What Does Care Have to Do With It?

Care: the four letter word

Roald Dahl’s Matilda is a child who could have been left behind. You know her: curious, independent, precocious, and brilliant. She makes you proud and also nervous that you may not be able to keep up with her intellectual needs for long. There is a bit of Matilda in every child, yearning to come out; yearning to be developed. Matilda could have been left behind by society, but she was not, she was left behind by her parents, “We don’t hold with book–reading,” Mr. Wormwood said. “You can’t make a living from sitting on your fanny and reading story–books. We don’t keep them in the house.”[1] She could have been left behind by the school through the apathy of Headmistress Trunchbull, “My idea of a perfect school, Miss Honey, is one that has no children in it at all. One of these days I shall start up a school like that. I think it will be very successful.”[2] But she was not left behind by the school because her teacher Miss Honey would not let Matilda be left behind.

We hear daily that there is a crisis in education. There is a crisis, but not one that many see. We face a crisis in education where care is a four letter word. Instead of being care–full, the student is a metric on the pathway towards plumping the graduation rate statistic. The good student is the generator of the most right answers out of questions with four choices. The unfortunate student has Wormwood parents and Trunchbull school officials and lives in a community that blusters and bellows but refuses to address the underlying causes of poverty and discrimination. Minority students must leave their culture at the door when they enter the classroom. Educator Angela Valenzuela calls this ‘subtractive schooling’ where the school, the teacher and society subtract the world of minority culture from the student.[3] And we ask why students fail.

Then there are teachers like Miss Honey. What are your memories from your first days of school? What about your children? What will they say? Will they come running home repeating the words of Miss Trunchbull, “You take it from me, it’s no good just telling them. You got to hammer it into them.”[4] Or will they demonstrate how they used something quite thrilling and new and mysterious to learn how to spell, “Miss Honey gave us a little song about each word and we all sing it together and we learn to spell it in no time.”[5] Both Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey are drilling their students to learn basic concepts but there is a difference: care.

Care is not about achieving the cut score on the high–stakes test or even about whether the teacher has checked the box that the programmed lesson plan was conducted as prescribed. Care is a continuity and not an end state. Care is not a subject but a way of thinking about the subject, the student, and the curriculum. This is a fitting way to look at things because care is important to all humans.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger investigated the nature of our being and becoming. His conclusion: our being and meaning are care and we reveal ourselves as care. Heidegger discovered that we are thrown into in the world and we engage with the world. We care about the world and each other. Even with our need for care and individuality many of us become just like everyone else. But as with Matilda and all other children there is a chance to become authentic, a being–towards what the child might ultimately become.

In a child’s engagement with the world she discovers, for example, how to use a hammer (Heidegger’s favorite metaphorical tool, by the way). At first it may be painful to watch and painful for her as she mistakes her finger for the nail head. It begins as a theoretical project but gradually and over a period of practice and apprenticeship she becomes so adept at using the hammer that it seems to disappear into her hand, losing all theoretical aspect and becoming quite practical. No different are the skills of writing, summing, or reading. The book disappears as the story unfolds. But if the child does not care for reading, hammering, or summing then she will not learn how to make them disappear and create her own potentiality towards reading, hammering, or summing. How do we know what potentialities to encourage in a child? One must care first.

But what is care? It begins like this, “’I myself’, Miss Honey went on, ‘want to help you learn as much as possible while you are in this class. That is because I know it will make things easier for you later on’”[6]

Care Care–fully

In care there is the caring and the cared for. I care about myself; I care about others; others care about me. Some of my relationships may not care at all. How many are in my caring relationships depends upon many factors, not the least of which is my capacity to care. Educator–philosopher Nel Noddings said that, “This learning to care requires significant knowledge; it defines genuine education.”[7] Care is an acquired skill; it is also a necessary skill. So I ask, ‘how many schools offer classes about care either for students or teachers?’

Noddings also said, “The primary aim of every educational institution and of every educational effort must be the maintenance and enhancement of caring.”[8] But what does this mean in practical terms?

Caring first understands that it is not about the subject, the test score, the grade, nor the promotion to the next grade – it is about the person.

You are in the class with a teacher who adores her subject but for you it is a mystery and a chore. She thinks that if she can teach you to love the subject it will cure all your ills. But she is in her world not yours and hasn’t even peeked in to see whether you are still online or have logged out. She had better care and get into your world fast or you will have gone away. Noddings said this discovering of the other’s reality is fundamental to the caring relationship:

“Apprehending the other’s reality, feeling what he feels as nearly as possible, is the essential part of caring from the view of the one–caring. For if I take on the other’s reality as possibility and begin to feel its reality, I feel, also, that I must act accordingly; that is, I am impelled to act as though in my own behalf, but in behalf of the other.”[9]

This is the opposite of subtractive schooling – it adds back the student’s world to multiply the opportunities for growth.

