Students Must Be Involved in Setting Standards and Goals

By Nel Noddings

Opponents of national goals and a national curriculum give many reasons for their opposition: distrust of federal control, fear that the movement will result in mediocrity and uniformity, objections to giving priority to the knowledge of privileged groups, concern over the likely futility of goal-setting at a long distance, and worry that such goals will hurt those already at-risk.1 However, even those of us who oppose the movement most strongly have to admit that there is something wrong in our public schools. We too shudder when we hear of high school graduates who can’t read, who cannot place the Civil War in the correct century (never mind give its exact dates), who do not know that the United States used atomic bombs in the war with Japan. But we do not believe that establishing national goals will cure the problem or even remove its superficial symptoms. Indeed, we argue, the items just listed are already in the school curriculum virtually everywhere. Every school in the nation already states as a goal that its students will be able to read. The vast majority of schools also have stated objectives describing the historical knowledge students should acquire. How will national goals accomplish what local goals have failed to do?

There is an inherent problem in setting goals or objectives for other people. The people for whom the goals are set must want to achieve those goals. John Dewey wrote,

Plato once defined a slave as the person who executes the purposes of another….There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis on the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active c o operation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying (Dewey 1963, 67).

In perhaps the vast majority of adult occupations, workers must meet externally established goals, and so advocates of national goals for schools and learning objectives for classrooms can argue that such strategies are “real world”—clear and efficient. However, in the occupational world, workers have immediate reasons for accepting the objectives laid on them: they need the pay and benefits. Less immediate but still almost tangible for many workers is the possibility of greater pay, promotion, or recognition. For many students, no such immediate or tangible rewards exist.

Fields in which success is defined in terms of what happens to other people or what other people do are especially difficult. For example, a physician may have as an objective to cure Mr. A of disease, but she may not succeed at this if Mr. A does not share the objective. Overwhelmingly, in the health field, patients want to get well; they embrace the objective before even consulting a doctor. Teaching, as Aristotle noted long ago, is (like medicine) a set of activities in which success appears in those taught, not in the teachers themselves. But, unlike patients in medicine, students do not always come to teachers with the objective of learning. When they do come with such objectives—as most students do in professional schools, optional sports, chosen arts,  etc.—teaching is still challenging and success is not guaranteed, but students and teachers share at least some goals.

At the pre-college level, students are too seldom involved in the construction of the purposes for their own learning. They are compelled to attend school and required to take courses they have not freely chosen. The only pay-off discussed today—better jobs and more money—is too uncertain and too far in the future to influence many youngsters. If a student sees that her parents are flourishing and that they attribute their success to education, she may accept the educational objectives set for her. Or if parents who are not doing well believe they would have done better with more education, they may convince their children to stick with schooling. But for the youngsters we want most to reach, our coercive methods of establishing and assessing objectives fail; our objectives bear no resemblance to the objectives of our student captives.

Advocates of national goals and curriculum might respond to my line of argument by agreeing that the pay-off is often too uncertain and too far off. But surely, they argue, we need not change the goals. Rather, we must bring the payoffs closer, make them more real. Consider the programs that promise middle school children a free college education if they study academic subjects and graduate from high school. These programs have found a way to induce kids to buy into their schools’ learning objectives, and that’s what national goals are meant to do — inspire or prod states and local districts to devise ways to secure the cooperation of their students.

Let’s consider these success stories more closely. First, they are heroic in the sense that few localities and few individuals can offer them. As a result, they reach a mere handful of students. Second, even with heroic measures, they often lose a surprising number of their target groups. But most important is that a careful examination of these programs reveals that objectives other than academic ones are being met. The kids are buying our objectives because we are acknowledging theirs. There is often pay-off here and now in the form of enjoyment, satisfaction, adult trust and companionship, increased self-understanding, understanding of others, group support, and extracurricular involvement. Sometimes there is even help in finding a safer, more supportive home environment.


