Care Ethics: Nel Noddings


In week three of this course, while contemplating Augustine’s notion of love in education, we had a really interesting discussion here about the role of love in the teacher-student relationship: some suggested teachers should not be motivated by a love of children but by a love of teaching and content; others proposed that love (in the non-erotic conception) is an important element of the relational aspect of education. With this week’s reading by Nel Noddings, we are presented with an alternative conception of the relationship: that an ethics of care and caring relations might be a constructive way to conceive of the student-teacher relationship.  

CONTEXT: Care Ethics

First, an understanding of care ethics is required. Understandably, the content of this course has somewhat echoed the historical path of philosophical thought: till now, our readings have been written predominantly by male authors. Important female philosophers certainly existed (e.g. Hypatia of Alexandria in the 4th Century; de Gournay writing at the turn of the 17th Century; Wollstonecraft in the 18th Century - to name just a couple of the more well-known). Yet they have been largely ignored by the canon; perhaps along with them, so too is the female perspective somewhat absent. However, towards the later half of the 20th Century, women’s voices were starting to be heard more, and their perspectives emerged more prominently. Two such influential voices were Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings in the 1980s: through their work, the ethics of care became more precisely articulated. 

Gilligan, an ethicist and psychologist, articulated her ideas on the ethics of care in terms of moral development after observing the different decision-making processes of females and paying attention to their voices (Gilligan, 2003). Much of the previous philosophical thought was concerned with rights, rules and justice, and it could be argued, lacked the feminine perspective. In contrast, an ethics of care presents the idea that we focus more on needs and relationships. Care ethicists claim that responsibilities derive directly from relationships between particular people; that ‘every life starts in relation, and it is through relations that a human being emerges’ (Noddings, 2012, p.771). It is an ethic rooted in interactions and relations, in which the individual is listened to attentively and responded to according to their expressed needs. Thus in care ethics, moral responsibilities are derived directly from relationships in context, rather than from abstract rules or principles; deliberation should be empathy-based rather than based in duty or principle (Collins, 2015, p.5).


Nel Noddings - feminist, educationalist, and philosopher - grounds her own philosophy of education in care ethics. But before delving into her perspective, it is vital we understand how the words and concepts of ‘care’ and ‘caring’ are understood. We need to conceive of ‘care’ beyond the everyday use of the word, in reference to kindness or concern; we need to see beyond the conception of a ‘caring teacher’ as one who is perhaps nice, friendly, or shows concern for their students (Rabin & Smith, 2013). In terms of care ethics, the teacher as carer is more nuanced: their caring manifests in all domains of classroom practices and experiences: learning goals, classroom management, assessment practices, curriculum planning, moral education, and more. As Noddings (2012) elucidates, it is not merely about an attitude of caring existing within, and displayed by, the teacher: it is situated within the relationship between carer and cared-for. 

When thinking about this in the concept of the teacher-student relationship, it is about centering the people involved, authentically listening, being attentive to the voiced needs of the cared-for (the student), and responding in a way which maintains the caring relationship. Indeed, for Noddings (2012), ‘the teacher as carer is interested in the expressed needs of the cared-for, not simply the needs assumed by the school as an institution and the curriculum as a prescribed course of study’ (p. 772). A crucial further element is that the cared-for needs to feel cared for: without this element, there is no caring relation, but merely an attitude of caring which resides as a virtue within the carer (Nodding, 2012).

NEL NODDINGS: Specific Issues in Education

Noddings raises many highly relatable and thought-provoking educational issues: should teachers stay with classes for multiple years? Do teachers always know what’s ‘best’ for students? Should education be interdisciplinary, and not so siloed into subjects? All of these would be interesting to discuss. However, there are two topics I will  pick up on and relate to recent educational debates: the purpose of assigning grades; and the teacher as a moral educator. 

Before doing so, a quick point must be made about Nodding’s underlying assumption of the goal of education. As seen with many of the readings so far, whether one sees the ultimate goal of education as preparation for future careers, the shaping of democratic citizens, the teaching of morals and virtues, or the installation of a desire for learning, it will impact one’s beliefs about educational practice. In her own words, Noddings (2012) identifies ‘the richest aims of education: full, moral, happy lives; generous concern for the welfare of others; finding out what one is fitted to do occupationally’ (p. 778). If one disagrees with this goal, then the following ideas may understandably be conceived of differently. 


