The Ethics of Care and Education

The education system needs to be improved. This is a simple statement full of truth, and fact. The education system can be improved through implementing the ethics of care in our education system. This statement is neither true, nor fact, nor is it untrue, or without merit, it is however, the statement that is to be examined in this paper. This paper will examine the changes that the Ethics of Care call for in our education system, and by examining both the positions of Noddings and other voices in the debate, and input from a students perspective we will seek to come to some conclusion as to whether the statement, ‘The education system can be improved through implementing the Ethics of Care in our education system,’ is true or untrue, with or without merit.

A critical examination of Noddings’ theory on the caring method with which teachers are supposed to teach, gives rise to some problems and apparent incongruities with her theory. A problem with Noddings’ Ethics of Care, as it applies to teachers is the basis of the deep and trusting relationship that Noddings supposes exists, or informs teachers that they must create. The argument has been made that it is not possible for a teacher to develop a deep and respectful relationship with her students due to the sheer number of students that a teacher has to deal with. Hult is mentioned in Noddings’ work as a voice that has spoken out that the development of this relationship is impossible due to the constraints of time and numbers that each teacher faces. “While these may sometimes occur and may be desirable, most pedagogical context made such relationships implausible if not undesirable.”[1]

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Noddings suggests that Hult and the others that hold this view are missing the point, ” I do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time consuming, personal relationship with every student. What I must do is to be totally and nonselectively present to the student – to each student – as he addresses me.”[2] Noddings then seems to contradict this position, or reveal that she is not entirely sure that she believes that it could be developed in the present system when she makes the following point about the benefits of reorganizing the school system: “If for example, elementary school teachers were to remain with a group of students for three years rather than for the traditional one year, there might be time to develop the sort of deep and caring relationship that could provide the basis for trust and genuine dialogue.”[3] So should we then assume that by expressing her desire for the entire system to be reworked, so that there be time to develop these relationships, that Noddings does then, believe, that it does require time in order for a teacher to develop these relationships?

A further problem with Noddings’ Ethics of Care and the instructions for teachers is made evident upon closer examination of Noddings supposition that the student is to learn his ethical ideals “as a result of his relation to her.”[4] Noddings gives the example of catching a student cheating as a avenue for instilling a positive ethical ideal in her students. Noddings supposes that the student will learn that cheating is wrong, based on this caring relationship between themselves and the teacher. A relationship that is not as easy to suppose into existence as Noddings has suggested. After a teacher catches a student cheating, the teacher is to lay out why it morally wrong to cheat.

The student will then under the model in the Ethics of Care, presumably no longer cheat out of respect for his relationship with the teacher and his admiration for her, “When, out of intrinsic interest or trust and admiration for the teacher,”[5] the student chooses not to cheat again in the future. However, the teacher then proceeds, according to Noddings formula, to show that “the rules are not sacred to her.”[6]

So what we have in this interaction is in fact the teacher making another subtle assertion that the rules do not matter. This method also brings in the potential for further break down of the relationship between the teacher and her students. For if the teacher chooses not to punish the first child for cheating, and then proceeds to punish the next student for cheating, even after explaining again why it is important, the main lesson that the student being disciplined, and the students watching are going to learn, is that the teacher choose to enforce unequal discipline. “Everything we do, then as teachers, has moral overtones.”[7] This in itself would lead to an extensive erosion of the relationship between the teacher and the second student, as he/she will feel unfairly treated, thus eroding the trust that has to be there between teacher and student for the Ethics of Care to work. It would also lead to an erosion of the relationship between the teacher and the rest of her students as they have witnessed what most will see as the unfair punishment of the second student.

Nodding’s theory on the Ethics of Care as it applies to the practical curriculum of schools however, shows the potential for integration into the existing school system, and holds the potential for positive effects on the development of students and the community. The question does come to mind when this is mentioned that if you devalue part of the theory due to its inconstancies, and failures, then how can you support another part, advocating its integration into the school system, while it is not the Ethics of Care, as it is only part of the ethic.

Noddings herself gives the reasoning for taking only what works and suggesting it as a ideal, and postponing the implementation of what is not yet ready to be applied to the Education system. “Everything that is proposed as part of education is examined in its light. That which diminishes it is rejected, that which casts doubt on its maintenance is postponed, and that which enhances it is embraced.”[8] It is for this reason that while rejecting the first half of Noddings model for the behavior a teacher, merit can be found and practical applications can be found in her suggestions for the alteration of school curriculum.

