Friday, July 21, 2017

Summer Reading: Parker Palmer - Courage to Teach

At the beach with my wife’s family, I read Parker J. Palmer’s Courage to Teach in a couple sittings. Palmer has a PHD in sociology from UC Berkeley, and has written extensively on education.

My mother-in-law was reading the book for her job at a private elementary school, and I brought a limited number of books (due to the weight of my hardcopy books), so I read this book too. Our teaching center at Belmont University has mentioned Palmer’s work a number of times, so I was interested in the book.

Simply stated, Palmer’s thesis is that “good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” He defines identity as “an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute my life converge in the mystery of self," and he defines integrity as “whatever wholeness I am able to find within that nexus as its vectors form and re-form the pattern of my life.” (13) Teaching, he argues, comes from the heart and soul of the teacher, and not primarily from chosen techniques. 

Palmer makes a solid point about paradox and pedagogical design. “The space should be bounded and open….hospitable and charged….invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group…welcome both silence and speech.” (76-77). The tendency in teaching, I think, is to swing from one side to the other, when we really need to be addressing all of these things simultaneously. Making space for silence in the classroom is something that is especially difficult for me.

He observed, “students who have been well served by good teachers may walk away angry—angry that their prejudices have been challenged and their sense of self shaken. That sort of dissatisfaction may be a sign that real education has happened. It can take many years for a student to feel grateful to a teacher who introduces a dissatisfying truth.” (96-97). This made me wonder if we should add teaching evaluations from alums 5+ years after the class.

I also liked his description of subject-centered classes (instead of teacher-centered or student centered). In the subject-centered class, the students are active and important participants, but they are not the focus of the time.

Palmer notes that he uses mastery grading, allowing students to revise their papers as many times as they like with only the final grade counting. I tried this once, in an MBA class, because many of my colleagues utilize it. I found mastery grading lacking. It encourages weak initial effort, as the students wait for comments, knowing that they can revise their poor product with more specific guidance.

Finally, I really liked the Quaker concept of a “clearness committee” that Palmer describes. The committee consists of four or five colleagues and a focus person. Before the meeting, the focus person writes a description of the problem (as professors, likely stemming from the classroom). Then, for two to three hours the colleagues of the focus person ask him/her open-ended questions about the problem, being careful not to offer advice, bring attention to themselves, or ask questions that are really advice in disguise (e.g., Have you considered seeing a therapist?) After the questions, the focus person has the option of continuing with mirroring (“reflecting to the focus person things he or she said or did but might not be aware of: 'When asked about A, you said B,' or 'When you spoke about X your voice dropped and you seemed tired.'”) (160). Confidentiality is pledged, not only to those outside of the committee, but also within the committee--meaning that the topic would not be raised again, even among the group members. The clearness committee would take a fair bit of time but seems like a great way to solves problems, as most solutions that stick seem to stem from personal realizations rather than merely outside advice.

There wasn’t all that much that surprised me in this book, but it was an easy read and had a few good reminders.

Books, Haskell Murray, Teaching | Permalink


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