In context of creating a climate for caring, Noddings takes up the issue of grading practices and argues that academic achievement ‘should not be evaluated entirely by how much higher one scores than others on a standardised test ot by one’s rank as measured by grade-point average’ (p.778). This opinion is grounded in care ethics as she seeks to move away from global competition, towards ideals of global cooperation. Moreover, moving away from grading facilitates Nodding’s call for an education system which helps students discover what they want to do and achieve, what they’re interested in, and their own aptitude in their chosen areas (p. 799). 

In terms of recent trends in education, many countries and districts are moving away from grading towards competency-based learning: shifting away from assessments of learning, towards assessments as learning. Here in British Columbia, our new curriculum emphasises this shift with many schools eliminating quantitative grades in favour of self-reported assessments and mastery-based reporting (Nixon, 2018). It is a model which seems inline with Noddings’ ethics of care framework, as it is not based on assumed needs, but rather students’ own expressed needs and identified goals.   

Studies have also shown that detailed feedback has a greater impact in increasing internal motivation in students, than simply assigning grades (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Koenka et al., 2019; Lipnevich & Smith, 2009). In my research however, I found many empirical studies which measured the impact of feedback, do so by measuring grade changes: the very premise of this would miss the mark in terms of an ethics of care, as it centers the goal on an assumed desire for higher grades, rather than what the goals of the students (cared-for) may be, or even the facilitation of relationship. Yet still, might we argue that personalised feedback helps build the caring relationship between teacher and student which Noddings emphasizes, increasing the likelihood that the student feels cared-for? 


Noddings states: ‘Every teacher is a moral educator’ (p.777). She does so without much explanation; it is assumed. Yet, do we all agree? It certainly seems to be a dominant role in current education practices with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) gaining interest in recent years (a quick Google trends search of the term evidences this). It is not a new concept. As seen in our course content, moral/character education and the teaching of virtues were key themes all the way back in ancient Greece. However, with the work of individuals such as psychiatrist James Comer at Yale in the 1960s, and Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence in the 90s, it has gained more prominent place in school curricula. The development of traits such as self-awareness, empathy, and interpersonal skills – emphasized in SEL curriculums – seem at home when teaching an ethics of care: As Noddings (2016) notes, ‘the ethic of care requires each of us to recognize our own frailty and to bring out the best in one another. It recognizes that we are dependent on one another (and to some degree on good fortune) for our moral goodness’ (p.229).

Yet, let us consider this notion of the teacher as the educator of such traits, as a moral educator: Are they prepared for it? Do they know it is part of their job? Do they have the capabilities to carry out this role? This was certainly not emphasized in my own training as a teacher. Noddings (2012) argues that it is the ‘capacity to be moved by the affective condition of the other that teachers try to develop in students as part of their moral education’ (p.773); yet what if the teacher does not possess this capability themself? Teacher Social Emotional Competence (SEC) is surely an important piece of the puzzle, yet it is questionable whether or not all teachers possess high SEC, or are even trained to develop it. 

In a study on this issue, Jennings and Greenburg (2009) highlight the importance of teachers’ SEC in the development and maintenance of supportive teacher–student relationships (arguably caring relationships): interestingly, they suggest a relationship between SEC and teacher burnout; that when teachers do not have have high social emotional competence, it can result in challenging classroom management, higher stress levels, conflict, etc. An important aspect of the caring relation in teaching is dependent on the teacher as carer, modeling caring, displaying attentive listening, exercising empathy, etc. Therefore, if we follow an ethics of care, is this something we should emphasise more in training and professional development? 


Collins, S. (2015). The core of care ethics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gilligan, C. (2003). In a different voice : psychological theory and women’s development  (38th print.). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Nixon, D. (2018, May 17). B.C. leads the push to eliminate letter grades from school report cards. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Jennings, P., & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 491–525.

Koenka, A., Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Moshontz, H., Atkinson, K., Sanchez, C., & Cooper, H. (2019). A meta-analysis on the impact of grades and comments on academic motivation and achievement: a case for written feedback. Educational Psychology, 1–22.

Lipnevich, A., & Smith, J. (2009). Effects of differential feedback on students’ examination performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15, 319–333.

Noddings, N. (2016). Philosophy of education (4th edition.).

Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6), 771–781. 

Rabin, C., & Smith, G. (2013). Teaching care ethics: conceptual understandings and stories for learning. Journal of Moral Education, 42(2), 164–176. 