What is the Strategy Honey?

Roald Dahl has personified care, care–fullness, and the caring relationship in Miss Honey. She will explain her six strategies for engaging students care–fully.

Our World

It is the first day of class for the five year old children in Miss Honey’s classroom. She begins by opening up the world for the children:

“I myself”, Miss Honey went on, “want to help you to learn as much as possible while you are in this class. That is because I know it will make things easier for you later on. For example, by the end of this week I shall expect every one of you to know the two–times table by heart. And in a year’s time I hope you will know all the multiplication tables up to twelve”[10]

Care is not all about free will and wanting to do anything you want just because. What Miss Honey understands is that the better the students are equipped to be in the world when they leave her class, the better off they will be going forward. From this we can derive Miss Honey’s first care strategy as:

  1. Create an environment where the student can have concernful engagement in and with the world

Miss Honey understands that there are things everyone needs to be able to do–like multiplication tables–to be able to move about in the world. But not everyone sees it this way and Matilda’s father suggests that students use a calculator. Miss Trunchbull has her own method where she swings a child around by the ankles, blustering and whirling her lesson into him.

So there will never be agreement by the school, by society, by the students, or by the parents for what should be learned and what should not be learned, or even how ‘it’ should be taught. But if we care about the students and we care about their world first this begins the process of preparing for learning for all involved.

My World

Matilda has entered the class with skills that are far beyond that of other students. She can multiply and sum big numbers without resorting to calculator or paper. Miss Honey takes time in class to discover Matilda’s world:

“Now tell me, Matilda,” Miss Honey said, still polishing, “try to tell me exactly what goes on inside your head when you get a multiplication like that to do. You obviously have to work it out in some way, but you seem able to arrive at the answer almost instantly. ”[11]

By discovering Matilda’s world Miss Honey can begin to address Matilda’s needs in the context of Matilda’s world. She does the same with other students in the class and the result is not the typical classroom where everyone’s book is (supposed to be) turned to the same page. Instead Miss Honey’s class is a learning space where everyone is working within their own individual worlds.

Miss Honey’s second strategy of care is:

  1. Engage the concern of the student by focusing on the world of the student

Miss Honey has shown how to engage the concern of Matilda in her world and other students in theirs. This is a first year classroom. There are other grades in the school and these first year children will move on. The school built on care does many things differently from what we see in many ordinary classrooms. A care school may keep students and teachers together for many years so that they can grow with each other and the teacher can better tune towards the student’s world. Even where this is not the case teachers in the care school confer with each other about students who are leaving their class and progressing into other grades. They transfer knowledge about the worlds of each student so that continuity is maintained. They care that there is continuity for the child and challenge for the child – each child; caring for each.

Of course things can go wrong. Students may not care. Students may face challenges that are difficult to discern let alone resolve. In many schools there is poverty, broken homes, crime, drugs, teenage pregnancy, generational apathy towards education, and, yes: prejudices, culture clashes and anger. Care asks the teacher to discover the student first and then work out how after.

Why Do We Have To Do This Stuff?

Matilda has learned too much on her own to be stultified by the first grade curriculum. Stodgy old stick–in–the–mud Trunchbull will not have Matilda sent to a higher grade. It just isn’t done and she has been convinced by Matilda’s father that the child is a behavioral nightmare–not deserving, in fact a wart.

Most parents…other than the Wormwoods…have genius aspirations for their children.  The parent is involved in the child’s education and care requires that the parent’s concern be part of the care–full equation. The care school understands this but also considers the child from the child’s own vantage point in a setting where the teacher digs deeper into what the child needs based upon observation and questioning. Teachers in the care school not only assess cognitive but also emotional skills and how the child can and likes to learn how to learn. When Miss Honey discovers Matilda’s skills she speaks with Miss Trunchbull and then goes to visit her parents to explain what she has seen. But Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood see little purpose in education. Thwarted but not deterred, Miss Honey finds a way to help Matilda with her educative needs albeit in a slightly more devious way than many might want to go:

“There is no point”, she said, “in you sitting in class doing nothing while I am teaching the rest of the form the two–times table and how to spell cat and rat and mouse. So during each lesson I shall give you one of these text–books to study. At the end of the lesson you can come up to me with your questions if you have any and I shall try to help you. How does that sound?” “Thank you, Miss Honey,” Matilda said. “That sounds fine.” “I am sure,” Miss Honey said, “that we’ll be able to get you moved into a much higher form later on, but for the moment the Headmistress wishes you to stay where you are.” “Very well, Miss Honey,” Matilda said. “Thank you so much for getting those books for me.”[12]

Miss Honey has defied The Trunchbull by promoting Matilda into a class within a class and has exceeded her parent’s desire for Matilda’s progress. Was this the right thing for Miss Honey to do? Relationships of care may often be asymmetrical. In Matilda’s case, Miss Honey is in a relationship of care with Matilda but The Trunchbull and the parents Wormwood relationship of care with Matilda is minimal to non–existent. Caring where uncaring is present in the extended relationship provides challenges that are not easily resolved. Matilda was privileged to have one caring relationship. How many children do not?

