Nel Noddings, the ethics of care and education

Nel Noddings, the ethics of care and education, Nel Noddings is well known for her work around the ethics of caring, however, she has also added significantly to theory and practice more broadly in education. Here we explore her contribution.

contents: introduction · nel noddings – life · caring · caring, schooling and education · caring and ethical theory · some issues · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article. see, also on these pages: nel noddings on caring in education


Nel Noddings (1929-2022) made a significant contribution to our appreciation of education. In particular, her explorations of the ethics of care – and their relationship to schooling, welfare, and to learning and teaching within families and local communities came at an especially apposite moment. She was able to demonstrate the significance of caring and relationships both as an educational goal and as a fundamental aspect of education. As a result, Nel Noddings’ work became a key reference point for those wanting to reaffirm the ethical and moral foundations of teaching, schooling and education more broadly. Her work included an analysis of caring and its place in ethics (Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education – 1984 and 2013); an attempt to rethink evil from the perspective of women (Women and Evil – 1989) and a series of books that explored the implications of concern for caring with education (The Challenge to Care in Schools – 1992; Educating Moral People – 2002; Happiness and Education – 2003). Nel Noddings also sought to encourage people to engage philosophically with education (Philosophy of Education, Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief – 1995), and explored welfare policy if caring – a way of life learned in homes – is placed at its centre (Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy – 2002). In this article, we explore her contribution, some issues arising from Nel Noddings’ work and the implications for educators.


Nel Noddings was the Jacks Professor Emerita of Child Education at Stanford University; she also held the John W. Porter Chair in Urban Education at Eastern Michigan University. She had gained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Montclair State College, New Jersey; a master’s degree in mathematics from Rutgers University, New Jersey; and a doctorate in educational philosophy from Stanford University. From 1949 to 1972, Nel Noddings was an elementary and high school teacher and administrator in New Jersey public schools. During this time she was able to undertake some research in the area of mathematics and education, but she changed her focus to the broader realm of educational theory and philosophy for her PhD at Stanford. After receiving her PhD in 1975, and serving brief periods of time on the faculties of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Chicago (where she directed the University’s Laboratory School), Nel Noddings joined the faculty at Stanford in 1977. At Stanford, she was recognized as an outstanding teacher and served in various positions including as the acting dean of the School of Education. In 1992, she was named the Jacks Professor of Child Education – a position she held until she retired in 1998. She went on to teach the philosophy of education at Columbia University until 2000. In 2001 she held the A. Lindsay O’Connor Professorship of American Institutions at Colgate University and has also held the Libra Professorship at the University of Southern Maine. Nel Noddings was also a former president of both the Philosophy of Education Society and the John Dewey Society. Noddings was a member of the Kappa Delta Pi Laureate chapter and held many other awards and recognitions.

Nel Noddings was deeply influenced by her own experience of being taught. As Flinders (2001: 210) has noted, schooling played a central role in her life, ‘and her early experiences with caring teachers contributed to a life-long interest in student-teacher relations’. He also comments that Noddings’ academic passions, first in mathematics and later in philosophy, ‘also originated in her admiration for the teachers who taught them, and only afterwards in the demands of the subject matter itself’. Nel Noddings herself has listed three categories of things that she knows matter to her because of observing herself: domestic life, learning and writing, and living life as a moral quest (O’Toole 1998). She described herself as ‘incurably domestic’ – not just because she has raised ‘a flock of kids’ (10 in all) and stayed married to the same man for 48 years (her husband, Jim Noddings, died in 2012). Nel Noddings knew it because she liked ‘order in the kitchen, a fresh tablecloth, flowers on the table and food waiting for guests’. She added, ‘I like having pets and kids around’. Feminists, she commented, sometimes find it hard to admit such things matter to them. (All from O’Toole 1998).  Nel Noddings died on August 25, 2022, at her home in Key Largo, Florida. She was 93 (Spector 2022).


Nel Noddings is closely identified with the promotion of the ethics of care, – the argument that caring should be a foundation for ethical decision-making. Her first major work Caring (1984) explored what she described as a ‘feminine approach to ethics and moral education’. In later editions, Noddings uses ”relational’ – ‘the connotations of “feminine” are off-putting and do not capture what I intended to convey’ (Noddings 2013: 9).

Virtually all care theorists make the relation more fundamental than the individual. Virginia Held (2006: 46) comments: “The ethics of care . . . conceptualizes persons as deeply affected by, and involved in, relations with others; to many care theorists persons are at least partly constituted by their social ties. The ethics of care . . . does not assume that relations relevant for morality have been entered into voluntarily by free and equal individuals as do dominant moral theories.” (op. cit.)