Mariam Siddiqi mars 23, 2020, 23:23

Hi Stacey, Thank you for sharing an excellent and insightful presentation. I'd like to begin by inquiring as to what your personal definition for care is and how the context relates to your personal journey through education. It's important for me, as the reader, to identify this to further build an understanding of the analysis of the topic at hand. You have, in my humble opinion, begun to make some excellent points: however, I feel as though some thoughts were left halfway and I would love to read more. What does it mean to be cared for? In your presentation, you wrote: "In terms of care ethics, the teacher as a carer is more nuanced: their caring manifests in all domains of classroom practices and experiences: learning goals, classroom management, assessment practices, curriculum planning, moral education, and more..." While beautifully written - I'd like to probe deeper. What does that mean? I find care to be such a vague term and though you identified the importance of the relationship between the carer and cared-for, respectfully I will say the sentence doesn't seem to complete itself quite yet. I'd like to ask: how do we measure care? or love? or respect? It is simply a feeling, right? a relationship between two individuals (for the context of this argument, one being the educator and the other being his/her student). What Noddings identified is of course, important. But again, for the purpose of this commentary, vague. Let's move to the grading aspect: if we simply allow students to work towards their own aptitude, we are potentially set to raise a generation of children who do not push themselves to win. If they have no competition, the lazy will fall behind (i.e, when soccer games refuse to keep track of score to remove the direct correlation to competition and kids are just playing for fun). Life is competitive and with the current climate of a global job market, young people need to learn a new level of competitiveness in order to stand out and ultimately find success. If children are growing up with competition being removed from their learning - are we ultimately doing them a disservice? Care should not mean denial of thorough preparation. Educators are trained to teach children that competition is a normal part of life and to give them strategies to cope with that reality. Removing competition from childhood may temporarily increase a child’s self-esteem, but in the long run, it may potentially offer a disservice because it removes from them the ability to practice winning and losing, which is an everyday part of adulthood. Overall, your presentation was excellent and very well written. Hope you're safe during these strange times!

Stacey Lloyd mars 24, 2020, 23:23
Replying to Mariam Siddiqi

Mariam, I really appreciate your detailed commentary: thank you for probing deeper engagement with some great questions! Let me get to it. You are quite right: a nuanced understanding of the terms 'care' 'caring' and 'carer' or 'cared-for' are certainly needed. I say this because in the quotidian sense, we think of 'care' as meaning showing concern or kindness. When I first started thinking about care ethics, this did seem a little wishy-washy to me (I will admit!). Yet, Noddings’ use is perhaps more nuanced. I found the video interview linked below of Noddings helpful: she distinguishes between caring about and caring for. We can care about lots of important things (wars, climate change, etc.) but to care for an individual, there needs to be a relationship: the carer needs to know the individual and their needs. So to demonstrate care for a student, the teacher needs to have a good knowledge of what the student feels, wants, and their own expressed needs. Thus a caring relationship is one of personal attention, reciprocity, understanding, and informed knowing. To provide a personal example in my journey as an educator (as you asked for): I once advocated for a student to take an AP literature course as they were talented in the area, and I knew it to help them get into university. This was me caring about their future. However, Noddings would perhaps question me on this and ask: “Is that what the student wanted? Was that their goal?” You see caring for would entail my asking these questions; realising that the goals of the majority mightn’t be the goal of the individual in front of me. It would require my listening (attentively), putting aside what I assume are the needs of the student, and then responding accordingly. It involves an individualised approach. It necessitates a relationship. It often requires empathy. As you might anticipate, this poses a problem when it comes to mass education and policy-making. Secondly: you are quite right in the challenges you see in an ethics of care framework when it comes to the role of competition in a competitive global market. Yet here, it is important to understand that 'care ethics counters today’s educational climate that emphasizes standardization and quantitative assessment' (Robins & Smith, 2013, p. 165). It is not that care ethicists are merely advocating that we eliminate competition and allow students to flounder in a competitive world: I think that they would rather seek to shift the emphasis more globally. But your comments about competition are certainly pertinent: issues of motivation (whether intrinsic or extrinsic is more effective) have sparked controversial debate in education (and fields of psychology) for some time. Do extrinsic motivators enhance learning? Or do they hinder the development of intrinsic motivators? Which are more beneficial for productivity? I would love to hear what people think on this. I think here - as with many of our discussions - it also comes down to one’s view of what the underlying goal of education is: is it to prepare students for a competitive global economic market? Or is it to help them become caring, empathetic, happy, fulfilled individuals? I am not sure. But I think Noddings is clear in her answer: “..we do our students (and our society) a significant disservice when we define happiness entirely in terms of financial success” (Noddings, 2003, 278-82). References: Noddings, Nel (2003). Happiness and education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Shannon Ellis mars 24, 2020, 20:37

