Nel Noddings: How do teachers encourage student development?

Nel Noddings:Confirm Someone

“When we confirm someone, we identify a better self and encourage its development. To do this we must know the other reasonably well. Otherwise we cannot see what the other is really striving for, what ideal he or she may long to make real.” — Nel Noddings

As a teacher, I have many opportunities to confirm students. A greeting, a smile, a pat on the arm, and even a hand shake goes a long way to say, “I see you” and “I recognize you are here.”

And when students write about their lives or respond in class discussions, I have opportunities to respond in ways that they feel heard. In these ways, I am acknowledging what the other person is saying and sometimes not saying. I am trying to let him or her know that I “confirm” the message or the feeling.

As an ELA teacher, I create opportunities for students to “know the other reasonably well” with dedicated time for sharing writing, for responding in positive ways (what we call celebrations), and for giving and receiving compliments. You’d be surprised how hard it is for teens (and adults) to accept a compliment.

In those moments of sharing writing or book experiences followed by celebrations, I think the students really “see” one another, and we get all get a little closer to a way of being around others that we long for.

Donalyn Miller in The Book Whisperer  talks about how she confirms her students:

This is how I show my students that I love them — by putting books in their hands, by noticing what they are about, and finding books that tell them, ‘I know. I know. I know how it is. I know who you are, and even though we may never speak of it, read this book, and know that I understand you.’ We speak in this language of books passing back and forth, books that say, ‘You are a dreamer; read this.’ ‘You are hurting inside; read this.’ ‘You are hurting inside; read this.’ ‘You need a good laugh; read this.'” (173)

I think Donalyn Miller and Nel Noddings would get a long well. At the heart of confirming others is love as Miller would say and caring as Noddings would say. As we prepare to go back to school, we will set up our classrooms, organize materials, look over our rosters, and maybe even get back-to-school clothes. Administrators will put data in front of you. They’ll talk about test scores and goals. It is worth, however, taking some time to reflect on how we confirm, care, love our students.

  • How do you confirm your students?
  • And to go one step further, how do you confirm your colleagues?

This work is a privilege, yes. And what a privilege it is for me to be in conversation with you about how we are always becoming “good” teachers for these human beings with whom we are entrusted.

Nel Noddings: What happens when a teacher asks a question?

Noddings: student response

How do you respond to a student’s response? What do you say that indicates you are hearing the words and the being who is before you?

This came up in a higher ed course last term when we were practicing some mini-lessons. It occurred to us that  when participation got going, our responses to students were “yes,” “good,” and “right” above all else. And these responses were rather automatic — encouraging, but automatic.

The pre-service teachers noted that they felt rather awkward in that moment and asked how I responded to students.

When we ask a great question (and give them time to gather their thoughts), yes, lots of hands go up in the hair. And if you are a no-hands class, than many voices fill the room (which is better than crickets at times). It can be rather beautiful, but are the students really being heard, are we just catching answers or are we receiving the students, as Noddings might say?

After I pondered my own practice, I certainly had to admit that there are times that I field answers. But I do teach and model active listening skills early in the school year, and over time, we all get better at receiving responses and one another.

Active listening encourages the listener “to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm.”

During discussions, I try to sit among the students so that they don’t direct their responses just at me but  respond to one another.These are some phrases we practice at the beginning of the school year, which become more natural as the year goes on:

  • What I hear so and so saying is this, and I’d like to add on because…
  • I am not sure what so and so means, can you say more…
  • I am curious so and so, where did this idea come from…
  • Tell me more…
  • What makes you say so?
  • How did you discover this?

If we think of students responding rather than students answering, teachers and students might be more inclined to engage in a conversation, which should (I hope) take us closer to receiving the ideas and experiences of the people with whom we share this great place we call school.

How do you think about questions and responses when you teach so as to value a student’s humanity?

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Nel Noddings: How can teachers help restore natural caring?


Noddings_natural caring

For Noddings, there is a distinction between ethical and natural caring.  The act may come from “I want,” which is natural, and “I must,” which is ethical. Ethical caring comes from a belief that caring is a “right” way of responding to another human being.  Of course, ethical caring comes from natural caring, but it is through experiencing others caring for them and caring for others that people build the “ideal” or an image of the kind of person they want to be. I take this to mean that while I may not “want” to respond to a person’s need, if I do it anyway, I can attain more experiences caring for others that my “must” may turn into a “want.”

  • Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Noddings, Nel. Stories and affect in Teacher Education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 26 (3). 1996.
  • Noddings, Nel. Justice and Caring: The Search for Common Ground in Education. Teachers College Press, New York, 1999.
  • Noddings, Nel. Identifying and Responding to needs in Teacher Education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 35 (2). 2005
  • Noddings, Nel. What does it mean to Educate the WHOLE child?. Educational Leadership, 63 (1). 2005.

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