Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Nel Noddings: Caring in Education

Caring in Education
by Nel Noddings
The Encyclopedia of Informal Education

It is sometimes said that “all teachers care.” It is because they care that people go into teaching. However, this is not universally true; we all have known teachers who are cruel and uncaring, and these people should not be in teaching at all. But even for the majority who do “care” in the virtue sense—that is, they profess to care and work hard at their teaching—there are many who do not adopt the relational sense of caring. They “care” in the sense that they conscientiously pursue certain goals for their students, and they often work hard at coercing students to achieve those goals. These teachers must be credited with caring in the virtue sense of the word. However, these same teachers may be unable to establish relations of care and trust.

Caring relations and encounters in education

The relational sense of caring forces us to look at the relation. It is not enough to hear the teacher’s claim to care. Does the student recognize that he or she is cared for? Is the teacher thought by the student to be a caring teacher? When we adopt the relational sense of caring, we cannot look only at the teacher. This is a mistake that many researchers are making today. They devise instruments that measure to what degree teachers exhibit certain observable behaviors. A high score on such an instrument is taken to mean that the teacher cares. But the students may not agree.

Sometimes they agree grudgingly. “She’s tough,” a student may say with some admiration. “She makes us work hard.” Students in such situations often do what they are told, but they have no real interest in what is being taught. They just plod along, driven by the teacher, and escape studies whenever an opportunity arises. They come to equate caring with coercion and good teaching with hard work and control. Guiltily, they recognize the teacher as “caring,” but they do not themselves feel cared for.

Many studies in recent years have described schools and classrooms in which teachers profess to care and work hard, but students still complain, “Nobody cares!” (Eaker-Rich & Van Galen, 1996; Institute for Education in Transformation, 1992; Lyman, 2000; Valenzuela, 1999). Researchers studying such schools must look at teachers, students, and situations. Sometimes the conditions of schooling are so bad that teachers who want to care and students who want to be cared for cannot form the kind of relations we would properly label caring. Then something must be done to change the situation. Perhaps teacher and students need more time together to develop a relation of care and trust? Perhaps classes should be smaller? Perhaps the pressure of standardized testing should be reduced so that teacher and students can explore topics of mutual interest more deeply? Perhaps more attention should be given to students’ interests? Developing a rigorous curriculum that builds upon or, at least, includes student interests is a challenging and satisfying pedagogical task, but teachers need extra time and encouragement to work this way.

The phenomenological analysis of caring reveals the part each participant plays. The one-caring (or carer) is first of all attentive. This attention, which I called “engrossment” in Caring (Noddings, 1984), is receptive; it receives what the cared-for is feeling and trying to express. It is not merely diagnostic, measuring the cared-for against some pre-established ideal. Rather, it opens the carer to motivational displacement. When I care, my motive energy begins to flow toward the needs and wants of the cared-for. This does not mean that I will always approve of what the other wants, nor does it mean that I will never try to lead him or her to a better set of values, but I must take into account the feelings and desires that are actually there and respond as positively as my values and capacities allow.

In a caring relation or encounter, the cared-for recognizes the caring and responds in some detectable manner. An infant smiles and wriggles in response to it mother’s caregiving. A student may acknowledge her teacher’s caring directly, with verbal gratitude, or simply pursue her own project more confidently. The receptive teacher can see that her caring has been received by monitoring her students’ responses. Without an affirmative response from the cared-for, we cannot call an encounter or relation caring.

Why is the relational view difficult for many educators?

The relational view is hard for some American thinkers to accept because the Western tradition puts such great emphasis on individualism. In that tradition, it is almost instinctive to regard virtues as personal possessions, hard-won through a grueling process of character building. John Dewey rejected this view and urged us to consider virtues as “working adaptations of personal capacities with environing forces” (1930, p. 16). Care theorists expand this Deweyan insight and emphasize the role of our partners in interaction as a central factor in “environing forces.” We recognize moral interdependence. How good (or bad) I can be depends in substantial part on how you treat me. Acknowledging our moral interdependence means rejecting Kant’s claim that it is contradictory to make our ourselves responsible for another’s moral perfection. Care theorists insist that we must, indeed, accept such responsibility. Without imposing my values on an other, I must realize that my treatment of him may deeply affect the way he behaves in the world. Although no individual can escape responsibility for his own actions, neither can the community that produced him escape its part in making him what he has become.

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