Book Review: Critical Lessons

By Matthew Wheeland | September 1, 2006 | 0 comments

By Nel Noddings
Cambridge University Press, 2006, 319 pages

Does homework help kids learn, or does it just teach docility and obedience?

Why are so many men and women attracted to war? What does it take to build a home—physically, socially, and emotionally? These are some of the many questions Nel Noddings poses in Critical Lessons, a new book that advocates critical thinking and self-knowledge as the best ways to reinvigorate our woefully inadequate school systems.

Rather than teach 13 years of lessons that serve only to prepare kids for the next year’s lessons, Noddings argues that our schools should nurture critical thinking skills by asking students tough questions that require self-reflection.

Critical Lessons is more of an extended thought-exercise than a curriculum for teachers. Noddings clearly intends for her book to be a challenge for educators and the educated—and a way to ask them the same questions they’d ask to students. Indeed, education is only the starting point in Noddings’ ambitious book. Her chapters cover war, parenting, choosing a career, religion, animal rights, and more. Each section is stacked with questions designed to get students thinking and talking, and to increase their awareness of the connections between subjects that schools now treat as completely separate.

Most readers of education-policy books like this expect the author to tell them what to think. But Noddings rarely advocates for any controversial position; instead, she gives teachers suggestions on how to begin provocative conversations, and offers ideas to keep these conversations safe, civil, and engaging.

Teachers and students won’t be the only ones to benefit from Noddings’ ideas: Most public-school graduates will find Critical Lessons a provocative course in their post-secondary education.

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About The Author

Matthew Wheeland is a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared in,, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.


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