education philosopher

Caring Theory Goes to School: Should Public Schools Teach Moral and Emotional Growth?

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Self-esteem movement by KevinCK on October 13, 2009

Today, a colleague of mine gave a very interesting presentation on , Nel Noddings, an education theorist who pioneered the idea of “caring theory.” The article my colleague spoke about, authored by Noddings, is entitled “A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century (1995, Phi Delta Kappan v. 76[5], 465-368). This brief article outlines Noddings vision that too much focus on academics has left our students uncared for and outlining a vision of the future where schools’ primary focus is on nurturing students moral and emotional lives.

There is much to agree with in Noddings articles and much to disagree with. To start with my agreements with Noddings, she and I share a deep belief that one-size-fits-all curricula and schools have more costs than benefits. In their quests to cater to the greatest number, they end up catering to no one in particular.

In trying to teach everyone what we once taught only a few, we have wound up teaching everyone inadequately. Further, we have not bothered to ask whether the traditional education so highly treasured was ever the best education for anyone.

Noddings points out, very controversially, that “The vast majority of adults do not use algebra in their work, and forcing all students to study it is a simplistic response to the real issues of equity and mathematical literacy.” As a former schoolteacher, I believe that I and my colleagues did damage to many students who may have been ill-served by taking Algebra II and Chemistry in a quest to keep them on the college track. It has been my experience that standardized curricula is the moral equivalent of trying to make everyone to fit into the proverbial “round hold” regardless of their shape. In other words, we mold students to fit the curricula rather than the other way around.

But Noddings alternative vision to the standardized curriculum is one I cannot share. (more…)


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. (more…)