Such possibilities suggest that the goals themselves have shifted. In interaction with the kids, new and more significant goals have been constructed. These goals tend to be varied, flexible, adapted to situations as they develop. Further, it is not at all clear that students in successful alternative or incentive programs master the kind of material that would appear in a national curriculum. For example, some obviously do not master standard English, and my guess is that many cannot answer the kind of factual questions that some social studies educators insist they should be able to answer. On these criteria, they are neither better nor worse than other high school students. But they have learned some things: on the positive side, they have learned something about their own competence, that they can do well enough (and sometimes superbly well) to “make it” in the system. On the negative side, many have learned to depend on external prodding — rewards, punishments, and admonitions — to stick it out, to do enough of what is required to get by. The positive results are almost certainly products of variable goals co-constructed by caring adults and students who have learned to trust them. The negative ones are the fruits of coercion.

If this account is at all accurate, establishing national performance goals and a national curriculum is a very unwise thing to do. Goals and objectives for students must be set in concrete situations with concrete students. Even teachers, close as they are to the student setting, must be wary about establishing goals for students. The best they can do is to say, “If you want to achieve X, then you will probably have to show your competence in Xl, X2, . . ., Xn.” For example, if a student wants to be an engineer, she will have to show some competence in elementary mathematics, and that means a mastery of basic algebraic operations, knowledge of geometric relations, and the ability to use trigonometric functions. The more abstract or global X is, the more tentative are the connections to X1, X2, and Xn. It is not clear, for example, that a student who wants to be an elementary school teacher really needs the same mathematical preparation as her friend who plans to be an engineer. Understanding teachers may sympathize with such a student, admitting that they do not see the connections between the little Xs and the big X either. The connections are more political (gatekeeping) than intellectual or practical.

Thus a student who wants to major in mathematics or a closely related field will almost certainly have to master the rudiments of algebra. However, a student who simply wants to go to college (a more distant and global X) may not need to follow one particular sequence of steps. He or she may not need algebra at all. Still, such students may be forced to follow the sequence simply because academic rules require it. Although there certainly should be, there may not be a multitude of paths to choose among. Thus teachers and students should work together to lay out a mutually satisfactory path within the established constraints.

In a real and ultimate sense, teachers do not have control over what students do — unless they are willing to use the methods of a drill sergeant or one who “washes brains” through physical and emotional coercion. Teachers have control over what they themselves do. Old-fashioned lesson plans were couched in such self-referring language: I will demonstrate the mean value theorem and assign practice exercises, p. 101, 1-12; I will read aloud parts of Heart of Darkness; I will construct, display, and demonstrate a device for the production and collection of chlorine gas. Of course, teachers hoped that students would be able to do things as a result of their teachers’ doings, but few were so foolish as to suppose that their doings could command specific performances (under specific conditions, to specific criteria). Followers of Dewey frankly offered their doings as invitations to be accepted, revised, replaced, or rejected as students worked to construct their own objectives. They did not always ask whether their students learned a specific set of facts or skills as a result of the teacher’s acts (sometimes, of course, they did). Rather, they asked a more open question: What did the student learn? This question acknowledges the initiative, the full participation, of the student. Other, more traditional, teachers simply tested their students over the full range of possibilities. (“What will be on the test?” “Everything!”) This approach produced an enormous range of achievement and was often exercised cruelly, without regard to individual difference in either capacity or interest. But at least it recognized the student’s role as a semiautonomous agent. It recognized that what the student will do depends in great part on what the student wants to do.

Wise teachers, then, try to establish conditions in which students with multifarious interests, capacities, and needs can achieve things that are educationally worthwhile. These “things” are skills, attitudes, dispositions, understandings, habits, and constellations of facts that will contribute to further learning and education. 2 Teachers can make use of biographical anecdotes to broaden their subjects and connect to possible student interests. For example, mathematics teachers might discuss the theological interests of Descartes, Pascal, Newton, and Leibniz; the musical interests of James Sylvester; the aesthetic interests of David Birkhoff; the psychological interests of Poincaré; the humanitarian interests of Bertrand Russell. Only a very few of these interests can be pinned down and universalized for all students, but any one of them might connect with a student who would otherwise be unmoved by mathematics.