Her argument starts from the position that care is basic in human life – that all people want to be cared for (Noddings 2002: 11). She also starts from the position that while men and women are guided by an ethic of care, ‘natural’ caring – ‘a form of caring that does not require an ethical effort to motivate it (although it may require considerable physical and mental effort in responding to needs)’ can have a significant basis in women’s experience (ibid.: 2). ‘Natural caring’, thus, is a moral attitude – ‘a longing for goodness that arises out of the experience or memory of being cared for’ (Flinders 2001: 211). On this basis Nel Noddings explores the notion of ethical caring – ‘a state of being in relation, characterized by receptivity, relatedness and engrossment’ (op. cit.).


What caring actually means and entails is not that easy to establish. Nel Noddings’ approach is to examine how caring is experienced (what we might describe as a phenomenological analysis). She asks “what are we like?” when we engage in caring encounters. ‘Perhaps the first thing we discover about ourselves’, she continues, ‘is that we are receptive; we are attentive in a special way’ (Noddings 2002: 13). This attention shares some similarities with what Carl Rogers describes as ’empathy’ (see Carl Rogers. core conditions and education). However, Noddings is cautious as ’empathy’ is ‘peculiarly western and masculine’ in its Western usage (op. cit.). Instead, she prefers to talk about ‘sympathy’ – feeling with – as more nearly capturing ‘the affective state of attention in caring’ (ibid.: 14).

Receptive attention is an essential characteristic of a caring encounter. The carer is open to what the cared-for is saying and might be experiencing and is able to reflect upon it. However, there is also something else here – motivational displacement. In other words, the carer’s ‘motive energy’ flows towards the ‘cared-for’. The carer thus responds to the cared-for in ways that are, hopefully, helpful. For this to be called ‘caring’ a further step is required – there must also be some recognition on the part of the cared-for that an act of caring has occurred. Caring involves a connection between the carer and the cared-for and a degree of reciprocity; that is to say that both gain from the encounter in different ways and both give.

A caring encounter, thus, has three elements according to Nel Noddings:

  1. A cares for B – that is A’s consciousness is characterized by attention and motivational displacement – and
  2. A performs some act in accordance with (1), and
  3. B recognizes that A cares for B. (Noddings 2002: 19)

We could say that a caring person ‘is one who fairly regularly establishes caring relations and, when appropriate maintains them over time’ (op, cit.).

Caring-about and caring-for

Nel Noddings helpfully, also, highlights the distinction between caring-for and caring-about. Thus far, we have been looking largely at caring-for – face-to-face encounters in which one person cares directly for another. Caring-about is something more general – and takes us more into the public realm. We may be concerned about the suffering of those in poor countries and wish to do something about it (such as giving to a development charity). As Noddings initially put it, caring-about involves ‘a certain benign neglect’. She continued, ‘One is attentive just so far. One assents with just so much enthusiasm. One acknowledges. One affirms. One contributes five dollars and goes on to other things’ (Noddings 1984: 112). However, in her later works, Nel Noddings has argued that caring-about needs more attention. We learn first what it means to be cared-for. ‘Then, gradually, we learn both to care for and, by extension, to care about others’ (Noddings 2002: 22). This caring-about, Noddings argues, is almost certainly the foundation for our sense of justice.

The key, central to care theory, is this: caring-about (or, perhaps a sense of justice) must be seen as instrumental in establishing the conditions under which caring-for can flourish. Although the preferred form of caring is cared-for, caring-about can help in establishing, maintaining, and enhancing it. Those who care about others in the justice sense must keep in mind that the objective is to ensure that caring actually occurs. Caring-about is empty if it does not culminate in caring relations. (Noddings 2002: 23-4)

From this, we can see that caring-about is a significant force in society. As well as being an important feature of our sense of justice, it also contributes to the cultivation of social capital. We learn to care-about, according to Nel Noddings, through our experience of being cared-for. Instead of starting with an ideal state or republic, care theory starts with an ideal home and moves outward – ‘learning first what it means to be cared for, then to care for intimate others, and finally to care about those we cannot care for directly’ (Noddings 2002: 31).

