Home All Caring in Education – An Audience with Nel Noddings

Caring in Education – An Audience with Nel Noddings

written by John Yeager 11 May 2008

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to attend a two-day seminar on “Caring in Education” led by Nel Noddings, professor emeritus from Stanford University. I had known of her work for many years, and was excited to hear her thoughts in person.

To care for young people and to be cared for should not be considered to be mutually exclusive or having permanent labels attached. In student-teacher relationships, we continually change places whether it be a brief encounter, and episode or a chain of experiences. The process of caring is a two-way street.

Attention is a fundamental component for teachers’ caring for their students. This type of receptive attention happens when a teacher understands the cues and things they need to know about a student or fellow teacher. It’s about really listening to others. Attention is accompanied by a feeling. Many teachers have a sense of “motivational displacement,” when the child’s motives become your motives. Noddings provides a fitting example: A teacher watches a young child learn to tie her shoes, and actually imagines tying them for her.

When we help young people learn, we engage several different strategies. Children learn or change behavior through

  1. modeling
  2. dialogue
  3. practice and the consequences of that level of practice
  4. confirmation

When we confirm a student, as Noddings claims, “we help steer a person to his or her better self – and that person says: ‘Here is someone who sees something better in me.’”

This is a powerful reinforcer and I believe this is the missing link to effective character education. When we provide students with ways of identifying their strengths and how and when they come alive, we offer them the opportunity to see the best in themselves. To that end, Noddings made an interesting distinction between “natural” caring and “ethical” caring. The ethical model is “what would I do if I was at my caring best.” This provides pause to think about the ethical implications of what a decision to act might be. Natural caring is more about caring as an end in itself – where caring has been developed to the point that is now a habit and you don’t even need to think about it.

Natural caring has its greatest chance of appearing when healthy relationships have already been forged. It is more likely that the call to action to care will happen around people you already know. She claims that teachers that are likely to be with students for a longer period of time may have more influence. This provides the environment to say “I want to respond to you in a caring way even when I don’t feel like it.” So good teachers establish conditions where natural caring flourishes.

Noddings says that “institutions can provide the conditions for caring. It is human beings that can provide the care.” Unfortunately, the dark side may appear in “misguided” caring. A principal may say that “I am hard on my teachers, because I care about the students. Last year I conducted a 3-hour “Building Strengths and Positive Emotions” workshop at a local elementary school. It was an enjoyable experience, and I gathered the sense that the teachers were “cared for” during that time. After I went on my way, I was later told that the school principal started off the afternoon session by telling the teachers that they were not doing a very good job in preparing their respective students for the state standardized tests – that, basically, it was their fault. His one-minute tirade effectively negated the previous three hours of “caring.”

At a very early age, young people tend to value what they are taught concerning care for self and others. Through attachment and bonding, people who establish trust, autonomy and initiative at a young age tend to exhibit care for others as they grow older. By nature, people typically entertain a certain sense of fulfillment when doing caring acts. However, crafting caring and compassionate relationships is founded on the premise that true care is that which benefits another, without regard to self – it is an end in itself.

Caring teachers aspire to “live in the skin” of their students. They work to see things through the eyes of those they care, which allows them to educate and treat the whole person. Although they cannot actually live in their shoes, teachers take the opportunity to imagine what their experience of tying the student’s shoes might be like.


Noddings, N. (1984/2003). Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Second Edition, with a New Preface. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.

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Senia 14 May 2008 - 11:31 pm

What a beautiful article.
Especially that part about confirmation.
It sounds like ACR.

Also, the distinction between natural and ethical… sounds similar to a distinction between a process goal and an end goal… I’m not sure if this analogy holds – it just seems like a similar dynamic.


Nicholas Hall 15 May 2008 - 12:02 am

Hi John,
It’s interesting for me that this article comes at this specific time. I have been reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, and in it they write extensively about compassion. The Dalai Lama talks at length how the cultivation of compassion is a major component, if not a bedrock, of human morality and happiness. This rang in my mind when reading your article. It seems to me that you are advocating that effective teachers must have a level of true compassion for their students, and not compassion that is too hard or too soft. Having this level of respect and feeling for the students with which we instruct and help to learn and mature must be present if we are to properly “confirm” their education and maturity. It’s fascinating to me how the need for the understanding of the deep underlying truth of the human experience shows up wherever we look. Would you agree?

Sue Roffey 9 July 2014 - 3:41 am

I admire Nell Noddings a great deal. Her work and words need to resonate across all education systems. Governments are leading many of our young people down a dark garden path and telling them that the only way to ‘success’ (define success) is to work hard, conform and do well on tests. This does little to enable the majority to lead an authentically fulfilling life and takes away the critical role of teachers to care for their students.


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