What it means to care for students' cognitive development

Hello Teaching and Learning Colleagues,

One of my favorite education writers, someone who has taught adults and children, a scholar at UCLA, himself once a high school dropout, is Mike Rose. He has written several books. Among them I have especially liked " The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” which demonstrated the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well, despite the tendency of many to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence involved in such work." I also especially liked his first book, “Lives on the Boundary” about "the struggles and achievements of unprepared students and how their lack of literacy skills is a result of poor education — not a shortage of intelligence."  (Both quotes from Washington Post education writer, Valerie Strauss. See below.)

In her Washington Post article today, Valerie Strauss quotes this passage from Mike Rose's “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America”  Although this is about how an elementary school teacher demonstrates that she cares about the children she teaches, I think much of what Rose describes about what she does with children might be equally important for adults.  Could this kind of care be demonstrated in adult distance education, in a remote or virtual classroom? What do you think?

By Mike Rose

Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, care in teaching is a special kind of care. To be sure, there is a positive regard for one’s students, a commitment to their social and emotional well-being. But there is another element to care, one less frequently discussed, and that is a commitment to students’ cognitive development. You are using your mind to foster the intellectual growth of others, to help them become better readers and writers and thinkers.

I’ve been thinking again about care in relation to today’s calls for racial justice, particularly the way justice is embodied and enacted in real time, in the moment. Consider, for example, how everyday, small interactions in teaching, many of them unplanned, some lasting less than a minute, can reveal a deep level of care and also serve larger egalitarian and emancipatory goals.

I want to use as an example a passage adapted from “Possible Lives” that takes place in Calexico, a city of 40,100 people on the California-Mexico border — the name fuses the Cal of California with the -exico of Mexico.

The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third-grade bilingual education teacher who also is a mentor to first-year teachers at her school. What I describe took place before 1998 when California passed Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative that in effect eliminated bilingual education in the state. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58, which restored bilingual education in California.

Before covid-19 pushed the realities of schooling into our kitchens and living rooms, we were surrounded by enchanted talk about a digital deliverance from the stodgy, old brick-and-mortar classroom. Covid-19 is making glaringly obvious the limitations of digital learning, particularly as the primary means of instruction.

While some of what we see Elena Castro do could occur online with a tech-savvy teacher and adequate technology equally distributed among students — these are two big conditions — there are other elements of Castro’s caring brilliance that could not be replicated on a screen.


It is often in commonplace encounters — a quick suggestion, an aside, a follow-up question — that a teacher’s most basic attitudes toward students are revealed. Big values are manifest in small actions, and Elena Castro was masterful at these spontaneous micro-lessons.

I watched her work with a boy who had written a shaggy dog story. Castro was slowly scrolling down the computer screen, praising the story as she read. Once done, about to move on to the next child, she tapped a key, taking the story back to a line at the beginning in which he described the dog as a “troublemaker.”

“You know,” she reflected, “I found myself wondering what your dog did that caused so much trouble?” “She tips over garbage cans,” the boy said. “Good. Anything else?” He giggled. “What?” she asked. “What is it?” “She makes messes!” Castro laughed. “Put that in, too! That way your reader will really know what you mean by trouble.”

Another time Castro was reading to the class in Spanish the story of a marvelous garden, and she came across a description of a beet that was six inches wide. She paused for a moment and reached across the table for a ruler. “Mija,” she said, addressing a girl with a term of endearment that means “my daughter.” “Show us how big that beet was.” The girl counted four, five, six on the ruler. “Whoa!” said a student sitting next to Castro. “Big, huh?”

And yet another time, Castro was working with a group of students on their marine research when a boy walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: He needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: “No.” No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character.

Castro assumed ability and curiosity in her students; learning, in her belief system, was an entitlement. As she put it, “You can’t deny anybody the opportunity to learn. That’s their right.” Bilingual education gained special meaning in this context. There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated. (Mexican children, one representative educator wrote in 1920, “are primarily interested in action and emotion, but grow listless under purely mental effort.”)

The profound limits on the quality of education that stemmed from such practice and perception made all the more understandable Castro’s commitment to bilingual education. Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people that had significant pedagogical consequences.

The majority of the children I saw in Castro’s classroom had entered in September with the designation “low achiever” or, in some cases, “slow learner.” Castro’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence.

“The first two weeks, it was difficult,” she explained one noontime when we were sitting at the Writer’s Table in her classroom. “I’d put them here to write — and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say. ‘It’s your responsibility. I’m here to support you, but you have to do the work.’”

It was warm that day, Castro’s sleeves rolled up. She spoke emphatically, with a nod or an exclamation or a quick laugh, her finger tapping the table, her hand slicing the air. “I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them. But then … look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.” Her room was constructed on work and opportunity. “You can’t say ‘I can’t’ in this classroom. You have to try.” And that cut both ways.

