My Philosopher: Nel Noddings

noddingsNel Noddings is the product of small-town, East Coast America, of working-class roots, educated in public schools. Always an excellent student, she was initially a school teacher and administrator. Graduate training, culminating with a PhD from Stanford University, led to a prestigious university career with scholarly and pedagogical interests in philosophy of education, in curriculum and teacher education, and in mathematics education…it might be said that an ethics underpins her writing, her own process of doing philosophy. Several aspects of her style are influenced especially by a ‘foundation’ in Dewey. (Stone, 2013).  Noddings offers connection between happiness and morality in discussion that is ‘critical’ of a set of virtues: honesty, courage, intellect and perseverance. She makes clear that ‘relying’ on virtues for happiness requires something more; their enactment may belie intent. She writes, Insofar as virtue is connected to happiness, we must test each purported virtue to see under which conditions it actually shows this connection. We hope that the people produced by our educational efforts will be good people and such Introducing Noddings and the Symposium 485people must be willing to sacrifice some episodic happiness for a deeper form dependent on a life of goodness…. [We] should spend time in discussing goodness … [that] must include critical thinking on critical issues. (Noddings, 2003, p. 167) (Stone, 2013).

Noddings has very strong views on feminism and the roles of teachers and students in the classroom. In her book entitled Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, she writes, when a teacher asks a question in class and a student responds, she receives not just the “response” but also the student. What he says matters, whether it is right or wrong, and she probes gently for clarification, interpretation, and contribution. She is not seeking the answer but the involvement of the cared-for. The teacher receives and accepts the student’s feelings toward the subject matter; she looks at it and listens to it through his eyes and ears. How else can she interpret the subject matter for him? (Noddings, 1984)

Creativity in classrooms is a big concern to Noddings. Many careful thinkers would welcome an analysis of the content of vocational and general programs—not to make them all alike but to assess how well they are meeting the needs of students with various interests in different parts of the country. Are the programs a product of cooperative efforts among educators, employers, and unions, as they are in much of Europe? Are the programs well staffed? Is the equipment kept up-to-date? One can see an obvious need for standards here, but they would not be content standards; they might better be called “opportunity to-learn standards.” The actual content would be (and should be) decided locally in consultation with national and international experts and in response to locally recognized needs (Noddings, 2013).

Noddings uses a case study on the standardization of algebra as an example. How should one define algebra? On this, many believe that a reasonable standard has already been established. Indeed, when one looks at the core standards, one sees nothing new. I taught high school mathematics more than 40 years ago and, aside from slightly different language, there is nothing new in the core standards. They may even be a bit less rigorous than the overly ambitious recommendations of the sixties. Textbooks have provided graded exercises in algebra for years, making it possible to teach both minimal and enriched courses in one class if one prefers to do it that way. But what if many students cannot handle even the minimal course? More standardization will not help; it will just make things more complicated. To say exactly what students will learn does not ensure that they will do so. In practice, many schools today violate their own commitment to standards by offering algebra courses that bear little resemblance to the real thing. The only reasonable response to this problem is to drop the requirement that all students take academic mathematics. Then educators must roll up their intellectual sleeves and work to design an accessible, relevant program for students whose interests and talents do not lead to traditional college work (Noddings, 2013).


Stone, L. (2013). Introducing Noddings and the Symposium. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 45(5), 482-487.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring, a feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (2013). Standardized Curriculum and Loss of Creativity. Theory Into Practice,52(3), 210-215.


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