Arguably Noddings’ best theory and suggestions for the revamping of school structures and learning is call for community based learning through interaction with volunteer agencies, service activities, community groups, and the learning, and development of care that would come with experience with these groups. “Wherever students might be assigned – to hospitals, nursing homes, animal shelters, parks, botanical gardens – a definite expectation would be that their work be a true apprenticeship in caring.”[9]

This framework alone has the ability for students to realize moral growth, and a rebuilding of a sense of community even from the simple starting point of showing students conditions that they are for the most part shielded from in the average suburban school. To best illustrate this point we would be best served by taking the example of students working with the homeless as part of their community service. While this is not something to be suggested for younger students, high school students shown the harsh realities of homelessness, through working with the homeless would have a much better understanding and concern for the problem then students who read about the problem in a text book in class.

The current school system does little to inform or train students as to the actual realities of life, and the real issues that they will later be called to vote on, comment on, or make comments on themselves. One of the greatest problems with the development of caring and concern for others is the very fact that students are shielded from the very things that they are learning about in their classrooms. The exposure of students to various aspects of society, such as the condition of the homeless in person and directly in front of them would help students to form opinions based in truth when thinking about these groups. How many students have actually spoken to a homeless person for more then ten minutes, yet claim that through their textbook studies they are well familiarized with the problem.

In her paper published in the Journal of Moral Education Noddings lays out a few changes to a high school curriculum that have great merit. “Sophomores might study old age and do their practice in nursing-homes and adult communities…”[10] How better to encourage understanding of different social groups and the problems unique to each of them, then to actually spend time amongst those groups. Science classes can be enriched by placing students in practical learning environments such as botanical gardens, marine wildlife preserves, zoos and other practical environments. Students would learn more through experience, as has been demonstrated in the past, and can learn more, and be encouraged to develop a care for their environment by being shown first hand through these practical learning environments.

Incorporating the effects of human civilization and co-existence can be easily incorporated and students can be shown the realities of species and habitat destruction first hand. A class in Halifax for example could be shown first hand the effect of human development has had on the environment by being taken on an marine study of the Halifax harbor. The stark reality of pollution, and environmental destruction is hard to ignore when you see first hand what happens when a city simply dumps all its sewage into the bay.[11] Students that are educated in the harsh realities of the world are more likely to develop a care for that world and the inhabitants of it, if they experience that world first hand, rather then discussing it academically with little or not practical experience.

These practicums are not all that hard to implement, Miles MacDonnel Collegiate in Winnipeg has experimented with this kind of integration of practical experience to some success via its ‘Challenge Tomorrow Program'[12]. The program integrates these practical learning sessions into afternoon sessions working with the agency of choice, while still maintaining the basic educational requirements demanded of the school system. This and other examples contradict the argument that there is not enough time in the school day to incorporate these practicums and still fulfill the academic core.

Noddings also has some suggestions for reworking various existing classes by incorporating more inclusive views and a wider range of issues. English is a course that Noddings sites as an area that can be improved. “In English not only must women writers be sought out, but women’s themes must be treated.”[13] The Nobel Prize winning work by Pearl S. Buck is cited as an example of women’s literature that could be incorporated to promote a “universal interpretation of culture.”[14] In order to promote a culture in which equity, caring and a individuals relation to the world around them, the curriculum must cover a wider expanse of cultural issues.

These practicums also allow for an exploration of career possibilities through experience, and the development of practical skills. This however “is not a warmed-over suggestion for elaborate work-study programs.”[15] Noddings suggests rather “that students should not always be assigned to areas in which they have shown a special talent… In some study intervals, the student might elect his service; in others, he might accept the committee’s suggestion that he try something for which he has shown little aptitude.”[16] This is to prevent streaming in a students learning, and promote a wider educational base for the student to operate from. “The decision should be entirely separated from any consideration of the student’s eventual academic course of study; that is, it should not be considered a sorting out or variation of tracking. It is, rather, a decision aimed at optimal development and not at academic acceleration.”[17]

The conclusion that we come to upon our examination of the Ethics of Care as it applies to the education system is that it both works and does not work. The instructions for a new method of teaching for teachers, fails almost entirely by cross-examination with the theory itself. To be able to build the relationship in a short period of time, or to require an extended period to develop the relationship needed. The ethic is not yet up to the task of becoming a practical modus operandus in the education system.

The ethic does however present many interesting, beneficial, and excellent opportunities for growth that are presented though out its suggestions for practicum. As Noddings has stated “That which diminishes it is rejected, … and that which enhances it is embraced.”[18] So then Noddings should be embraced for her practical applications for practicum as a portion of the ethic that enhances learning, while rejecting her suggestions for a teacher’s way of teaching. It is in this way that the Ethics of Care is both with, and without merit when it comes to its applications for education.

Bibliography & References

Hult, Richard E. On Pedagogical Caring. Educational Theory. 1979.
Junell, Joseph S. Matters of Feeling: Values Education Reconsidered. Phi Delta Cappa Educational Foundation. 1979

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