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Six Core Values for Who We Are and How We Learn

At the end of my last post, Elements of Culture, I wrote how Culture and Values overlap but are still distinct layers with distinct purposes in this model. In this post, I am exploring the Six Core Values in my model for who we are and how we learn beyond the Self-Directed Schooling environment.


This article looks at Values as ideals, or standards of behavior. The key takeaway here is how Values are ideals for behaviors, not behaviors themselves - they are concepts to be pursued rather than specific behaviors to be practiced.

For example, a person who exhibits “respectful” behaviors in one context might wish to apply those exact same behaviors in a different context to exhibit that same “Respect”. Yet, such behaviors do not always translate across contexts and situations in this way. Instead, there is often something deeper to this concept of "respect" that allows us to adapt our behaviors in ways that can be perceived as respectful (more often than not).

This article explores how behaviors are guided and shaped by Six Values:

  • Respect

  • Responsibility

  • Fairness

  • Community

  • Trust

  • Integrity


There are many words people use to describe desired traits, or attributes, or other aspects of social and emotional character development, but those are not Values. A trait or attribute describes what a person is, is not, or is to some degree; it might even be a desirable trait a person wants to develop. The distinction is in perceiving what is (e.g., traits) versus what ought to be (e.g., values) where Values are perceived philosophical ideals which a person’s behaviors will aspire to reflect.

Values are ideals for behaviors, not behaviors themselves, as concepts to be pursued rather than specific behaviors to practice.


These values can be applied to populations as effectively as they can be applied to schools, classrooms, small groups, and individuals.

When it comes to schools, Values are developed (intentionally or not) through the daily interactions between teachers, students, families, administrators, other staff and its community. How a school defines these Values will reflect how that school perceives expectations, or ideals, for which they intend to guide and shape behaviors of students as well as staff with the inevitable goal of reflecting the perceived Values of their community. In a sense, this layer is one of five layers diving deeper into Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, with this layer of Values exploring factors responsible for only one layer of ecological connections made between a school and its community.

As you read through the six values in this post, remember that these are not intended to define a single set of behaviors to be applied to all contexts and situations. Instead, Values provide a conceptual understanding of underlying motivations behavior in and across contexts and situations. With this more conceptual understanding of Values, we can connect and explore the deeper layers of this model, differentiating between these Six Values and other more specific traits, attributes, and competencies related to personal and social development.



Each of the following six core values in this layer requires that we engage in deeper conversation beyond what is introduced in this article to appreciate their distinct yet interdependent aspects. The purpose in talking through these Values is not to define one set of behaviors to be adopted for all contexts and situations but to understand and internalize the driving factors of each Value so that they become flexible and adaptable across various contexts and situations.


RESPECT as a Value

While it is common for The Golden Rule to be quoted when talking about Respect ("treat others the way you would want to be treated"), it's often referred to in context of homogenous groups with a shared understanding of how a person ought to want to be treated. There's a difference, however, in how heterogeneous and pluralistic societies experience this incongruence with different people sharing spaces yet holding different beliefs about how others ought to want to be treated. How people come to believe they themselves ought to be treated is at the core of understanding Respect as a Value - as a flexible, adaptable concept, rather than a concrete set of specific behavior.

For example, the person who was raised in aggressive environments and who developed "thick skin" toward communication styles involving sharp wit and heavy sarcasm may find it difficult to engage socially with peers and other parents and teachers who might consider that kind of communication style as "disrespectful" based on their own beliefs toward how others ought to be treated.

This raises the question of whether the person with "thick skin" should be driving expectations for how others ought to want to be treated, or if someone else who does not wish to be treated with such sharp wit and sarcasm should be driving those expectations for how others ought to want to be treated.

This also means that, to understand the flexibility and adaptability of "respectful" behaviors, we must reflect on whether a specific behavior can be be universally respectful across all social and societal contexts. We must consider what factors are behind the kinds of flexible and adaptable behaviors we consider respectful but which others may consider disrespectful. We must reflect on how we might need to adapt a certain behavior in response to different contexts and situations in order to meet the perceived ideal or expectation for behavior in a given context or situation.

Respect, at its core, is the product of two factors: authority and self-worth, with authority referring to the “power dynamic” of a relationship and self-worth referring to the combination of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-image. The balance between those two factors applies to any two people, groups, or populations which are often defined by their Structural Relationship, one of seven elements of culture. Our shared understanding of our own authority over our environments, in relation to our own self-worth as it relates to that authority within that environment, can help us break down and develop a shared understanding for what "respectful" behaviors are within, and beyond, any single environment.



When we hear people talk about responsibility, it is often in the context of taking care of our things and owning up to the consequences of our words and actions. The emotional maturity necessary for this particular Value is explored in the next layer of this model. The point of exploring Responsibility as a Value here is to understand, internalize, and reflect on its flexible and adaptable factors across different contexts and situations.

