I was privileged to hear Professor Nel Noddings speak on happiness and education at the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain's annual conference last year. She invited her audience to: "challenge the tight association of education (and happiness) with financial well-being." I came away wanting to learn more about her philosophy, sensing its importance to questions about the relevance, form and nature of education in the 21st century.
Nel Noddings, emeritus professor of education at Stanford University in California, bravely questions the belief that a general education based on the liberal arts is best for everyone. She is aware that "criticising liberal education within academe is like criticising motherhood in a maternity ward".
Noddings observes that the history of liberal education is rooted in the classical education of gentlemen, a model set up to perpetuate a class structure. She believes that this is now an inadequate, possibly irrelevant, preparation for life. Among other failings, it perpetuates a myth that the same education is appropriate for all students.
Currently (although there are signs of change) schools still focus on logical and mathematical abilities, discriminating against students with linguistic, musical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal talents. This rational focus neglects feelings, concrete thinking, practical activity and moral action.
Nel Noddings criticises this narrow focus, based largely on verbal and mathematical achievement, which, she argues, cripples many whose talents and abilities lie elsewhere. To reach all pupils, she asserts, a radical change in both curriculum and teaching is required.
The curriculum should be based on our growing understanding of multiple intelligences, and the great variety and variability of children, she says.
This would help put a human dimension in schools that, in Noddings's view, have become dehumanised.
What kind of education would we develop if we wanted our children to be kind, moderate and nurturing? As the fundamental human need is to be cared for and to care, the focus of the teacher should be to promote the concept of care. This would enable them to address the unique talents, abilities and interests of children.
Noddings argues that in the future students need to develop the capacity to care for, or respect themselves, intimate others, distant others, the living environment, and the world of objects and ideas.
The caring approach, often considered "feminine", has at its heart a belief that caring for others is a better guide to moral behaviour than an ethical system based on rational principles.
Noddings gives an extensive account of the word "care" both as a noun and verb - caring relation, caring for one's subject, for example. But caring can also include "toughness" and does not necessarily entail warmth.
Teachers need to focus on the interests and capacities of pupils, engaging them in moral discussions. "Surely," Noddings argues, "intelligent adults can and should talk to the children in their care about honesty, compassion, open-mindedness, non-violence, consideration, moderation and a host of other qualities that most of us admire."
For Noddings, education should have a moral purpose: nurturing competent, caring, loving and loveable people. This assumes a moral role for schools in intention, policy and methods.
Many pupils feel uncared for by schools. To change this, teachers need to demonstrate more overtly that they care for their pupils. Noddings argues that if pupils feel cared for, then they will become caring. She draws attention to female capacities, skills and attitudes, which she considers are currently undervalued.
Teachers demonstrate they "care" for pupils by listening to their needs and interests. Teachers who do this respond differentially, helping pupils to develop the capacity to care for themselves, others, the environment, objects and ideas. Her definition of care includes deep comprehension and empathy.
She describes moral development based on a caring ethic having four components: modelling, dialogue, practice and confirmation. Modelling by teachers is important in most schemes of moral education but in one founded on caring it is vital.
It is essential to show how we can care in all our relationships. This, for example, means that heads cannot bully teachers and then expect this coercion will make teachers care for their pupils.
In the same way, teachers do not tell pupils to care; they show them how to do it by establishing caring relationships with them. The capacity to care may be developed by having been properly cared for.
Open-ended, genuine dialogue, with neither party knowing at the beginning what the outcome will be, is important too. It is the means to reach informed decisions.
This is more than talk or conversation: it is a common search for understanding. Parents and teachers find putting this into practice challenging as they often have an outcome in mind. Dialogue contributes to an important habit of mind - that of seeking adequate information before making a decision. It also helps to connect with each other, helping us to maintain caring relations.
Practice is equally important. Times to practise care-giving, perhaps through activities such as community service, help to build not only skills but also attitudes. Many organisations have training programmes that shape minds. If we want pupils to care, we must create the opportunities for them to develop the attitudes of caregivers. Practice in caring should transform schools and, potentially, society.
The final component of an ethic of caring is confirmation, which is the affirming and encouraging of the best in others. "When we confirm someone we spot a better self and encourage its development," she says. "To do this we need to know the person well to see what he or she is trying to become.
We know by listening carefully in a trusting relationship. Confirmation lifts us toward our vision of a better self."
Having rejected the traditional notion of liberal education, Professor Noddings creates an alternative vision for the curriculum. She questions whether schools are really supportive places for children with genuine intellectual interests.
The current curriculum gives limited opportunity for considering fundamental existential questions that can motivate students. Her alternative vision challenges us to develop existential aspects of the curriculum, the attitudes, passions, connections, concerns and experienced responsibilities of the student.
Consideration of existential matters leads to care as the central concept.
It is not an easy option - it makes significant demands in terms of curriculum design and school and class organisation. Its aim would be to nurture all the various cognitive capacities or multiple intelligences of children.
The curriculum would feature what she calls centres of care that would develop key abilities. Care of the self, for example, would integrate nutrition, hygiene, physical exercise, appearance and health. It would also look at intellectual and spiritual aspects of the self. Small groups would concentrate on specialised interests and topics of general concern.
Genuine dialogue, rather than control, would be a feature of the school (a feature of the current remodelling agenda). The aim would be shared living and responsibility.
The moral purpose of education would be restored: schools would become committed to caring for children in such a way that they, too, would be prepared to care.
Neil Hawkes is a senior adviser in Oxfordshire and author of How to inspire and develop values in your classroom
* Nel Noddings in her own words
' When we confirm someone we spot a better self and encourage its development.'
'Surely intelligent adults can and should talk to the children in their care about honesty, compassion, open-mindedness, non-violence, consideration, moderation and a host of other qualities that most of us admire.'
MORAL PURPOSE: A BRIEF GUIDE TO NODDINGS' WORK
Nel Noddings is Lee L Jacks Professor of Education, emerita, at Stanford University in California and past president of the Philosophy of Education Society and the John Dewey Society.
In a prolific career, ahe has written 13 books - among them, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Women and Evil, The Challenge to Care in Schools, and Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief.
She has also written some 200 articles and chapters on topics ranging from the ethics of care to mathematical problem-solving.
Her latest books are Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (University of California Press) and Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education (Teachers College Press), both published in 2002 and Happiness and Education (Cambridge University Press) 2003.
Professor Noddings spent 15 years as a teacher, administrator, and curriculum developer in American state schools.
She is currently president of the National Academy of Education. Her awards include the Anne Rowe Award for contributions to the education of women (Harvard University).