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Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach

reviewed by James Tobin - October 04, 2006

coverTitle: Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach
Author(s): Nel Noddings
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, New York
ISBN: 0521851882, Pages: 319, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

What is the purpose of education and why do you hold that belief? How important is self-understanding when you think about effective teaching and learning? Why open yourself to controversy when there are so many other things to teach? In Nel Noddings’ thought-provoking and important book, Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach, she leads her readers on an exploration of how they think about important topics in their everyday lives in the classroom and in the larger world. Though focused on high school curriculum issues (seen in the expanded sense of the planned, implemented, learned and hidden curricula), many of the questions she poses throughout her book might also serve as a catalyst for critical, reflective thinking about education among parents, professors of education, and K-12 school leaders.

The need for such reflection is evident in the increasingly polarized debates about what the curriculum should look like in 21st century schools. Though there is a long history of philosophical differences about the role of schools (Tanner & Tanner, 1995), it seems that political and social forces have raised the volume to such levels that dissenting voices are often drowned out. Threats of lawsuits and sudden-tabloid-infamy stifle the democratic discourse so necessary in enabling school communities to design curriculum to meet the needs of all learners. Aware of this climate and the fear that drives many educators to steer clear of controversy, Noddings believes that it is important to question the curriculum “if only as a thought exercise” (p. 9).

In her book, the professor of philosophy and education at Teachers College lays out her case for an approach that has critical pedagogy as its philosophical base. In her introduction, she states that, in order for students to become critical thinkers, good teachers “should encourage students to think about [controversial topics] and discuss them” (p. 2). In Chapters 1 through 9, she explores—separately—nine topics that touch directly upon the lives of students but are not held up for in-depth critical examination in most high school classrooms: learning and understanding, the psychology of war, house and home, other people, parenting, animals and nature, advertising and propaganda, making a living, gender and religion. In each chapter, she frames the topic as a question, points out its relevance to young people, and highlights ways that teachers can address the issues to stimulate habits of mind that will prepare students for a complex, rapidly changing world. In her concluding chapter, she suggests ways that educators and teachers of teachers might overcome some of the obstacles they might face in adopting teaching methods that promote critical thinking on controversial issues.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is its balance of advocacy and inquiry. The author believes the role of good schools is to socialize students while providing students “with the intellectual tools to understand, accept, shrug off or reject parts of that socialization” (p. 106). In much the same manner, Noddings states the topic she thinks you should teach, but also invites you, as a fellow explorer with possibly different perspectives, to reflect on the questions she poses and perhaps reach other conclusions. For example, in Chapter 1 she elaborates on the three theories of motivation that teachers commonly use and, on page 17, invites teachers from these different orientations to encourage students to work through the meaning of achievement by asking the following questions:

What is achievement motivation?

Is it always a good thing?

Does it matter what one is trying to achieve? Or how one goes about it?

Throughout the book she offers information and probing questions on controversial topics to provide readers with an opportunity to reflect on issues that are relevant to themselves and their students:

Why is hatred so easily aroused and sometimes so quickly forgotten [in war]? (p. 37);

Can [poverty] be cured by education? (p. 201);

Does a high quality education for all entail the same education for all? (p. 22).

For those educators who are willing to risk introducing questionable cases into the curriculum, she presents some useful suggestions for effective implementation. Though she would ideally scrap the present-day curriculum in most schools and start over, she suggests that a practical alternative would be to stretch each and every school subject so that it makes room for critical lessons. Focusing on the depth of the curriculum, rather than the breadth, teachers would then be free to explore issues by introducing students to a wide range of conflicting views, examining stories and historical accounts for misconceptions or myths, and acquainting students with people who questioned the “truths” of scientific, governmental, and religious experts.

In addition, Noddings believes that both content and process are important in curriculum development, but process should be the starting point. Planning should include consideration of how topics and skills are connected to everyday life, personal growth, different school subjects, and to spiritual questions. Such consideration requires listening to students and giving them real choices in pursuing learning that is often intrinsically motivating and empowering. This curriculum would be “designed to excite wonder, awe, and appreciation of the world and the place of human beings in it” (p. 290).

Despite my enthusiasm for the book, I think that Nodding’s ideas would have more of an impact if she fully addressed the fear that educators typically face when controversies present themselves in the question of a student, a late-breaking news story, or in some event that occurs in the life of any class. Noddings notes the significance of this fear factor when she states, on page 3, the following:

Why do we not teach critical lessons on these topics? One answer to this question is ignorance. People who have never explored these topics are unlikely to provide opportunities for others to do so; the notion never arises.

But fear may be an even greater impediment. What harm might we do to our students if we encourage them to think critically and reflectively?

While her arguments for critical lessons in the nine topics, along with her extensive discussion of the topics, serve to help educators surmount the first impediment, there is little remedy in Critical Lessons for the second impediment. This is particularly troubling since there is so much research that suggests that leaders must pay attention to the social and emotional dynamics of change when trying to transform organizational cultures (Goleman, 1998; Patti & Tobin, 2006). As someone who collaborates with school communities and also teaches a course on curriculum development to aspiring school leaders, I often observe how people’s strong emotions surface when their values collide in discussions about curriculum. Last week, for example, all my graduate students espoused the teaching of critical thinking as part of their personal visions of teaching and learning; yet, when I showed them a video of a school district that was in conflict over sex education, most of them cringed and one confessed, “There are taboos in my school about anything that might stir things up.” In preparing educators to teach critical lessons, we need to prepare them with skills to productively manage their own emotions, their students’, and those of other adults in the school community. We also need to give them examples of schools that build conflict into their curricula and mission (Gerzon, 1997).

In summary, Nel Noddings’ Critical Lessons is a significant contribution to the ongoing dialogue our society has regarding what students should learn. The book skillfully challenges educators across the philosophical spectrum to question their beliefs and practices. Its one drawback is its relative neglect of dealing with the fear inherent in exploring controversial issues. However, this is not a serious flaw, and the reader interested in learning ways to manage the social emotional aspects of change has many available resources at www.casel.org. For those who want to undertake these critical lessons, Noddings offers these words from Henri Giroux (1988) on pages 222-223:

To be a teacher who can make a difference in both the lives of students and in the quality of life in general necessitates more than acquiring a language of critique and possibility. It also means having the courage to take risks, to look into the future, and to imagine a world that could be as opposed to simply what is.


Gerzon, M. (1997). Teaching democracy by doing it! Educational Leadership, 54(5), 6-11.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Patti, J. & Tobin, J. (2006). Smart school leaders: Leading with emotional intelligence. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Tanner, D. & Tanner, L. (1995). Curriculum development: Theory into practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 04, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12769, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:37:01 PM

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About the Author
  • James Tobin
    Ramapo College
    E-mail Author
    JAMES TOBIN is a consultant specializing in leadership coaching, social emotional learning, and organizational change. He has worked with school systems throughout the United States and in the Netherlands. At Ramapo College of New Jersey, Dr. Tobin teaches courses in supervision and curriculum development. A former Coordinator of Administratorsí Training for the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program in New York City, Dr. Tobin conducted research with Dr. Janet Patti of Hunter College on the leadership competencies of school principals engaged in school reform. With Dr. Patti, he coauthored SMART School Leaders: Leading with Emotional Intelligence (Kendall Hunt, 2003 & 2006). As a curriculum writer, he has written materials for such publishers as Harcourt Brace, Macmillan, and Scholastic, produced curricula for adult learners in the workplace, and served on the planning and advisory committee for the video series, Talk It Out to Work It Out (Soup to Nuts Productions, 1997).
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