“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” (Noddings, 2012, p. 773)
In this quote, Noddings highlights the importance of distinguishing between the needs that students have explicitly stated (expressed needs) and the needs and values that the teacher believes the student should have or that are inherent in the curriculum or institutional policies (assumed needs).
This quote captures one of the main threads of the argument that Noddings develops throughout the article. Her premise is that teaching should be considered a type of relational caring, with (most often) the teacher playing the role of the carer and the students playing the role of the cared-for. In order to fulfill this role, the teacher needs to listen to the student in order to fully understand, empathize and respond to their explicitly expressed needs. The importance of distinguishing between the expressed needs of the student and the assumed needs of the curriculum, institution and teacher underlies the whole of Noddings’ argument. Although “in many cases, [students] expressed needs match the needs assumed by the school and its prescribed curriculum.” (2012, p. 775), conflicts can arise when there is divergence between expressed needs and assumed needs. This can result in the teacher acting as “virtue carers” because they respond to assumed needs rather than expressed needs. Instead, by acting as relation carers, teachers can build a strong relationship with their students, contributing to a climate of care and supporting what Nodding states is the imperative of education to “encourage the development of moral people” (Noddings, 2012, p. 777).
This quote stood out for me because it highlighted the importance of recognizing the potential for divergence between expressed needs and assumed needs. However, I think Noddings fails to recognize the possibility of causal reciprocity between assumptions embedded in educational policy and the expressed needs of students. Throughout the article, Noddings highlights the dialogic nature of education, quoting Buber who wrote that ‘the relation in education is one of pure dialogue’ (Buber qtd in Noddings, 2012, p. 773); however, she focuses primarily on the relationship between the student and the teacher. It is important to recognize other relations that are developed in the process of education and how this impacts both expressed and assumed needs. Some of the expressed needs of students might be in response to the educational conditions established by institutional policies or by the wider culture or community in which that educational experience is embedded. For example, if institutional policy emphasizes the importance of academic achievement, defined by high marks, students are likely to explicitly express a need to perform well on assessments, potentially to the detriment of extracurricular activities or experiential learning opportunities. One could argue that students expressing a need to achieve high marks shows alignment with assumed needs. But comfort should not necessarily be taken in the convergence of assumed and expressed needs, as both may be rooted in a flawed assumption about the purpose of learning.
This actually highlights an issue with educational theory and research. It is challenging to separate implicit beliefs about education and learning from explicit discussions. Noddings is guilty of this herself. In developing her arguments in favour of a climate for caring, she relies on her own assumptions about education, stating that the goal of education is to develop “full, moral, happy lives; generous concern for the welfare of others; finding out what one is fitted to do occupationally” (Noddings, 2012, p.778) and that the caring relation is necessary to support these goals; however, it is her assumption that these goals are in fact the purview of educational institutions. And these assumptions might result in her deeming certain expressed needs from students to be illegitimate if the students’ beliefs about education do not align with her own.
The quote suggests a binary between assumed and expressed needs; however, education is a much more complex network with multiple perspectives and relations that all inform these needs. Although the emphasis of relational caring seems very much to be on individual actors (teachers, students), these should not- and cannot -be examined without consideration of the institutions and communities in which educational activity is carried out. With regards to responding to the needs of students, it is important to consider the sources of these expressed needs and examine whether the root cause needs to be addressed at a macro-level. For example, changing the assumed needs inherent in assessment policies may also change students’ expressed needs.
Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6), 771–781.