Chapter 2: Value creation in education


What is valuable? We are all confronted with this simple question every day. Work or family? Career or friends? Travelling or saving money? Life constantly confronts us with required choices between incomparable values. Figuring out what will be a good balance between conflicting choices is not easy. One often has to rely on feelings to achieve balance in life. A term that tries to capture this is work-life balance.[1]

We like to calculate things in life to arrive at a figure of value, compare different options and then make a considered choice. This is despite the fact that no one has ever managed to figure out what the meaning of life is. Sometimes it can feel like only what can be counted counts, especially in education with grades and PISA results. But there are, of course, values in life that we cannot calculate. What is most valuable in life is probably rather things that cannot be calculated. Such as love, friendship, community, equality, forgiveness and helpfulness.

It is not only around our own lives that we have to think about value. Also at work we need to deal with this issue on a daily basis. How should I plan my lesson to make it as valuable as possible for my students? What support can be valuable for the staff I manage? What is the actual value to our organisation of a purchase we’re thinking of making or a conference we want to attend, in relation to the cost?

Value for oneself versus value for others

In the workplace, our main focus is usually on creating value for other, sometimes unknown, people. In our free time, however, we are free to engage in all kinds of activities that create value for ourselves and our loved ones. The difference is salary. In the workplace, we are paid to create value for others, while in leisure time we are not paid and can do whatever we want. This is not to say that leisure is more valuable than work. Many people feel a deep sense of purpose in life when they help others at work.

In fact, the little word ‘value’ has been the focus of researchers’ attention for hundreds of years.[2] If we want to get a more nuanced view of value, there are shelf metres of books we can read. There is even a separate field of research, valuation studies, where researchers study the question of what is valuable.[3]

Here we will try to avoid getting lost in deep dives into the almost existential question of value. However, it is important to build a common understanding of this keyword for later sections of the book. Designed action sampling is a research method that draws its power from the idea of learning by creating value for others.

Value versus values

A little word game you can play is to think about the difference between value and values. The philosopher John Dewey devoted an entire book, Theory of valuation (1939), to such wordplay. He notes that English words like dear, worth and prize/price illustrate the dual nature of the concept of value. Dear, for example, can mean either expensive or highly esteemed, depending on the situation. Worth can mean either a certain price value or a sense of dignity, depending on the situation. Such ambiguous words show, according to Dewey, that intellectual calculations of value (e.g. ‘expensive’ or ‘pricey’) and emotional estimates of value (e.g. ‘esteemed’ or ‘worthy’) interact intricately in everyday life. Value should therefore not be separated from values.

For famed sociologist Talcott Parsons, however, it wasn’t a game – it was deadly serious. To deal with problems of internal politics at Harvard University, he made a pact with his fellow economists in the 1930s:[4]

You, economists, study value; we, sociologists, study values.

This pact runs counter to Dewey’s recommendation and also illustrates the tendency of some economists to want to reduce different values to a single numerical value expressed in economic terms, a market price that can then be calculated mathematically.[5] Many economists even go so far as to see the market price of a phenomenon as its true value. But anyone who works in a value-driven organisation knows that such reasoning has its limitations and also risks undermining values such as justice, equality, diversity, democracy, ecology and the equal value of all people.[6]

Market price is a subjective perspective on value, as illustrated by the classic water-diamond paradox. How come water is so cheap, even though it is essential to life, when diamonds, which are scarce, are so expensive? The explanation is that prices, and therefore value, are determined by supply and demand.[7] According to many economists, the value of something depends on how many people want it and how much of it is available.

However, a market theory of value is problematic in education, where the nature and value of the service delivered should not vary with supply and demand. On the contrary, most educators strive for an equal experience for all students, regardless of how many they are, what conditions they have, where they live or how much money their parents have. This lack of equality has also become the biggest downside of the marketised education system. When education becomes a priced service among all others, it is primarily equality that is lost.[8] Educators therefore need a value model that takes into account more than just economic value.

A multi-faceted model of value

To clarify the meaning of value in this book, Figure 2.1 shows a model with five different perspectives on what value can be. These values can be created either for oneself or for others. The model is a simplification, as are all value models.[9] Nevertheless, it highlights some key questions about value creation. What values are meant? For whom does value arise? The five value perspectives in Figure 2.1 will now be briefly explained.

Figure 2.1 Model with five different perspectives on value that can be created for oneself or for others. From Lackéus (2018).

Economic value is often function-orientated and transaction-based, measured in terms of the money paid or saved when different goods and services are exchanged. Economic value for oneself is usually referred to as a wage or payment and is something one receives when one has created or delivered something of value to others. Some people also help others create economic value, such as bankers that help their customers manage money.

Social value is about making people happier or alleviating their suffering. It is a broad category – what people value in life is multifaceted and partly subjective.[10] Some examples of social value include having close relationships with other people, expressing your identity, learning new knowledge and skills, improving your personal health, and feeling safe and secure.