Caring, schooling and education

Nel Noddings sees education (in its widest sense) as being central to the cultivation of caring in society. She defines education as ‘a constellation of encounters, both planned and unplanned, that promote growth through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, understanding and appreciation’ (Noddings 2002: 283). Given the above, it is not surprising that she places a special emphasis on the home as a site for educational encounters. Indeed, she views the home as the primary educator and argues for the re-orientation of social policy to this end. This is not to sideline the role of schools but simply to recognize just what the home contributes to the development of children and young people.

As soon as we view the home as the primary educator two major things follow in terms of social policy. These are that first, every child should ‘live in a home that has at least adequate material resources and attentive love; and second, that schools should include education for home life in their curriculum’ (Noddings 2002: 289). Both of these recommendations have far-reaching consequences. For example, in the case of the first, while some governments have attempted to ensure that there is something like adequate material resources in homes where there are children, there is little evidence of policymakers seriously grappling with how attentive love might be fostered. Similarly, the question of education for home life is not normally addressed in anything like an adequate form. Indeed, the whole orientation of schooling systems in most ‘advanced capitalist’ countries is toward skilling for the needs of business and the economy. Some attention is paid to personal, social and life education – but it generally remains woefully inadequate when set against the demands of care theory. A further significant element here is the direction of a great deal of educational philosophy and theory. For example, John Dewey talks about education in terms of preparation for ‘public life’. While it is possible to see what place education for home life might have in this (and the extent to which caring-for is linked to the cultivation of caring about) how education is often discussed in terms of public life can be seen as not taking full account of what might be needed for personal flourishing.

A third element can also be seen as following from viewing the home as the primary educator, that ‘schools should, as far as possible, use the sort of methods found in best homes to educate’ (Noddings 2002: 289). This has far-reaching consequences and takes us into the arena of informal education – and the appreciation and facility to move beyond understandings of education that are centred around notions such as curriculum into more conversational and incidental forms.

Modelling, dialogue, practice and confirmation

Nel Noddings has argued that education from the care perspective has four key components: modelling, dialogue, practice and confirmation.

Modelling. Within a care perspective, not unexpectedly, educators are concerned with the growth of people as carers and cared-fors. Unlike cognitive developmentalists, for example, they are not primarily interested in moral reasoning (although there is a recognition that reasoning is important. Educators have to show in their behaviour what it means to care. “We do not merely tell them to care and give them texts to read on the subject, we demonstrate our caring in our relations with them” (Noddings 1998: 190)

Dialogue. The intent is to engage people in dialogue about caring. As Nel Noddings has pointed out, ‘dialogue is such an essential part of caring that we could not model caring without engaging in it’ (op. cit.). In addition, it is also important to talk directly about, and explore, our caring – as it can be manifested in very different ways. It can thus help people to critique and better understand their own relationships and practice. In other words, it allows us to evaluate our attempts to care: ‘As we try to care, we are helped in our efforts by the feedback we get from the recipients of our care’ (ibid.: 191). Furthermore, and crucially, dialogue contributes to the growth of cared-fors.

Practice. Nel Noddings (1998: 191) argues that the experiences in which we immerse ourselves tend to produce a ‘mentality’. ‘If we want to produce people who will care for another, then it makes sense to give students practice in caring and reflection on that practice’.

Confirmation. This particular component, it is suggested, sets caring apart from other approaches to moral education. In making her case Nel Noddings draws particularly on the work of Martin Buber. He describes confirmation as an act of affirming and encouraging the best in others (see Between Man and Man).

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. Formulas and slogans have no place in confirmation. We do not posit a single ideal for everyone and then announce ‘high expectations for all’. Rather we recognize something admirable, or at least acceptable, struggling to emerge in each person we encounter. The goal or attribute must be seen as worthy both by the person trying to achieve it and by us. We do not confirm people in ways we judge to be wrong. (Noddings 1998: 192)

Significantly, such confirmation involves trust and continuity. The latter is needed as we need knowledge of the other (op. cit.) and the former as the career needs to be credible and to be capable of handling explorations and what emerges sensitively.

Caring and ethical theory

Nel Noddings suggests that neither utilitarianism (making decisions on the basis of anticipated consequences) nor deontology (principled reasoning) can provide a proper understanding of the way women approach ethical questions and concerns. ‘The approach through law and principle is not’, she suggested, ‘the approach of the mother. It is the approach of the detached one, of the father’ (1984: 2). She does not argue that there are distinctively different approaches empirically typical of men and women but rather looks to a ‘feminine view’ in ‘the deep classical sense – rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness’ (op. cit.). Natural caring, such as that of a mother for a child, according to Nel Noddings, comes before ethical caring and is preferable to it.