Miss Honey begins to work within Matilda’s world of capabilities which is her third strategy of care:

  1. Engage the student in practical activities within the interconnected world of the student’s work

After probing and observing and investigating the world of Matilda, Miss Honey assigns work associated directly with Matilda’s world.

Don’t be ridiculous, you say. If all a child wants to do is cut out paper dolls, should we let her – should we just let children do what they want to do? Care asks what is a classroom for and what learnings this child wants to learn. Care asks why does this child want to just cut out paper dolls. Care asks the child why. Care then suggests ideas that might bring the child to reconsider the world of paper dolls and how it can enlarge the child’s own world – to bring the child back into the world–the larger world. Of course it isn’t easy. Care is the most difficult thing.

Oh Man, You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me

What is an assignment for? If it is drudgery who will want to do it? If I perform the assignment perfunctorily what have I learned—is how to perform perfunctorily. Care is not about automatons it’s about autonomy and celebrating difference. It’s not about disturbing the mythical world of the standardized classroom; it is about disturbing the student’s own world which is where learning begins.

As we reenter the story, Matilda has just humiliated the Trunchbull by using her newly discovered teleportation powers to dump newt and water down the headmistresses’ blouse. After class Matilda seeks out Miss Honey to question what this newly discovered power is and to find out answers why. Miss Honey is skeptical of this power at first…who wouldn’t be…and challenges Matilda to tip over the glass again.

How much can we really ask the student to do? Why not: whatever they care to want to try, within the bounds of safety. Miss Honey does not dismiss the teleportation act as a flight of fancy but instead steps into Matilda’s world to observe this new thing. By considering this new level of understanding and skill Miss Honey can now observe Matilda and assign her projects that will challenge her. And challenged she is. Matilda goes home and practices her teleportation powers until she becomes a master (remember the hammer). Using this new skill Matilda makes all sorts of fun things happen…but you will just have to read the story to find out what.

From this care–full challenge Miss Honey’s fourth strategy unfolds:

  1. Reveal world through disturbance but provide an environment where the student can consider how to reconstruct the world of the work after circumspection so that the work once again can become practical.

Consider the hammer analogy again. Say you have just taught your child how to use a hammer to pound in big nails. One nail goes in badly and is bent over. The child smashes the nail down so that it is flat and sort–of disappears. You show the child the claw and how to pull out the defective nail. The child’s world has been disturbed by the bent nail. Suddenly the hammer has done something wrong (surely not I!). But you have provided an environment for learning and have shown the child how to exist with a new language of hammer–claw with this new change in the world.

The child is producing a different concept of hammer–one that bangs and one that pulls. After a period of circumspection and practice the child simply swings the hammer around and pulls an errant nail. Of course, if the child ruins too many nails…I know what you are thinking, but think care first. Obviously if the child’s every fingernail is black and most ten penny nails are bent then perhaps it is time to refocus the child on another enterprise. Please don’t say sawing.

How do I Know What I Know?…I Just Do, I Guess

Matilda wants to know how she knows how to teleport and whether it is real, illusion and, of course, is it peculiar. Matilda explained how the teleportation experience felt to her:

“It made me feel lovely,” Matilda said. “For a moment or two I was flying past the stars on silver wings. I told you that. And shall I tell you something else, Miss Honey? It was easier the second time, much much easier. I think it’s like anything else, the more you practise it, the easier it gets.”[13]

Isn’t this just what we want our children to feel about their own useful abilities…delicious! Matilda is enthralled with her new talent and has learned how to learn and how to begin to develop the skill. One aspect of learning that so few understand or even think about is how we know what we know. You may first rattle off the times table, memorizing it along the way. Sure, memorization is a form of learning. So is practice. But suddenly like Matilda, you fly by the stars on silver wings. Yes, it surely is an epiphany. You have discovered something new about yourself and your world. You have developed the capability to multiply thirteen by sixty–three in your head. You have learned how to learn this thing without having to memorize table upon table. You can move on to new things having learned how to learn like this. You even try this skill on other subjects and other challenges.

