Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Moral Education (Notes)

The title of Nel Noddings’ book (published in 1984) is in fact: Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. The book has eight chapters. Broadly speaking chapters 1-3 and 7 focus on caring, chapters 4-6 focus on the ethics of caring and the ethical ideal, and chapter 8 focusses on moral education, although all the chapters make reference to all these topics.

This is the second time I have read Noddings’ book, and this time I made extensive notes, which I am sharing in two blog posts. In this post, I will share my notes on the final chapter on moral education. For my notes on chapters 1-7, see my previous post Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Notes). If you are not familiar with Noddings’ work and ideas, it may be necessary to read the first post in order to fully understand this post – and, of course, reading notes is no substitute for reading the original text.

What is Moral Education?

Noddings tells us that moral education is an education which strives to meet all morally, and enhances the ethical ideal of those being educated. The ethical ideal is to be one-caring and to meet the other morally. She believes that the primary aim of every educational institution and of every educational effort must be the maintenance and enhancement of caring; parents, the police, social workers, teachers, preachers, neighbours, coaches and older siblings must all accept responsibility. To receive and to be received, to care and be cared-for are the basic realities of human being and its basic aims. When we behave ethically as one-caring, we are not obeying moral principles, although they may guide our thinking, but we are meeting the other in genuine encounters of caring and being cared for. Moral education does not dismiss thinking and reasoning. Training for intelligence and morality should not be separated, but moral education recognises the affective ‘I must’, and intellectual tasks and aesthetic appreciation should be deliberately set aside, temporarily, if their pursuit endangers the ethical ideal. The student is always more valuable, and infinitely more important, than the subject matter.

The One-Caring as Teacher

Noddings believes that teaching is not a role, but a specialised caring relation. ‘As teacher I am first one-caring’. The cared-for is encountered as ‘Thou’ rather than ‘It’ and the teacher seeks the involvement of the cared-for. Whilst the teacher considers the student as more important than the subject matter, the teacher is not necessarily permissive. First and foremost she must nurture the student’s ethical ideal. She leads and influences the student, but ultimately he learns what he pleases. As one-caring, the teacher meets the student directly, but not equally. The special gift of the teacher is to receive the student and to look at the subject matter with him. Her commitment is to him, the cared-for, and he is, through that commitment, set free to pursue his legitimate projects. She lives the one-caring ethic by establishing a relation with the student. Through dialogue, modelling, the provision of practise, and the attribution of best motive, the one-caring as teacher nurtures the ethical ideal. The teacher must be totally and non-selectively present to the student as he addresses her. The time interval may be brief, but the encounter is total.

The student’s contribution to caring is to reward his teacher with responsiveness, questions, effort, comment and cooperation. Whilst the cared-for (student) is free to accept or reject caring, the cared-for is essential to the relation. Responsiveness by the student completes the caring.

Nurturing the Ethical Ideal through dialogue, practise and confirmation

Noddings suggests that the three great means of nurturing the ethical ideal are dialogue, practise and confirmation.

For dialogue to occur, anything can be discussed, e.g. religion, values, beliefs, opinions and feelings. Talking, listening, sharing and responding are vital in every aspect of education. The purpose of dialogue is to come into contact with ideas and to understand, to meet the other and to care.

Students need practise in caring. They can do this through real voluntary work, such as in hospitals and gardens, or with the elderly or animals, not to learn skills as a vocational end, but to see how the skills developed contribute to competence in caring. This reminds me that when I was in the final years of my secondary schooling in the early 60s, it was a requirement to do this kind of voluntary work. Noddings believes that these tasks, in which students are involved in caring apprenticeships, should have equal status to other tasks in education. We should establish opportunities for students to care.

When we attribute the best possible motive consonant with reality to the cared-for, we confirm him, i.e. we reveal to him an attainable image of himself that is lovelier than that manifested in his present acts, but evaluation is difficult for teachers and students. Grading is an intrusion upon the relationship between the one-caring and the cared-for. In grading, teachers are asked to look at the student as object, a thing to which some measuring stick can be applied. Grading violates the relationship between student and teacher. To relieve this conflict, Noddings believes it is important to focus on what is to be attained/learned and not on when it is attained. Grading and evaluation, where teachers regard students as objects, should not be done by teachers. The caring teacher does evaluate, but does not need to sum it up for the world, or to inform others about the student’s progress. The caring teacher cannot confirm a child unless she talks with him and engages in cooperative practise with him. She must see and receive the student, see what he has actually done and receive the feelings with which it was done. The response of the student remains at the heart of the confirmation for the teacher.

Organising Schools for Caring

Noddings has some definite ideas for how schools should be organised, which she focusses on in the final pages of her book. She believes that schools can be designed to support caring, and that the traditional curriculum is masculine and needs to be feminine. These are some of the suggestions that she makes.

In order to nurture caring, schools should be smaller so that they can establish chains and circles of caring (see previous post for reference to chains and circles of caring). My own experience is that establishing a caring relation between teacher and student is easier in smaller schools.

To develop meaningful dialogue between teachers and students, there should be extended contact between them, which could be supported by students staying with the same teacher for a few years. Again, my experience is that this is often the case in smaller schools, with fewer teachers and classrooms.

Classrooms should be cooperative, and students should learn from each other. Noddings is wary of sharp age separations. Again, smaller schools will often have classrooms of mixed ages. Where I live (Cumbria, UK), there are still very small primary schools where all the children from age 4 to 11, or 4 to 7 and 7 to 11, may be taught in the same classroom.

Students should be continually involved in service activities.

The scope of subject matter should be broad. This does not mean that there should be a lot of subjects, but rather that subjects should be laid out along the entire range of human experience, and consider cultural, personal and psychological dimensions of the subject. We should dismantle structures that separate us into narrow specialisations.

Direct teaching for instruction in well-defined skills and the learning of such skills are only part of the process. They serve to set learners free to explore, such that they have opportunities to meet the subject without pre-stated objectives.

Teachers must be one-caring and knowledgeable in their subject if they are to practise inclusion. They must know their subject in depth if they are to follow students for three to four years. Apprentice teachers could work with master teachers, and parents and other adults should be frequent visitors to classrooms.

There should be no penalties for infraction of rules. Punitive moves work against subjective development, and obedience to law is simply not a reliable guide to moral behaviour. There should be invitation to dialogue.

There should be no hierarchy in schools. Instead there should be circles and chains of relations, with the opportunity to move from circles to chains. For example, career teachers could have a fourth year in a different role, enabling them to move from circles to chains, so giving them a break from the intensity and demands of the one-caring relation.

Most of these suggestions, of course, make for an expensive education system, which is perhaps why Noddings’ ideas have never been taken up successfully on a wide scale.

Noddings ends her book with these words.

‘One must meet the other in caring. From this requirement there is no escape for one who would be moral’.


Noddings, N. (1984) Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press.

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