Filling the school `values vacuum'. A Stanford educator urges smaller schools and close teacher ties

FACED with having to choose between a child who is a good reader and a child who is a decent person, most parents would choose the latter. Yet oddly, says Stanford professor Nel Nodding, parents and teachers ``put all the fuss on the schools about getting good readers, and very little about getting good persons.'' Dr. Nodding, who ``came late'' to the world of academia - partly because she taught high school math and partly because she raised a family of 10 children (five adopted) - has recently been receiving attention in education circles for her work on improving the moral atmosphere in schools and teacher colleges.

She calls her approach an ``ethic of caring'' - an effort to view all aspects of schooling through such deeply rooted (often ``maternal'' or ``female'') qualities as receptivity, sensitivity, and a longing for healthy growth and development in children. While such an approach might seem ``flaky'' or ``soft'' to the organizationally minded, Nodding says it doesn't have to be. The size of a school, the way classrooms are arranged, the attitude of teachers, the relations between adults and students - all can fall under a systematic discipline that is consciously arranged in the direction of ``caring.''

The problem is, she says, that all too often this direction is ignored. For nearly half a century, education authorities, ``people who should know better,'' have acted as if schools can and should do only one thing well: ``Teach basic skills,'' Nodding said in an interview in her Stanford office. Yet American schools were never set up solely for the purpose of academic or intellectual instruction, she says. Schools have always imparted some sense of the perceived virtue or values of society - including ideas about what it means to have good character. Currently, there is a values vacuum in schools.

In the past three years, Nodding points out, there's been considerable effort by some of the top educators in the country to establish and pay teachers as ``professionals.'' The political argument that high-quality teachers equal a better work force has been effective in raising average teacher salaries more than 50 percent since 1984. The push to teach ``critical thinking skills'' in schools combined with new research into the various ways students learn different subjects has given teaching a more professional panache. More young people say they want to teach.

Yet Nodding is concerned that such an emphasis on making teaching ``upscale'' will crowd out the necessary perception of schooling as a moral and ethical activity. She notes work by Thomas Green at Syracuse University showing that in the 19th century the concept of ``professionalism'' was intimately wrapped up with the idea of service and ethics.

Nursing is a field that is developing an ethic of caring in tandem with a new idea of professionalism. Nodding says: ``I've been working with several nursing associations who are looking at caring as a model. That is, they contrast a model of caring with the medical science model. They feel that in nursing, the caring model should dominate the other. That, I think, is new and important, and I wish the people who push professionalism in teaching were thinking about it as deeply as nursing theorists.''

Education is more than a matter of information processing; it has to do with all aspects of the person, she says - which is why intellectual exercises in moral reasoning are not of themselves sufficient. The teacher and the school must work toward an atmosphere of moral caring.

Tracy Bliss, a former Nodding student who is now executive director of the state of Connecticut's Institute for Effective Teaching, says Nodding's approach focuses on ``the inner life of the student. ... We've gotten into the mode of wanting to empower teachers today. But why? To enable them to nurture the child as a whole person.''

Nodding calls the desired atmosphere ``natural caring'' - the kind of love and hope a mother feels for a child. It's unrealistic to expect teachers or schools to reflect that kind of caring. But ``ethical caring,'' which she calls the ``handmaid'' of natural caring, can be achieved - simply by making it a priority. She offers two specifics: smaller schools and extended contact (up to three years) between teacher and student.

Schools of 1,500 to 2,000 students were designed to offer more-sophisticated services. But Nodding says they have torn apart the idea of community. At a 500-student school, more students can participate in plays, athletics, politics. People get to know one another.

Further, in the fragmented environment of large schools, ``There's no one teacher who cares about your development.'' This is why Nodding favors experiments with having one teacher guide all three years, say, of a student's math instruction. ``So many of the things you learn about kids only start to fall in place by March or April. Then they are gone. We've been successful in taking kids at the freshman level and seeing them right through advanced-placement calculus.''

Raising 10 children has been important in her work, Nodding admits. ``I was a hotshot student, and I probably would have leaned toward an intellectualist, academic approach. Then getting this collection of kids made me realize there are things more important than 800 SAT scores.''

Several years ago Nodding took in a 14-year-old Korean boy. ``This kid is such a good kid. When our younger sons were mad at their father, he said, `Do not talk that way - he is your father.' It was such an expression of honor that the other kids really stopped to think about it. How do you educate for something like that?''

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