If you believe so firmly in the potential of all your students, you have few ready explanations for their failure. The first line of scrutiny is one’s self. “What you do is not necessarily good for everyone,” Castro would say. “You have to try different things. You have to ask yourself, ‘What can I change that will work for a child who’s not learning?’” When a student was not doing well, Castro would assume she was failing and put herself through a rigorous self-assessment. “Why am I not teaching him?” she would ask, her record book open, the child’s work spread out in front of her.

And sometimes the answer to Castro’s question revealed much that was out of her control, a fact illustrated through a story she told me about one of her students the year before, a sweet, quiet boy who seemed to understand his classwork, would do it when Castro was assisting him, but would just not complete it on his own.

“I didn’t know what to do to get him motivated,” she explained. “I tried structuring things more, and I tried letting him pursue whatever he wanted. He was a smart boy — I figured I must be doing something wrong. What was I missing?”

Then one day when Castro was sitting with him, encouraging him to write a little more on a story, he suddenly started crying. His mother had left home, and he was sent to stay with his grandmother. He missed his mother terribly and was afraid that his grandmother, who was ailing, would die and leave him alone. How could he concentrate, Castro thought, when his very security was threatened? This was beyond anything she could influence. It was telling, though, that Castro didn’t entirely let up.

She told him he could talk to her anytime he felt sad, and that she would ease off a little — on him, I suspect, more than herself — but that “they both had a responsibility to teach and learn,” and that the best thing he could do was to learn what he could so he would someday be able to take care of himself. “We both have to try,” she said, holding him, wanting to make for him, as best she could, her classroom a place of love and learning.

In Castro’s mind, the consequences for this child’s future of not learning to read and write and compute were too great to ignore, even in sorrow.

All this was what it meant to care.


David J. Rosen




Thank you for sharing this excerpt, David. It's both beautiful and powerful. One of my favorite lines from Elena Castro is "If you believe so firmly in the potential of all your students, you have few ready explanations for their failure." All learners have potential. It is a teacher's sacred duty to believe in that potential.

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP


I am intrigued by your comment, "the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well, despite the tendency of many to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence involved in such work." I have seen similar studies where an interviewer asked workers whether they did math in their blue collar or service job. They all said, "No!" Yet, when the researcher dug deeper, she found that they frequently did math. Many created elaborate multi-step solutions to solve workplace math problems indicating a very high level of intelligence. These workers did not consider what they did math since it did not involve problems in a textbook. 

On a deeper level, survival for many of our students on the margin takes a huge cognitive load. How did you survive for multiple days when your check runs out? How do you get to work when your car breaks down again? How do you get Internet access when the public library is closed during a pandemic? All of these tasks are difficult and require intense thinking.

I am curious to hear what others' think.


Steve Schmidt 

Hello Steve and others,

I wish I had written "the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well, despite the tendency of many to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence involved in such work," but that's from Mike Rose's book The Mind at Work. He gives a number of carefully observed, evidence-based portraits of how a range of workers do their work. He focuses on the challenges of the work itself, and when he wrote this, in the jobs that he looked at survival was not the health concern it is today for workers and their families. Rose looks carefully and repeatedly, perhaps in the way a social scientist doing a case study might, on what a waitperson, in this case a waitress, does. He looks at the complexity of doing the job right in a busy restaurant, the wide-ranging skills that are needed, and the multitude of decisions that need to be made, often with little time to weigh them. His argument, throughout these portraits, is that working people, who may not be paid well, use higher order thinking skills all the time, that their jobs require good thinking skills as well as other skills and abilities.

I remember a conversation I had many years ago with an auto mechanic who was also my friend. He confided that most of his customers, much as they may have appreciated his skills in fixing their cars, did not understand the complex thinking that was needed to solve many of the presenting problems, especially those that involved the electrical system. He understood the logic of that system, and used it to diagnose and remediate the problems. It wasn't only experience, strength, and tolerance for getting one's hands and face dirty; it was, as Mike Rose put it, using your mind at work. He said that one time a customer actually said something like "I hate my job (as a financial analyst); I wish I could be an auto mechanic like you and work with my hands." That's a good summary of the kind of mistaken, as well as insulting, thinking that Mike Rose was writing about in this fabulous book.

David J. Rosen

I love your examples, Steve, and I think it's absolutely correct that some learners -- don't always recognize their own intelligence. In fact, sometimes teachers don't recognize learners' potential. The emphasis these days on teaching "critical thinking" is important, but, in my opinion, this focus of instruction should build on the critical thinking learners do routinely in their daily lives. 

Take care, Susan