Ethical caring, the relation in which we do meet the other morally… [arises]… out of natural caring – that relation in which we respond as one-caring out of love or natural inclination. The relation of natural caring… [is] … the human condition that we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive as ‘good’. It is that condition toward which we long and strive, and it is our longing for caring – to be in that special relationship – that provides the motivation for us to be moral. We want to be moral in order to remain in the caring relation and to enhance the ideal of ourselves as one-caring. (Noddings 1984: 4-5)

She argues that the ethics of care reveals the old distinction between is and ought as a pseudo-problem.

We do not have to construct elaborate rationales to explain why human beings ought to treat one another as positively as our situation permits. Ethical life is not separate from and alien to the physical world. Because we human beings are in the world, not mere spectators watching from outside it, our social instincts and the reflective elaboration of them are also in the world. Pragmatists and care theorists agree on this. The ought – better, the “I ought” – arises directly in lived experience. “Oughtness,” one might say, is part of our “isness.” ….

In contrast “ethical” caring does have to be summoned. The “I ought” arises but encounters conflict: An inner voice grumbles, “I ought but I don’t want to,” or “Why should I respond?” or “This guy deserves to suffer, so why should I help?” On these occasions we need not turn to a principle; more effectively we turn to our memories of caring and being cared for and a picture or ideal of ourselves as carers… Ethical caring’s great contribution is to guide action long enough for natural caring to be restored and for people once again to interact with mutual and spontaneous regard. (Noddings 1998: 187)

Care theory is seen as reversing Kantian priorities. Nel Noddings, by putting ‘natural’ caring above ethical caring, takes the view that the latter is instrumental in ‘establishing or restoring’ the former (Noddings 2002: 30).

Some issues

One of the refreshing aspects of Nel Noddings’ approach is that she attends to, and recognizes, opposing views. This means that some of the key questions and issues about her approach are signposted by her. Here we want to highlight three particular areas of debate around caring and reciprocity; ‘natural’ caring and maternal experience; and the relationship of care theory to moral truth.

Caring and reciprocity. Some might view the emphasis on caring (especially in the context of formal education) as both presenting a range of potential conflicts with professional frames of reference and as possibly patronizing. In the case of the former, there has been a general movement away from more affective and expressive language to describe the tasks that teachers and other welfare professionals undertake. A parallel example here has been the retreat from the language of friendship in education. In significant part, such issues come down to the context in which the frame of reference is formed. What is ‘professional’ in one context may not be viewed as such in another – and this is rather more a matter of political and philosophical orientation than of anything intrinsically problematic about the notion of care. As to the latter – the charge of ‘caring’ being potentially patronizing or one-sided in its experience – Nel Noddings answers this by placing a strong emphasis, as we have seen, on reciprocity. This means that caring is a relationship involving dialogue and exchange. Both can learn and gain from the experience; both can appeal to principle. However, this focus on reciprocity is far from simple. As David J. Finders (2001: 211) has pointed out, in unequal relationships (such as student-teacher) things can become complex. ‘Issues of time, intensity and situational variations also have to be worked out, as do questions of what it means to care for non-human entities such as plants, animals, ideas and organizations’.

‘Natural’ caring and maternal experience. Nel Noddings makes significant use of a range of feminist theories to develop her argument and, as such, she is potentially open to a range of criticisms concerning her approach around notions such as ‘natural caring’ and the importance of maternal experience. She can sidestep a number of these (especially around ‘essentialism’) by insisting that men too, can take caring as the basis for moral action. At the same time, she can differentiate between men and women both in terms of women’s physical and emotional experience around carrying and bringing children into the world, and the sociological and anthropological evidence concerning their role in bringing up and caring for them. This said some problems of interpretation do remain. Notions such as ‘natural’ are not that straightforward – what is ‘natural’ in one culture may not be in another, for example. However, Nel Noddings does take some care when discussing ‘natural caring’ (see above).

