are indissoluble? A student may become an astronaut or win the Nobel prize, and have no values whatsoever. The emphasis on the holistic nature of human learning essentially means that together with learning, values have to be acquired. It is possible to acquire values without knowledge and knowledge without values but only the integration of the two can lead to sustainability. Values need to be intrinsically acquired and firmly implanted into the hearts and minds of students so that the knowledge and values acquired are applied and sustained in reality and hence, the relationship between them will be indissoluble. Increases in the levels of performance with the existing curriculum may improve knowledge skills but it will not necessarily make them "wholesome" human beings with sustainability morals and values.

The fundamental question that remains is: how are values to be taught and integrated in the teaching and learning process so that they are acquired and not learnt? The answer lies in the word/question "why?" It is imperative that students first understand why a certain value should be acquired before actually learning about the meaning of the value itself. For implanting something such as values, the usual teaching strategies alone will not be sufficient for achieving the desired outcome. The method and approach used in teaching values need to be further developed to ensure that the outcome is values at heart, not just mere awareness.


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Carr, N. (2002). Worldview, wisdom and wonder: A quest for transformation through education. In S. Pascoe (Ed.), Values in education (pp. 173-183). Canberra: The Australian College of Educators.

Cawsey, C. (2002). Naming, measuring and modeling the values of public education. In S. Pascoe (Ed.), Values in education (pp. 71-84). Canberra: The Australian College of Educators.

Chittick, W.C. (1983). Sufi path of love: The spiritual teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Pascoe, S, (Ed.) (2002). Values in education. Canberra: The Australian College of Educators.

Quisumbing, L., & Leo, J.D. (2002). Values education in a changing world: Some UNESCO perspective and initiatives. In S. Pascoe (Ed.), Values in education (pp. 164-172). Canberra: The Australian College of Educators.

Shah, I. (1984). Tales of the dervishes: Teaching-stories of the Sufi masters over the past thousand years. London: The Octagon Press.

Shah, I. (1968). Pleasantries of the incredible Mulla Nasruddin. London: Jonathan Cape.

Sommers, C.H. (1993). Teaching the virtues. Public Interest, 111, 3-14.

Superka, D.P (Ed.) (1976). Values education source book. Conceptual approaches, materials analyses, and annotated bibliography. Boulder, Colorado: Social Science Education Consortium, Inc.

Tarlinton, R., & O'Shea, F. (2002). Values education: A catholic perspective. In: S. Pascoe (Ed.), Values in education (pp. 85-91). Canberra: The Australian College of Educators.

Vallone, F.P. (2001, July 10). New York Times.

Authors: Amzad Hossain and Dora Marinova, Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University.

Contact person: Amzad Hossain, ISTP, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia
Tel: +61 8 9360 2913 Fax: +61 8 9360 6421 Email: ahossain@murdoch.edu.au
Dr Amzad Hossain is an action researcher and sustainability scholar whose interests cover simple lifestyle, appropriate technology, ecotourism and values with relevance to social, technological and environmental sustainability. In 1995 Amzad completed a PhD on the role of Mazar culture in Bangladesh, and in 2002 was awarded a second PhD for his work on renewable energy and self-reliance. Amzad's interests in 'values education' are linked to his exploration of agents for sustainability in eastern culture.

Please cite as: Hossain, A. and Marinova, D. (2004). Values education: A foundation for sustainability. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/hossain.html

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Created 11 Aug 2004. Last revision: 11 Aug 2004.