For example, imagine a person who wasn’t looking where they were going, tripped and hurt themselves. Now imagine their fall occurred due to another person who (unintentionally) left trip hazards on the ground. In this case, deciding who is "responsible" for the damage to that person can play out in many different ways but it will be how a person understands Responsibility which will guide the person down one of those many paths.

One path involves the person who fell deciding to hold the other person responsible for leaving trip hazards on the ground, demanding the other person mend whatever damage came of their fall, and ensuring that grounds be free of trip hazards in the future. Another path involves the person who fell deciding to hold themselves responsible for their clumsiness, mending whatever damage came to them, and making a point to pay more attention to where they are walking in the future.

Both paths involve two factors which shape the person's understanding of responsibility. The first factor is the person's priorities. The second is the person's understanding of oversight and accountability for said priorities. In this example, the priority in question is whether it is more important to remove trip hazards than it is to watch where we walk. What follows is the response to that decided priority in the form of oversight and accountability. In the event that it is deemed more important to remove trip hazards than it is to watch where we walk, the oversight aspect will likely involve a governing entity overseeing the maintenance of said grounds followed by a system of accountability for rewarding or punishing when the grounds are or are not kept free of tripping hazards.

This example explores how Responsibility, at its core, comes down to two core factors: priorities and oversight/accountability, with the latter being two sides of the same factor with a shared purpose of responding to shared priorities. When we talk about responsibility in a school setting, it's important to have reflected on this concept as a Value by which the school's shared understanding of responsibility is accurately reflected in the policies and rules enforced by the school's staff and reflected in their community of families.


FAIRNESS as a Value

Fairness as a Value is rooted in two complex, contextual, interpretable concepts: Earning and Excess. How we define Earning and Excess depends on how we understand interactions as either equal or equitable, but also as compensatory or reciprocal. How we perceive these interdependent components shapes our understanding of what it means to be "fair".

Earning: Equal vs Equitable

Equality focuses on balancing the worth of goods or services. Equitability focuses that balance on the contextual need for those goods or services being provided and received. When a person sees Earning as equal, they will focus on what they are receiving as equal or unequal to what they are providing. When a person sees Earning as equitable, they will focus on the needs of the people involved to determine what and how much to provide and receive.

Earning: Compensatory vs Reciprocal

To compensate is to give in recognition of loss. To reciprocate is to respond in kind for mutual satisfaction. When a person sees Earning as compensatory, they will view their time and effort as a loss in need of compensation. When a person sees Earning as reciprocal, they will view their time and effort as an opportunity to fulfill each others' needs. This distinction is where it becomes necessary to define the second factor, Excess.

Excess: Equal Compensation vs Equitable Reciprocity

The person who believes Fairness is rooted in "equal compensation" is more likely to accept more than what is deemed equal in an interaction. This person will require that the worth of what they receive is, at a minimum, equal to the worth of what they provided. So long as that minimum (equal compensation) is received, the transaction is considered "fair" and anything received beyond that minimum (i.e. Excess) is an acceptable undefined extension of that compensatory mindset. This is where we find a virtually infinite accrual of Excess as a very real outcome as a foundation for what it means to be "fair".

Compare that understanding of Excess to the person who believes Fairness is rooted in "equitable reciprocation". While this person is also likely to accept more than what might be deemed equal in an interaction, the focus here is largely on what is being provided to meet the needs of each person. In this case, it would be rare for Excess to be accrued beyond what is needed since it is more likely that any Excess will be redistributed to others' needs over time.

When we understand Fairness through this lens of Earning and Excess, as equal or equitable, compensatory or reciprocal, we create a worldview that guides many of our beliefs. Not all people will share the same underlying conceptual understanding of Earning and Excess. Creating a shared language for discussing these factors for Fairness as a Value allows us to approach disagreement with empathy and understanding as opposed to aggressive dissent and division. We'll explore deeper how to approach empathy and conflict resolution in the next layer of this model - social and emotional character development.


TRUST as a Value

Trust begins with a recognition of competence - knowing a person is capable of accomplishing what they may have claimed they are able to accomplish. A person who is seen as having a high degree of competence is more likely to be provided more autonomy and more likely called on for counsel or advice. A person who is seen as having a low degree of competence is more likely subjected to micromanaging and other low-trust interactions. Perceived absence of competence results in an inability to trust, regardless of the other two factors - reliability and caring. The important thing to remember is to set expectations for competence that match the expectations for success which are developmentally appropriate for the age and experience of another person.

The second important factor is reliability - knowing a person will follow through with what they are able to accomplish in a timely manner. It's important to note that seeing someone as reliable without seeing them as competent more likely reflects hope or faith more than it reflects trust. It's also important to distinguish reliability from dependability, which has more to do with Integrity than it does Trust since dependability implies a righteousness that is not necessary for developing trust in another. The important thing to remember here is that a person who is reliable may develop a degree of trust but that, without that hope or faith developing into trust via competence over time will find that trust will develop only so far.

