Nel Noddings Essay

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Nel Noddings is among the leading philosophers of education in the United States. At a practical level, and in books such as The Challenge to Care in Schools, she argues that schools need to become more caring places.

Noddings began her career as a sixth-grade teacher and then took a position in secondary mathematics. After completing a master’s degree in mathematics at Rutgers University, she earned a doctorate of education from Stanford University.

Noddings has made many contributions to mathematics education and the philosophy of education. She is best known for her work on the ethics of care. Rejecting more traditional philosophical models, Noddings posited an alternative approach to ethics based on a feminist model of care—that is, the care a mother might have for a child. Her approach, which has been described as relational ethics because of its emphasis on relationships, maintains that caring involves three principles: receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness. Through a process of what she describes as “engrossment,” the teacher receives what the cared-for (i.e., the student) is feeling and wants to express. Drawing on the work of John Dewey, Noddings argues that the teacher and students should be involved in a process of interaction in which each affects the other through a process of moral interdependence. According to her, students are more likely to trust teachers whom they perceive not as trying to interfere or impose their beliefs on them, but as concerned with nurturing and guiding them. Through dialogue with their students, teachers develop an understanding of them as individuals and how best to work with them to help them achieve their educational needs. During this process of caring and guiding, teachers work at becoming more skilled and competent in what they do.

For Noddings, caring relationships provide the most appropriate basis for moral education. Students learn to care for others and their needs as they are cared for. Her general approach clearly resonates with many of Dewey’s progressive models and provides a challenging alternative to the current standards movement and the extreme regulation and control of the curriculum. Ultimately, in her system, teachers achieve agency and the ability to grow and develop as they nurture, guide, and help sustain the students under their charge.


  1. Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.
  3. Noddings, N. (1995). Philosophy of education. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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