Enjoyment value occurs when people do things for pure joy and fun. It can be deeply engaging and creative tasks, cultural experiences, or experiences where you get to do or learn something new. Such activities are often both challenging and intrinsically inspiring and can lead to a mental state of flow, where people are fully immersed, feel competent and sometimes lose track of time.[11]

Influence value occurs when people gain influence, reputation, power or other impact on others in society, such as managers, politicians or celebrities. Influence value can also be about everyday actions that deeply affect another person, such as parents raising their children, employees helping customers and colleagues at work, or teachers helping their students develop. Central to influence value is people’s desire to perform, a deeply human drive.[12] People’s need for meaning in life can also be satisfied by gaining influence over others.[13]

Harmony value refers to the value of a harmonious whole, either culturally or in relation to justice, ecology, equality and the common good. It is an often collective and conditional type of value that is situationally dependent and based on shared values.[14] It is therefore often a more complex type of value that comes into focus in more advanced societies. An everyday example is that many cinema-goers like to have popcorn, even if they otherwise never eat popcorn.[15] A more complex example is the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.[16] They are about trying to reduce global poverty, hunger and climate change and instead promote health, equity, ecology, security, resilience, inclusion and more.

Creating value for others gives meaning to life

In this book we will mainly discuss situations where value is created for others, rather than for oneself. Indeed, creating value for others has proven to be a useful focus for scientific teachers. Therefore, when the word value creation is used in this book, it mainly refers to value creation for others. This does not mean that value is not created for oneself. Egoism and altruism are two closely intertwined concepts[17] , which is illustrated by the yin and yang in the centre of Figure 2.1. Those who help others feel good in the moment from the sense of meaning and belonging that this gives them, and may also gain further benefits in the long term. The importance of balance between own happiness and meaningfulness with others is illustrated in Figure 2.2. Own happiness includes classic self-orientated values such as sensory experiences, satisfaction, power, wealth, independence, achievement and winning. Meaningfulness with others is often linked instead to creative acts of making a difference through engagement, job satisfaction and collaboration.[18]

Figure 2.2 Different perspectives illustrating the need for balance between value creation for oneself and for others. The figure is based on perspectives explored in more detail in a research article by Lackéus (2017).

Value creation as an entrepreneur and as an employee

Discussing different forms of value can easily become abstract and theoretical. So let’s take some concrete examples. Perhaps it will be a bit of a digression. But then again, value creation is one of the most important terms in this book, so it will have to be worth it.

One of the clearest examples of the link between value for others and value for oneself is entrepreneurship. An entrepreneur’s most important task is to create value for others, namely their customers. If this is successful, the entrepreneur will not only experience a momentary sense of meaning and belonging. The customer invoice should also be paid, providing money that can then be converted into a salary. If not enough value is created for others, it will eventually lead to bankruptcy or liquidation.

One difference between employees and entrepreneurs is the speed of the feedback loop between the value created for others and the monetary reward they can receive. Entrepreneurs are more affected by economic ups and downs than employees. In good times, it is financially favourable. In bad times, it is a source of much stress. Despite this potential economic advantage for successful entrepreneurs, a high perceived sense of meaning and personal development is a more common motivation for entrepreneurship than personal financial gain.[19] However, to outsiders, money is more visible than perceived meaning, thus contributing to the appearance of entrepreneurs as particularly financially orientated individuals.[20] Not least because some entrepreneurs have helped so many customers that the small surplus each helped customer contributes eventually makes them wealthy. A classic quote reads:[21]

If you want to make a million dollars, help a million people.

In this case, the value created by an entrepreneur who has made a million dollars in profit by helping a million people is easy to calculate, at least according to the simplified value theory of some economists. If we assume a typical profit margin of 5 percent, the value created for the customers is 20 million dollars, because according to some economists, price and value are the same thing. Each customer has then paid an average of $20, of which $1 is profit and $19 is costs necessary to create value for customers.

However, for most people, wages are the only economic value they will ever receive when helping others. This was also the philosopher Karl Marx’s main criticism of capitalism.[22] According to Marx, business owners exploit their employees when they take care of the surplus themselves after all personnel and other costs are paid. The proposed solution was for citizens to co-own the resources of production and thus share in any profits (and losses).

A consolation for employees in a market economy may be that the work they do to help others provides many other values in addition to salary, such as enjoyment value, social value, harmony value and influence value. Teachers, in particular, both give and receive many different non-economic values through good opportunities to strongly influence the future of other people in a positive way. Feeling needed and useful in this way gives many people a strong sense of purpose in life.[23]

From this little digression, we can take away that teachers are paid for creating value for their students. Teachers also receive many other forms of value in return. However, for teachers, the link between creating value for others and economic value for themselves is not nearly as strong as it is for entrepreneurs. And that’s probably a good thing. If teachers who gave their students higher grades were paid more, we would probably see grade inflation. Right now, in Sweden at least, it is mainly in private schools that we see grade inflation[24] , but that is for other reasons[25], because these teachers actually earn less than in public schools.[26]