The third factor involves Caring - knowing whether a person's actions is for the other person at least as much as for themselves. This factor increases the intensity of competence and reliability without which trust can not develop. Caring by itself does reflect a personal attribute or characteristic and can greatly influence a person's willingness to develop competence and reliability over time. Exploring this factor taps into concepts of empathetic reasoning as it relates to meaningful, personalized, constructive feedback, topics we'll explore in the next layer of this model - social and emotional character development.

When we reflect on Trust according to these three factors - competence, reliability, and caring, we are reflecting on how trust is built with others as much as how trust is built in ourselves. To see yourself as competent can be a process in and of itself, with reliability being a separate topic for self-reflection and personal growth. On top of that, how we care for ourselves and learn to apply positive self-talk about our competence and reliability plays a major role in how we develop our capacity to develop trust in others.


INTEGRITY as a Value

INTEGRITY as a Value

When a person does what’s right without reward or recognition, it’s often called integrity. When a person listens to that voice inside their head telling them what is right or wrong in a given situation, it’s referred to as having integrity. When a person acts on intuition to validate a particular belief in a behavior regardless of any one else’s opinion, it’s celebrated as exercising integrity. Unfortunately, these interpretations grossly oversimplify Integrity and dismiss it for what it is - an objectively nuanced and universally applicable Value.

A person who exercises integrity may well do what they believe is right, regardless of reward or recognition and perhaps even as the result of some kind of intuitive sense; but at its core, that feeling of integrity boils down to two ideas. The first is that the behavior meets an acceptable degree (or combination of degrees) of respect, responsibility, fairness, and/or trust. Because people have different perspectives on what respectful behavior looks like for different relationships and in different situations, this level of consensus is not always a guaranteed outcome. The second is that the behavior is perceived as consistent to a point of dependability where the behavior might even be anticipated in a given context or situation.

It is important that consistency not be considered the definitive property for integrity. A person who consistently exercises an undesirable or inappropriate behavior would not be considered as exercising integrity since it does not meet the consensus property. Likewise, a person who exhibits a desired or appropriate behavior must then consistently exercise that behavior to develop this perception of integrity in either themselves or others.

When we reflect on Integrity according to these two properties - consensus and consistency, we are reflecting on how integrity develops over time through repeated actions that exhibit a shared belief in the previous four Values: Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, and Trust.


COMMUNITY as a Value

A person's sense of Community develops through shared experiences with different groups of people at different stages of life. Three factors drive that sense of Community: (1) personal identity, (2) capacity for empathetic reasoning, and (3) beliefs toward social and societal responsibility. Although these are elements in the next layer in this model (SECD), these three factors integrate to form our sense of Community as a Value. We can explore our sense of Community as a Value by exploring our own personal development as it relates to the shared experiences we've had with different groups of people at different stages of our life. For example, imagine a person who believes their social and societal responsibility includes water conservation, minimalist living, and a vegetarian diet. Those beliefs may have developed in tandem with their capacity for empathetic reasoning as they developed their self-perception of their own traits and attributes such as pride, temperance, kindness, and magnanimity. Now imagine a person who believes their social and societal responsibility is only to their immediate family, friends, and home. Those beliefs may have just as easily developed in tandem with their own capacity for empathetic reasoning which, again, was likely largely influenced by how their self-perception of their own traits and attributes. Many people might talk about Community more simply than all of this, saying their community is the group of people with whom they share a connection or bond, or with a group of people that happen to be working toward a common goal. Though a narrow way of looking at it, it is not altogether incorrect. In our case, as a Value, we want to make sure we are addressing this ideal as an expectation for behaviors that will result in a shared language and shared understanding of Community beyond any one person's development. By exploring this idea in this way, we can focus on our own desire for how people ought to want to build a Community specific to a particular need with others who might not automatically share the same ideals.

A Note about Culture, Values and SECD

When I wrote about Elements of Culture in March 2022, I suggested readers be mindful that Culture and Values are not only distinctly different, but the word Values can mean different things to different people. Hopefully, you've been given enough context for that to be a reasonable claim to make, especially when distinguishing Values from Elements of Culture. This mindfulness goes one step further as I prepare the next layer of my model for who we are and how we learn, Social-Emotional Character Development (SECD). Values do overlap in specific places with SECD, but what's important to recognize about these two layers is that, although there are ways in which they overlap, they are still distinct layers with distinct purposes for understanding who we are and how we learn - individually, socially, and societally.

Greg Mullen

May 9, 2022


To speak with me more about this particular model, or the ideas in my book Creating a Self-Directed learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning (Corwin, 2019), you can book a brief consultation to go over ideas and ask questions directly.

You might also find interest in setting up an SDS Coaching Program designed to help teachers reflect on their practices in ways that shift from traditional behaviorist practices to a more "self-directed" learning environment for staff and students.

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