In many ways, good teachers are more heteronymous than their students; that is, they are often responsive and reactive. They pick up on and build on their students’ interests. They accept what some postmodern philosophers call local or situational obligation. They are claimed by the needs of their students. Alternating between inviting and responding, they present, suggest, answer, lead, or assist. 3 They may be led to material they hadn’t thought to present—to recollect material half-forgotten or to learn brand new material.

If my account of the relationship between teacher and student goal setting seems right, then surely the argument holds at every level of educational policy making, for at every level, we are faced with the temptation to set goals for others. If we succumb to the temptation, we fall into deeper and deeper levels of coercion, demanding accountability because we neither expect nor encourage responsibility.

What should the federal government do? What role should it play? If it is to play a role, it should begin by establishing goals for itself, not for others. What will it pledge itself to do in order to establish conditions under which education may flourish? It might provide funds for decent school facilities in poor urban neighborhoods. It might facilitate the coordination of activities between social agencies and schools. It might provide resources for groups such as NCTM and NCTE to continue their work in developing a wide range of materials for possible (not mandatory) use. It might also provide resources to competing curriculum groups to ensure choice and the free play of ideas. In short, it should ask the question: What can we do? If it cannot answer that question, then it should remain decently silent.

Early in this century, Dewey made a remark about moral theory that can be translated aptly into one about national goals. He wrote:

Moral principles that exalt themselves by degrading human nature are in effect committing suicide. Or else they involve human nature in unending civil war, and treat it as a hopeless mess of contradictory forces. (Dewey 1930, 2)

Adapting his language, we might say: National goals that exalt themselves by degrading the competence of local institutions, teachers, and students to establish their own goals are in effect committing suicide. Or else they involve educators in unending civil war, and treat education as a hopeless mess of contradictory forces.

National goals for local enactment do suggest a form of educational suicide. They will induce mere compliance, not vigorous innovation. Further, they ignore the reality of contradictory forces. These forces cannot all be reconciled, and educators must be free to meet them in locally effective ways if education is not actually to deteriorate into a “hopeless mess.” For example, will a national curriculum include provisions for moral education, critical thinking, and various forms of affective education? Or, because these are controversial areas, will they be omitted from national discussion? If so, will that omission provide justification for deleting such topics from local schools?

Some groups today are making demands that most responsible educators want to resist. Among these are demands that moral education be taught in exactly one way, that critical thinking not be fostered in public schools, that certain books be removed from school libraries, that self-esteem and its equivalent at the ethnic or racial level not be promoted in schools. Against such demands, educators who believe that freedom of thought is the very essence of education must be encouraged to press their case. National goals can only distract attention from matters of great local importance.

Finally, precisely because there are contradictory forces and a great variety of problems to be addressed, we need to foster creativity and responsible experimentation. We should support responsible and creative forms of vocational education, alternative routes to college entrance, curricula centered on special talents, interdisciplinary programs, service learning and other forms of community involvement, education for parenting, and education for peace—to name only a few promising possibilities. Let there be many goals, and let all those directly involved in the local enterprise establish their own goals.

Nell Noddings is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Child Education at Stanford University.

The above is reprinted from Educational Freedom for a Democratic Society with permission of the publisher, Resource Center for Redesigning Education (1-800- 639-4122).


  1. For a discussion of these views and others, see the special issue on national curriculum standards of The Educational Forum, 58:4 (1994).
  2. See the discussion of “habits of mind” in Sonia Nieto, “What Are Our Children Capable of Knowing?” The Educational Forum, 58:4 (1994).
  3. For an account of heteronomy as “being claimed,” see John D. Caputo. Against Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); for a discussion of response and relation in teaching, see Nel Noddings, Caring (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) and Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992).


Dewey, John, Human Nature and Conduct (New York: Home Library, 1930).

Dewey, John, Experience and Education (New York: Macmillan/Collier, 1963).