This is the last of four posts about caring, constructed from excerpts from Nel Noddings' 1984 book Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education.
I wish to remind us of three such challenges which I am absolutely sure that they will still be there 50 or even 100 years from now: the question of democracy, that is, of how to live together given that we are different and value our differences; the question of ecology, that is, how to manage to sustain our collective lives on a planet with limited capacity; and the question of care, that is, how we ‘carry’ others, particularly those who are not yet, or no longer able to carry themselves.
[Gert Biesta, The duty to resist: Redefining the basics for today's schools]
What is the primary aim of education?
Nel Noddings, and Gert Biesta, consistently ask us to ask ourselves: What is education for? The answer you give, if you have indeed asked yourself this question, will depend on your values. For Nel Noddings, the primary aim of education is to nurture children's capacity to care.
In pointing to the maintenance and enhancement of caring as the primary aim of education, Noddings draws attention to priorities:
Under the ethic of care, we certainly do not intend to abandon intellectual aims, but rather to suggest that intellectual tasks may be deliberately set aside - not permanently, but temporarily - if their pursuit endangers the ethical ideal. We should accept [the student’s] attitude toward the subject, adjust our requirements in light of his interest and ability, and support his efforts non-judgmentally. He must be aware always that he is more important, more valuable, than the subject.
The cared-for is encountered as ‘Thou’, a subject, and not as ‘It’, an object of analysis. When a teacher asks a question in class and a student responds, she receives not just the ‘response’ but the student. What he says matters, not whether he is right or wrong.
There are times, especially in teaching, through which we encounter large numbers of children, when we feel upon reflection that we failed to receive others adequately, that we did not act to sufficiently enhance their ethical ideal.
What we must do is to be totally and non-selectively present to the student - to each student - as he addresses us. The time interval may be brief but the encounter is total.
Dilemmas and priorities
The one-caring as teacher is not necessarily permissive. But she recognises that, in the long run, the student will learn what he pleases. We may force him to respond in specified ways, but what he will make his own and eventually apply effectively is that which he finds significant for his own life. This recognition does not reduce either the teacher’s power or her responsibility.
The role of the teacher is to include and confirm, but to influence. She meets the student directly but not equally; the teacher accepts his motives, reaches towards what he intends, so long as these motives and intentions do not force an abandonment of her own ethic.
The one-caring as teacher, then, has two major tasks: to stretch the student’s world by presenting a selection of that world with which they are in contact, and to work cooperatively with that student in his struggle towards competence in that world. But the teacher’s task as one-caring has higher priority than either of these. First and foremost the caring teacher must nurture the student’s ethical ideal. He is learning not just mathematics, he is also learning how to be one-caring.
In this approach, the hope is that we may attain both a higher level of cognitive achievement and a more caring, ethical society.
Some implications for the classroom
I have recently been having a discussion with @Kris_Boulton regarding collaborative work in the classroom. If our primary aim for education is to enhance caring relations, it would seem clear that we as teachers must provide opportunities for students to work with each other, to build a sense of relatedness, and to work with them in developing their attentiveness and receptivity. We, in our department, are going to be focusing on this with our students next year.
Another interesting consequence of a pedagogy based on caring would be our responses to students not acting as we might hope. Nodding suggests:
We might well state general expectations, but we need not enforce these rules with penalties. Indeed, an ethic of caring counsels that we should not assign penalties for infractions of these rules… All punitive moves work against the development of subjective responsibility that is required for continuous construction of the ethical ideal. The give the wrong message about both intellectual work and relations to each other.
This coincides with our questions around responsibility and the distribution of authority, and thoughts of my colleague Katy described in this post about employing dialogue and patience in working with students to create awareness of possible implications of their actions.
It suggests that we should not force students to be responsive, through techniques such as SLANT, and others described in Lemov's Teach Like A Champion, and that we would be better served working with students to bring them closer to becoming fully committed to caring relationships on their own terms. Only in this way can true reciprocity, and receptive joy, be cultivated.
This also may explain in more detail my aversion to the zero-tolerance approach, which I feel is irreconcilable with enhancing students' ability to care. Students are not met as individuals. Teachers adopting this type of approach suggest they 'care', and that they are providing 'tough love'. This is in direct opposition to a true caring relationship, which should be based on receptivity and tenderness.
This approach leads to an impoverished view of what it means to care, what Noddings would term a 'masculine' rather than 'feminine' view of care, 'sacrificing children in fulfilling principles', resulting in the 'de-humanisation of children through the loss of the feminine':
It may be that much of what is most valuable in the teaching-learning relationship cannot be specified and certainly not pre-specified. The attitude characteristic of caring comes through in acquaintance. When the student associates with the teacher, feeling free to initiate conversation and to suggest areas of interest, he or she is better able to detect the characteristic attitude even in formal, goal-oriented situations such as lectures. Then a brief contact of eyes may say, "I am still the one interested in you. All of this is of variable importance and significance, but you still matter more."
It is no use saying that the teacher who 'really cares' wants her students to learn the basic skills which are necessary to a comfortable life; I am not denying that, but the notion is impoverished on both ends. On the one extreme, it is not enough to want one's students to master basic skills. I would not want to choose, but if I had to choose whether my child would be a reader or a loving human being, I would choose the latter with alacrity. On the other extreme, it is by itself too much, for it suggests that I as a caring teacher should be willing to do almost anything to bring my students to mastery of the basic skills. And I am not. Among the intangibles that I would have my students carry away is the feeling that the subject we have struggled with is both fascinating and boring, significant and silly, fraught with meaning and nonsense, challenging and tedious, and that whatever attitude we take toward it, it will not diminish our regard for each other. The student is infinitely more important than the subject.
I think this is what is meant by values and respect.