Calling forth the best

Nel Noddings

One of the most dramatic changes that any nurse educator can make is to enact a philosophy of “calling forth the best.”  I first realized the significance of this concept when I read Nel Noddings’ book Philosophy of Education,in which she explored caring as a moral foundation for education.  In Noddings’ view, all people (including all students and teachers) have the capacity for both good and evil. Typical teaching practices prevalent in nursing focus on the capacity for evil, and take advantage of the power imbalance that is inherent in education.

Teachers all too easily take actions that impose power over, that harm others without regard for outcomes (these are so embedded in traditional ways of teaching that we often do not even recognize it). Teachers assume that students will cheat, plagiarize or otherwise manipulate in ways that they hope will shortcut their way to a good grade.  Teachers have a number of choices to intervene and change all of this, but the traditional and well-rehearsed approaches focus on policing student behavior, which not only places stress on everyone involved but has a high rate of failure (meaning students continue to cheat).  And, policing ignores, at best, what needs to happen to change our own practices that harm not only students, but also that harm ourselves, creating physical, emotional and even moral distress.

Adopting a caring approach to education turns the tide on all of this – it reorients our thinking to focus on the capacity for good, and provides real-time practice in reaching for the best in everyone, ourselves included.  The short-hand for this is “caring,” a term that we use a lot in nursing, but which does not adequately convey the depth and richness of what this means in nursing education.  To me the phrase “calling forth the best” expresses a big part of what “caring” in nursing education means. We invest in creating teaching-learning contexts that reduce, even eliminate students’ temptations to cheat. Instead, we focus our energies away from “policing” to activities that model concern for each student, that inspire, recognize, and assist all students to perform to the highest standards, and that provide resources and activities that give all students what they need to succeed.  We make clear to everyone what “the best” means, and the parameters that will be used for assessment.  We build in ways for students to take charge of their own destiny – options for performance that give each person a path to what they see as “their best.”

This philosophy recognizes that even in the best of circumstances, because of everyone’s potential for both good and evil, students will not always respond to the call, and teachers will sometimes inflict harm. When these things happen, a caring approach to education calls for everyone involved to address the situation with compassion, but without wavering from the commitment to calling forth the best and living up to the standards that “the best” represents.  In plain language, we as teachers acknowledge harm we inflict, take steps to remedy that harm and reduce the possibility for it to happen again in the future.  We address a student’s failure (cheating, plagiarism) honestly and maintain a commitment to the consequences we have laid out to begin with, but also do what might be needed to help the student find a different path in the future.

If I were a betting woman, I would bet that most, even all nurse educators would like to change their practices in the direction I describe, but on reading this would hesitate, thinking that this sounds way too ideal to ever be possible!  But it is possible – and many of the posts on this blog are actually pointing the way.  Over the next few weeks I plan to address some specific approaches to enacting a philosophy of “calling forth the best.”  Watch for posts on approaches to group activities that reduce harm and call forth the best for everyone, on innovative ways to build in choices for students so that they can take charge of their own level of achievement, ways to administer “group” exams that are tools for assessment and for learning, ways to enhance student-centered learning while also enhancing your own role as a teacher/facilitator.  And much more!  So stay tuned!

  • Noddings, N. (1995). Philosophy of Education. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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