We can also note that it is easy to assess how well the entrepreneur is doing in creating value for others. The clear link between value created for others and economic value for oneself means that the answer to how well entrepreneurs are doing can easily be read in the company’s turnover and profit statements.[27] However, it is impossible to assess in the same simple way how well the teacher is doing in creating value for students. It is clear that grades are a poor way of assessing how well a teacher is doing. It leads to an erosion of professionalism and an excessive focus on tests and assessment regimes.[28] The soul of the teaching profession dies a little.[29] But how should we then lead schools towards higher goal fulfilment? Here, a new scientific method can provide a new way forward. When it is the teachers themselves who collect data on how well they succeed in creating value for their students and are responsible for analysing and acting on the data collected, we may finally succeed in combining teacher professionalism with a focus on measuring student learning outcomes.

The intrinsic value of learning and education

The value model in Figure 2.1 looks like a flower but still has no leaf called learning value. However, the value of learning is not missing from the model. Rather, it is included in all the leaves of the model, as value-creating processes are always based on both established knowledge and action-based learning. We live in a knowledge society where knowledge and learning are a prerequisite for participating in society as value-creating citizens. [30]

In addition to the practical benefits an individual citizen or society at large may derive from knowledge and learning, there is also something called epistemic value[31] : the intrinsic value of knowledge. Phenomena commonly mentioned in discussions of epistemic value are knowledge whose practical benefits are not obvious, such as the extinct language of classical Latin, classic works of fiction and basic research. Such knowledge is often said to be the basis of the so-called Humboldtian ideal of “bildung”, and is about developing one’s own personality and soul through liberal and self-cultivating education.[32]

However, the concept of bildung must be adapted to the socially networked society we live in today.[33] Bildung today can therefore also be said to be about figuring out how we want to relate to other people, and which of all possible values we want to create for our fellow travellers on life’s journey. With increasing complexity in society comes an infinite number of choices and possible paths in life. For schools, this means a growing need to engage in opportunity didactics[34] – giving students a chance to explore what kind of citizen they want to become using the knowledge they acquire in their education. In guidance and career counselling, this is sometimes referred to as ‘choice competence’: the ability of students to choose appropriate paths in life.[35] Such skills can be strengthened by giving them the opportunity to try out different types of value creation for others, already in school.

[1] For a detailed study of families’ quest for balance, see Schneider and Waite (2005).

[2] An in-depth and historical review can be found in Lackéus (2018).

[3] An introduction to the research field has been written by Helgesson and Muniesa (2013).

[4] The quote is a post-construction for illustrative purposes, see Stark (2011, s. 7).

[5] For a detailed review of some economists’ treatment of value, see Mirowski (1991).

[6] Read more about this in Kjellberg et al. (2013).

[7] Read more in Mazzucato (2018).

[8] Read more in an anthology by Fejes and Dahlstedt (2018).

[9] For some other value models, see Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) and Sheth et al. (1991).

[10] Read more about this in Seligman (2012) and in Costanza et al. (2007).

[11] Read more about “flow theory” in Csíkszentmihályi (1991).

[12] Read more about this in Fisheries (2008) and in McClelland (1967).

[13] See Baumeister et al. (2013).

[14] See further details in Boltanski and Thévenot (2006).

[15] Read more about contingent value in Sheth et al. (1991).

[16] They are described in United Nations (2015).

[17] For example, Batson and Shaw (1991).

[18] Perspectives on personal happiness and meaningfulness with others are described in Lackéus (2017).

[19] Read more about this in Morris et al. (2012) and in Stephan et al. (2015).

[20] See Morris et al. (2012, s. 208) who write about how unusual it is to study entrepreneurs’ intrinsic motivational factors, compared to a more common focus on the economic values they create.

[21] See for example in DeMarco (2011, s. 223).

[22] Read more in Harvey (2010) and in Marx (1867/1976) own texts.

[23] A famous book by Frankl (1985) is about people’s search for meaning in life. Helping others is also a particularly effective way to create a sense of meaning in life (Baumeister et al., 2013).

[24] See Vlachos (2018).

[25] For some reasons, see report by IVA (2020, s. 72).

[26] See report from the Teachers’ Union (2013).

[27] Of course, it is not quite that simple. Some industries are inherently more profitable than others. But turnover and profits are by far the most common way to judge entrepreneurs.

[28] See Holloway and Brass (2018) and Ball (2003, 2013).

[29] This expression was coined by Ball (2003) and also appears in a paper by Mörk (2020).

[30] Read more about the knowledge society and its implications for schools in Säljö (2007).

[31] Read more about this in an entry in the Oxford Philosophy of Education Dictionary by Carr (2009).

[32] Read more about the concept of education in relation to Swedish schools in Hultén et al. (2019, s. 142).

[33] Biesta (2002) writes that education today is also about how we relate to others.

[34] Davidsen and Robinson (2021) explore possibility didactics in a new book on change pedagogy.

[35] See Skolverket (2020b).