education philosopher

A Delicate Balance: Finding a Middle Ground Between Caring and Adversarialism in Teaching

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Teaching by KevinCK on September 23, 2009

In education, there is much talk about the value of the caring teacher. In particular, theorist Nel Noddings has been quite influential with her vision of the pedagogic importance of “authentic caring” (in contrast to “aesthetic caring”). Taking a cue from Dewey, and more directly, “humanistic” psychologist Carl Rogers, Noddings suggested that in “authentic caring,” teachers would embrace students as individuals in a nurturing, mutually respectful, and…well…caring relationship. In contrast, the teacher that only practices “aesthetic caring,” cares primarily about students performance on academic tasks and, according to Noddings, risks not appreciating students as individuals replete with contexts, desires, and lives that need to be individually nurtured.

I doubt that many could deny the power of a caring teacher and do not suspect that many teachers do not strive to see their students as individuals. But one of the major flaws I see with Noddings view of authentic teaching (besides the fact that for many teachers, seeing all students as individuals to be individually nurtured is impossible on numerical grounds alone) is that too much focus on “authentic caring” negates another important aspect of a teacher’s role: adversarialism. In other words, nurturing students and authentically caring about them may be good to a point, but another key role of teaching – a somewhat antithetical role – is the adversarialism between teacher and student.

Adversarialism – seems like a dirty and nasty word, yes? When we think of adversaries, we think of enemies. It is only the most sadistic of teachers who wants to be enemies with their students. But the word “adversarial” (“adverse” being its root) simply means “to be at odds with.” To say that a teacher and student are adversaries is not to say they are enemies, but simply to say that there will be times where the two have different goals. (Enemies are always adversaries, but adversaries need not be enemies.) Sometimes, the student does not want to learn x, but the teacher’s job demands that she push the student to do so. The student does not always want to take home homework (seldom does, in all likelihood) but the teacher knows that supplemental practice will be good for the student. When student and teacher have conflicting goals, they are adversaries.

For those still not convinced that adversarial relationships may be beneficial, think of the athlete and coach. It should be quite evident that, during practices, there will be times when the coach pushes the athlete more than the athlete would like, and the two struggle against each other. The athlete wants to rest because she is sore. The coach, because of her role, pushes the athlete further.

This is not only directly analogous to the student/teacher relationship, but should sufficiently show that adversaries do not have to be enemies. While the coach may push the student to do things she does not want to do, the coach does so because she cares about (not in the way Noddings had in mind, I think) the athlete. And while the athlete may curse the coach under her breath, she will – at least it is hoped – realize intermittently that the coach is trying to help the athlete achieve goals.

While I am not trying to say that teachers should not attempt to authentically care about students, I am trying to warn against an overly nurturing view because I think such an extreme overlooks the value of the adversarial piece to teaching. (In fact, in my talks with new teachers, I find that one of the key problems they have in the first two years is learning how to be adversarial after their teacher education indirectly gave them the impression that this was a bad approach. The nurturing aspect, it seems, was taught in negation of the adversarial side.) Instead, I think both have valuable things to offer to education, and are valuable ways to approach students to bring out their best. Caring motivates children by making them feel that the teacher appreciates them. Adversarialism pushes students to achieve more than they might if left to their own devices. Some teachers may get by with only one or the other (I think we can all remember examples of overly-adversarial or overly-nurturing teachers). But I believe that the most effective approach – the approach often best acquired by wisdom – is the one that knows which approach to use when by recognizing the value of each approach.

Just like in every other aspect, this is part of what makes teaching a delicate craft. It involves having several approaches and knowing how to successfully balance them. The good teacher will recognize that if we are too adversarial, students may very well disengage but if we are too nurturing, students may very well feel they do not have to work as hard (or see the teacher as a friend rather than a teacher).

Thus, I want to reiterate that while “authentic caring” is a valuable thing for a teacher to do, so is being adversarial. To emphasize one over the other is to handicap teachers into an extreme.

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2 Responses

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  1. Kerri said, on January 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    I’d like to credit your thoughts in a paper. May I have your full name? Thanks.

    • Anonymous said, on January 3, 2013 at 3:54 pm

      Sure, Kerri. My name is Kevin Currie-Knight. (And I’m honored. 🙂 ).


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