Because the relationship of care exists between Matilda and Miss Honey, Matilda is not afraid to share her feelings with her teacher. The caring teacher like Miss Honey will incorporate this new–found understanding into her conception of the student’s world and will use it in other projects and learning opportunities.

So in her exploration of caring and her craft Miss Honey resolved to:

  1. Facilitate the student’s mode of being of projection in order for the student to begin to understand the possibilities for what the student is capable of becoming.

This is called meta–knowledge: knowledge of myself and my learning capabilities. Quite often skills acquisition and knowledge acquisition require the student to attain different learning capabilities and ways of thinking–even new cognitive functions. These new ways of learning and knowing often require as much practice as the subject matter itself. What do you think–have we been successful as educators and parents and leaders to understand this very real nature of being and becoming by learning how we know what we know?

Tick Tock

The problem is that formal education cannot do everything. But we ask it to. Truthfully, there is only so much time to learn. It is also the case that learning and educative environments exist outside the classroom in society, at home, in sports and play…Remember this–the world is our classroom. Heidegger knew it. You know it. Therefore, given the time you have–how do you use it? This is the same question we should be asking in the classroom. What is the best use of the student’s time in context of all the other strategies of care that Miss Honey outlined?

Miss Honey seemed capable of matching the right exercise or activity at the right time with each student. This certainly isn’t easy because many times even an accomplished learner doesn’t know the best way to move forward in the learning process. It is even more difficult when you don’t know the capabilities of the student in the student’s world. Because Miss Honey took the time to learn the world of her students and how they learned, she could provide the right instructional technique or experience for the right subject for the right student at the right time.

This is no different from most other activities oriented towards progression. The more time that is spent in planning a project, the less time it will take to build the desired result, and the do–overs are likely to be far fewer. By learning the world of the student, care strategies are oriented towards the right instructional strategy at the right time. In the end more can be done in the same amount of time. Miss Honey’s sixth and final care strategy is:

  1. Consider the anticipatory resoluteness of the student when conceptualizing the curriculum in a manner that is optimized as parsimoniously as possible and occurs at the right moment when possibilities and time are the most opportune

For Heidegger, resoluteness is being fully engaged with the world. The anticipatory resoluteness anticipates the finality of being–of there being only a certain amount of time to do things.[14] If I am to reach my full potential I must be fully engaged with the world. The task of any educational event or process is the care that is required to provide students with the opportunity to fully engage their anticipatory resoluteness. However, if the task or concept is introduced before the student is ready for the challenge, the whole thing might collapse. Therefore care requires understanding the student’s capabilities so that the right task for the right learning opportunity is introduced at the most opportune time.

After confirming that indeed Matilda could tip over a glass with her mind, Miss Honey invited Matilda to tea at her home. Sensing that Matilda needed time to process her new–found skill, Miss Honey carefully changed the subject to nature during the walk to her cottage. Sometimes you just have to change the subject and let the mind work.

On The Purposes of the Child

Miss Honey was a special teacher–a caring teacher; a nurturing teacher. Her strategies of care she never formalized in the story, but through her careful navigation of her students’ worlds she was able to implement this complicated strategy with success. Nel Noddings summed up Miss Honey’s strategies of care through the ideas of the early twentieth century American philosopher, John Dewey:

Possibly no insight of John Dewey’s was greater than that which reveals the vital importance of building educational strategy on the purposes of the child. The principle of the leading out of experience does not imply letting the child learn what he pleases; it suggests that, inescapably, the child will learn what he pleases. That means that the educator must arrange the effective world so that the child will be challenged to master significant tasks in significant situations. The initial judgment of significance is the teacher’s task.[15]

Miss Honey understood the time, the process and the place when she needed to take the time to care about Matilda and meet her in her world to learn what she knew, and how she knew how she knew, and how she learned. Miss Honey and Matilda learned how they could learn together in a caring relationship. It’s just that simple and all that difficult.

[1] Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Penguin Group, 1988, Kindle ed., p. 129.

[2] (p. 223)

[3] Valenzuela, Angela. Subtractive Schooling, U.S.–Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. State University of New York, 1999. P. 3.

[4] : Matilda, p. 216

[5] Matilda, p.203.

[6] Matilda, Kindle p. 88.

[7] : Noddings, Nel The Challenge to Care in Schools : An Alternative Approach to Education. Teachers College Press, 1992. p. xiii.

[8] p. 172.

[9] Caring, p. 16.

[10] Matilda, p. 88.

[11] (p. 95)

[12] (p.  119.)

[13] (p. 255)

[14] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John MacQuarrie, & Edward Robinson. HarperCollins Publishers, 1962., p. 330, H 303

[15] Care, p. 63


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