The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter. (Nel Noddings)

Like the majority of advanced nations, China is seeing mental health problems rising among its undergraduates. Like other countries too, it does not have the infrastructure to support this growth.

The solution? A compulsory credit-carrying mental health course for all undergraduates.

If we don’t like the sound of this, what would we like? Well, there’s Finland, of course. Finland embeds the development of mental health and wellbeing into its education system from the outset, with effects that we can all admire.

Might we emulate this by designing HE courses that allow space and opportunities to support good mental health – rather than pushing hard-pressed academics into seeing an increasing number of troubled students round the edges of each day? Or simply pushing therapeutic apps on them?

The ethics of care

Nel Noddings may be a place to start. Her work on the ‘ethics of care’ has been enormously influential (though she died in August almost unnoticed in the UK – is the word ‘ethics’ a problem here?) Noddings’ ground-breaking book was her 1984 Caring: a feminine approach to ethics and moral education*, where she claims caring should be at the heart of any educational system.

Some 40 years on, clearly it’s not: in terms of HE, the spreadsheet is at the heart of the educational system, and for a long time students were largely numbers on that spreadsheet, as Ronald Barnett asserts in A Will to Learn (2007:8). That’s changed with the rise in mental health issues, and students aren’t just numbers now: they’re a serious problem that can’t be ignored.

Stanford professor Noddings divides caring into ‘caring about’ (a clean house, the environment) and ‘caring for’. The latter she sees as relational and necessarily involves two people, i.e. if you care for, say, a student and that care is not reciprocated, there is no relationship: there is, in fact, no ‘caring for’.

I do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What I must do is to be totally and nonselectively present to the student – to each student – as he addresses me. (Nel Noddings) 

Before effective caring can happen, there is a need to acknowledge what the ‘labour of care’ (Luttrell, 2019) involves, and the time and effort that effective caring requires. In her review of the literature about care in higher education, Alexandra Davenport observes that ‘care is difficult to measure and works in resistance to neoliberal individualism’ (Davenport, 2022). She also notes the need to realise that educators themselves require care, and that further research is required into how educators might be ‘sustained in their endeavour to support students in face of extreme financial, psychological and personal pressure’ (Desierto and de Maio, 2020: 156).  

Enabling care through learning design

You would be forgiven for thinking that ‘care’ is beyond the scope of learning design, which is predominantly concerned with aligning activities with outcomes. Yet there is scope for learning designers to both create space for care and design activities that leverage the dynamics of care. 

First and foremost is to create ways for learners to feel heard. Learning experiences which focus purely on transmitting content reflect what Friere termed the ‘banking’ model of education, where learners are ’empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge’ (Friere, 2005). Freire’s solution to the banking model is ‘problem-posing education’. From this perspective, teacher and learner become co-investigators who explore a problem together through discussion.

This may sound like a simple solution, but shifting from transmitting information to facilitating discussion is one of the most powerful moves in learning design. Care begins by creating a 2-way, open dialogue so that learners can express their feelings about a topic, and bring attention to their concerns and needs. In his book Realizing the University, Barnett says:

University should see the severest attenuation of the formal lecture, if not its total abandonment… It keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturer and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond. (Barnett, 2000: 159)

Making more time for dialogue within courses and for discussion about the problems of the day currently worrying students may be one way to support our students more. And if it takes any pressure off our overworked academics, so very much the better. 

*The word ‘feminine’ was replaced by ‘relational’ in the second edition after complaints.

Got a question about learning design?

Then please just post it in the comments below, and the Ding team would be happy to try and answer it for you!

You might also like:

  • Davenport, A. (2022) ‘Care as choreographed’: what is the role of care in higher education teaching? Journal of Useful Investigations in Creative Education.
  • Noddings, N. (2005) Caring in education. The encyclopaedia of pedagogy and informal education.’ Available at: https://infed.org/mobi/caring-in-education/ (Accessed: 18 May 2021).
  • Barnett, R. (2000). Realizing the university in an age of supercomplexity. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

  • Desierto, A. and de Maio, C. (2020) The impact of neoliberalism on academics and students in higher education: A call to adopt alternative philosophies. Journal of Academic Language & Learning. 14(2), pp. 148–159.

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