The relationship of care theory to moral truth. Nel Noddings argues that she takes a phenomenological approach and the purpose of ethical phenomenology is not to prove some moral truth. ‘We may present a coherent and enlightening picture without proving anything and, indeed, without claiming to present or to seek moral knowledge or moral truth (Noddings 1984: 3 – emphasis as in original). As she reports in Starting at Home, some critics have suggested that care theory is actually based on a principle despite what she has argued. She responds:

One might suggest as a basic principle: always act so as to establish, maintain or enhance caring relations. A carer, however, does not refer to this principle when she responds to a person who addresses her. The “principle” is descriptive, not prescriptive. The behaviour of carers is well described by this principle, but their motivation arises either spontaneously (in natural caring) or through deliberate reflection on an ideal of caring that has become part of their character. (Noddings 2002: 30-1. Emphases as in the original)

This position overlaps in some significant respects with virtue ethics but Noddings’ emphasis upon the relational meaning of care does bring out some contrasts (to gain a flavour of these see the debate between Michael Slote and Nel Noddings).

In summary

Overall, it must be judged that Nel Noddings has made a substantial contribution to deepening our appreciation of what education entails – both in terms of the direction it takes (education for public and home life), and around the significance of caring. She shows us that caring is a moral attitude ‘informed by the complex skills of interpersonal reasoning, that it is neither without its forms of rigour nor somehow less professional than the calculated skills of formal logic’ (Finders 2001: 214). In this respect, she provides us with a further illumination of how ‘good’ practitioners think (see, also Donald Schön and reflective practice).

Further reading and bibliography

Noddings, Nel. (1984). Caring, a relational approach to ethics and moral education. 2e updated. Berkeley: University of California Press. A fascinating and accessible exploration of the argument that ethics should be based on ‘natural caring’ Her approached is grounded in the longing for goodness rather than moral reasoning.

Noddings, Nel. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: an alternative approach to education, New York: Teachers College Press. 208 pages. In this highly readable book, Nel Noddings argues that the traditional organization of school studies around the academic disciplines short-changes not only the non-college-bound (whose interests are largely overlooked) but even those who are preparing for college. They receive schooling for the head but little for the heart and soul. Noddings argues that ‘our aim should be to encourage the growth of competent, caring, loving and lovable persons’, a moral priority that our educational system ignores.

Noddings, Nel (2002). Starting at Home. Caring and social policy, Berkeley: University of California Press. 342 + vii pages. A good starting point to understand Noddings’ thesis as it updates her position e.g. around caring-about, and sets it within more recent thinking around the nature of selfhood. It also has the bonus of some interesting explorations of different areas of social policy: education, housing and deviance.


Davis, Robert B., Carolyn Alexander Maher, and Nel Noddings. Constructivist views on the teaching and learning of mathematics Journal for research in mathematics education. Monograph; no. 4. Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1990.

Flinders, D. J. (2001) ‘Nel Noddings’ in Joy A. Palmer (ed.) Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education. From Piaget to the present, London: Routledge.

Gordon, Suzanne, Patricia E. Benner, and Nel Noddings. Caregiving: readings in knowledge, practice, ethics, and politics Studies in health, illness, and caregiving. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Held, V. (2006). The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katz, Michael S., Nel Noddings, and Kenneth A. Strike. Justice and caring: the search

Noddings, Nel. (1984). Caring, a feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Noddings, Nel. (1989). Women and evil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Noddings, Nel. (1993). Educating for intelligent belief or unbelief The John Dewey lecture. New York: Teachers College Press.

Noddings, Nel. (1995). Philosophy of education Dimensions of philosophy series. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Noddings, Nel (1999) ‘Two concepts of caring’, Philosophy of Education, Accessed December 6, 2004.

Noddings, N. (2002). Starting at Home: Caring and social policy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (2010). The Maternal Factor: Two paths to morality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (2013). Caring. A relational approach to ethics and moral education 2e updated. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Noddings, Nel, and Paul J. Shore. (1984). Awakening the inner eye: intuition in education. New York: Teachers College Columbia University.

Witherell, Carol, and Nel Noddings. Stories lives tell. Narrative and dialogue in education. New York: Teachers College Press, 1991.

O’Toole, K. (1998) ‘Noddings: To know what matters to you, observe your actions’, fxStanford Online Report, February 4, 1998.

Slote, M. (1999) ‘Caring versus the philosophers’, Philosophy of Education, Accessed December 6, 2004.

Spector, C. (2022). In Memoriam.  Nel Noddings, feminist philosopher and Stanford education scholar, dies at 93, Stanford Graduate School of Education. [ Retrieved July 2, 2024]


See on these pages: nel noddings on caring in education.

Acknowledgements: The picture of Nel Noddings was photographed by her husband – Jim Noddings – in 2011. Released under a  Creative Commons CCSA2 licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2004, 2020, 2024). Nel Noddings, the ethics of care and education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: Insert Date].

© Mark K. Smith 2004, 2020, 2024