Hi Stacey, Thank you for such a well thought out presentation, it really was a joy to read! I found myself extremely fixated on your discussion of grading and assigning grades. This is something I find myself struggling with in terms of ethics, and if the grade is representing the true learner, or is it representing the learner against different societal structures that exist that either help or hinder their experience with education. There are many things that influence a child's learning, and effectively influence their grades. Social, familial, cultural, and biological aspects all influence the way in which a child interacts with education, so it brings into question how much of the learning that is true to the individual learner and their unique experiences is reflected in their grades. Thinking about this question in terms of care ethics and moving away from global competition to global cooperation helps me rationalize that care between a teacher-student relationship is fundamental for the learners true self to be reflected through the grade. Assessment as learning is definitely one way to go about assessing and assigning grades that provides a bigger picture of the individual learner, but I think it must go farther than that. You mentioned the importance of feedback, which I think is important in a teacher-student relationship that values caring, and highlighted that it misses the mark of the care ethics outlined in this reading because the end goal is still on higher grades. I would propose to have feedback be an opportunity to improve, and not have marks as finite. What if an educator provides feedback for a student, allows them go back and edit their work, apply the feedback, and resubmit the assignment? Yes, the motivation is still on achieving a high grade, but it also facilities the growth mindset that educators are constantly trying to get their students to value. By having the children learn that a low mark does not mean they are underachieving, but have them look at "failure" as a chance to improve and learn may be an example of care ethics between the teacher-student. The mark the children receive when getting a grade assigned to them no longer becomes about competition with others, rather, become a way in which to facilitate deeper, more meaningful learning. In this type of feedback/grading, learning is not static, nor does the learning experience come to a halt as soon as they receive their mark. It creates an opportunity for dialogue, deeper learning, and ultimately allows the educator an opportunity to reevaluate their teaching techniques. Noddings mentions the idea of other-oriented, which ultimately is the basis of educating, teachers are serving the children in which they teach. If the educator has an opportunity to see how they can serve the learner more effectively by providing more learning opportunities for them after assigning a grade, they can alter their delivery and pedagogy to better support the student. I think this is a tremendous way to demonstrate care-ethics, as this type of feedback/re-grading puts the care of the child's education and wellbeing at the forefront of the learning experience. I'd love to hear what you think about this type of feedback/grading in terms of Noddings article!

Stacey Lloyd mars 24, 2020, 20:37
Replying to Shannon Ellis

Yeah, absolutely Shannon: you make great points! I agree with you that within the care ethics framework, that perhaps the relational work underpinning your proposed assessment/reassessment process may be viewed positively. Interestingly, in my last school, as a whole staff (high school), we went through a long process of evaluating our school-wide re-assessment policies: essentially discussing whether to allow the exact type of reassessment policies you describe. This was the work of many (many) staff meetings over months. What was fascinating to me was seeing how strongly teachers felt (on both ends of the spectrum) about this issue: we were clearly having a discussion about grading practices on the surface, but underneath we were debating the issue from multiple contrasting philosophical beliefs about the ultimate purpose of education. This made it difficult to find consensus. Moreover, it was interesting to see the differences in departments: most of the teachers in the humanities were more in favour of the system of reassessment you describe, and most of the teachers in the math and science departments were strongly opposed: I wonder what we might glean from that! Again, thank you for your response; these are great further avenues of discussion.

Stefania Palladini mars 26, 2020, 22:51

I would like to begin my commentary by saying that I think your presentation provides a great overview the reading and that you make some great points. Two concepts in particular jumped out at me as I read your presentation and I would like to focus my commentary on the discussion of grades, and the benefits of feedback and feeling cared for. As Nodding argues, learners “should not be evaluated entirely by how much higher one scores than others on a standardised test.” Personally, I am not much of a fan of grades, mostly from the student/learner perspective. Grades feel impersonal and disconnected. A single letter or percentage does not expand on what one could do better. They not provide guidance or encouragement. Grades do not pave a path forward, but rather feel more like an obstacle than an achievement. Pursuing a specific grade for the sake of simply having it be associated with you causes students to adapt their learning to appease their evaluators as opposed to learning the content in a more holistic, abstract way. It feels a bit like the difference between eating vegetables because your mom told you to and you eat them to make her happy, and eating vegetables of your own volition and actually enjoying them because they are good for you and contribute to maintaining good health. Are students doing certain things to make their teachers happy? Or are they actually exploring areas that they enjoy which subsequently contribute to healthy, lifelong learning habits? As you so excellently state throughout your presentation, the assumption of learning needs fails to nurture these healthy learning habits. You ask, “might we argue that personalized feedback helps build the caring relationship between teacher and student which Noddings emphasizes, increasing the likelihood that the student feels cared-for?” I think this is a poignant question, one certainly worth asking. I think establishing a respectful, appropriate rapport between teacher and learner is essential. I think respectful, appropriate rapports are essential to almost everything. Being able to trust someone with your uncertainty is vital. Knowing that your needs will be addressed in a bespoke way to your specific learning characteristics provides a significant amount of relief. I can certainly relate to this need. I always experienced a lot of anxiety in the classroom when I was little. I did not always feel comfortable in the presence of my teachers or classmates, and it certainly impacted the way I was evaluated. I never spoke in class. I never raised my hand. But I knew all the answers to the questions my teachers were asking. I did not particularly enjoy taking tests either. I would have been a much happier student if I felt that my teachers were my teammate and not my superior. I was particularly aware of the power dynamic between us and felt that I would not be nurtured in the way I needed so I chose to keep to myself. Going back to your question, feedback, personalized feedback, that takes into account the learner’s preferences and personality is valuable. I was a pretty shy kid, and feeling cared-for, as you so articulately explore throughout your presentation, would have been beneficial to me. It certainly could be argued that providing such a personalized learning experience to learners is a glorified form of coddling. I do not agree with this, but for the sake of intellectual debate I think there is value in challenging our ideas. If presented with the argument that students are in school to learn what the teacher says, and if students cannot keep up with the standard, exceptions should not be made for them because broader society does not so readily make exceptions, how would you use your research/knowledge to argue this perspective?

Gillian Birch mars 27, 2020, 18:42

Hi Stacey, such a well written post! I first want to thank you for calling out the fact that historically the feminine view has often been overlooked, in many fields, including the field of education. The specific calling out of this is certainly impactful, but at the same time, very true. I thoroughly enjoyed what you had to say about Noddings’ thoughts on grading students and is something that I also agree with. I’m not a fan of assigning students a grade without any explanation. When it comes to assigning grades, it is definitely a process which can be meaningful for everyone, so long as the assignment of grades is done in a way that is more helpful rather than harmful. As you have already brought up, the utilization of more comprehensive feedback demonstrates a higher level of care in the education system. With this being said, my question for you would be how would you go about implementing these ideas in the classroom? It is easy to say that we will give each student dedicated and personalized feedback, but when class sizes are upwards of 30 students, there is often not enough time to be able to give each student individualized feedback. Which in turn can create stress for the teacher because they may feel the need to be working consistently to get this feedback out, but on the other hand may create stress for students if they are receiving a mark without any explanations.

Stacey Lloyd mars 27, 2020, 18:42
Replying to Gillian Birch

Hey Gillian; thanks for your thoughts. You make a really good point: often there is a disconnect between theory and practice! While we may have deeply held philosophical beliefs (about the goals of education, the outworking of the teacher-student relationship, how practical education should be, etc.)... when it comes to actually implementing these, it often becomes extremely challenging. Moreover, this might be especially difficult when we are working within a pre-existing system which perhaps has different assumptions and beliefs to our own. So to answer your question about how to implement personalised feedback: perhaps I would say that it is *not* possible to do authentically and meaningfully with 30+ students in a class. That perhaps there is a deeper issue of class sizes and how we structure and organise our schools, which we need to address. Yet such an answer is probably unhelpful for someone who doesn't have the ability to make such change, and is looking to find ways to adapt within the system. In which case: I think there are a variety of ideas I have tried in my own classroom and had some success with. I have found mini-conferences productive and great for verbal feedback; I am intentional when planning my term to have batches of work coming in from different grades at different times; when working on google docs, I voice record feedback as I find it quicker (and more personal) than typing longer responses; I try to stagger my feedback throughout a process of a project/assignment (so students get feedback at different times), so the burden of it isn't all at once for me; I have pre-written responses which I can draw from and personalise... Not sure if any of those are helpful, but I would love to hear from others if they have tips. Drawing back a little: I would say that while attaining philosophical aims in practice isn't always possible, I do think that at least the attempt forces me to be creative, and gets me closer to my goal.

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