01 March 2010

Book Review - The Courage to Teach

Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life Tenth Anniversary Edition (USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

Although subtitled "Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life," which might imply an introspective focus on a teacher's psychology, Parker's The Courage to Teach, is rather a radical vision for education written with the clear intention to catalyze a reform movement. Indeed the aim of the final chapter of the original edition is to provide encouragement in the face of opposition to those working for systematic institutional change. The tenth anniversary edition also includes a epilogue describing several case studies where Palmer's ideas have been successfully implemented at an institutional level. The subtitle does however provide a good description of Parker's approach to education reform. Reform, for Parker, begins with the lives of teachers: the inner lives of individual teachers, as well as the lives of the communities of learners and teachers. He addresses the former in the first three chapters, and the later in the subsequent three, leaving the final chapter as an encouragement to larger reform.

Beginning education reform with educators, Palmer's premise is that "good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher" (10, italics original). Good teaching begins, for Parker, not with learning correct or helpful techniques but a teacher knowing and trusting their selfhood and being willing to make it vulnerable in the service of learning (11). Trusting our selfhood requires both that teachers learn who they are as a person - their identity - and it requires approaching wholeness with this identity - or to living in integrity. Techniques are helpful, but only when they "reveal rather than conceal" the personhood of the teacher (25). So everything begins with understanding one's identity and then living in integrity with it. So for Palmer, a teacher does not choose a subject, rather the subject chooses the teacher. For example, I have discovered that I care deeply about reading the Bible well. My effectiveness as a teacher is tightly connected with living in integrity with this understanding of my identity. (It also explains why I feel violated with I hear others doing violence to the text). Good teaching means being connected with the self which then enables me to be connected with others.

Fear is the major obstacle to the connected lives that Parker is advocating. A basic fear that Palmer address is the fear of a "live encounter." "We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear" (38). He breaks this fear down into a sequence of four fears: diversity, conflict when divergent truths meet, losing ones identity, and finally the fear "that a live encounter will challenge or even compel us to change our lives" (39). This fear is latent in both students and teachers (as well as administrators). A teacher must face this fear in themselves, otherwise they will be blinded to it in others and especially their students. Fear also effects our ways of knowing, Palmer summarizes his relational epistemology which articulates more fully in his To Know As We Are Known, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). Palmer's solution to this pervasive fear is "reclaiming the connectedness that takes away fear" (60). Unfortunately he does not elaborate much on how one accomplishes this.

Parker's final chapter on a teacher's inner life is an exhortation to embrace paradox in teaching and learning. Eschewing the polarized either-or thinking which "fragments reality," Palmer advocates a both-and approach which looks for connectedness. "In certain circumstances, truth is a paradoxical joining of apparent opposites, and if we want to know that truth, we must learn to embrace those opposites as one" (65). To illustrate Palmer applies His paradox embracing both-and approach to limits and potentials of self, and pedagogical design. For example in the later he suggests a series of both-ands which should characterize the classroom. It should be both; bounded and open; hospitable and charged; invite individuals and the group voices; honor little and big stores; support solitude and community; and welcome silence and speech (76-80). While advocating that the teacher hold opposites in tension, Palmer admits that he cannot explain how it is done only that it "is about being, not doing;" they are held together "in the teacher's heart" (88).

In the second half, Palmer moves from the inner life of the teacher to the life of the learning community. The later, however, is firmly based on the health of the former; "only as we in communion with ourselves can we find community with others"(92). His agenda for educational reform, therefore, starts healthy teachers who then are in a position to form a healthy community. It is this communal vision for learning that is really driving Parker, as seen in his definition of teaching. To teach, for Palmer, "is to create a space where the community of truth is practiced" (92). Community for Parker, is not limited to teachers and learners but, importantly, encompasses the the subject as well. Again drawing on his relational epistemology (Palmer, 1998), Palmer even construes knowing in relational-communal terms "we know reality only by being in community with it ourselves." The stress here is on the personal nature of truth. Teaching then, is creating a space where both the teacher and the learners interact with the subject; were everyone is engaged in developing their relationship with the subject. This process does not degrade into phenomenological subjectivity because it gives significant focus on and dignity to the subject which is treated "with the respect we normally give to human beings" (105). It is the respect for the subject that provides the bounds of our inquiry. Parker is really advocating a subject centered pedagogy - one that is communally construed.

Parker now turns his attention to "Subject-Centered Education" where neither student nor teacher is the center of the dialog, but where both interact dialogically and in an egalitarian manner with the subject. It is the job of the teacher to help give the subject its "independent voice" (120). It is the teacher's passion for the subject that in part gives voice to the subject because passion is a way of showing how the subject has personally impacted the live of the teacher. Though Parker is not focused on particular teaching techniques, it is very clear for him that subject centered teaching means a shift away from traditional lecture centered teaching. "In a subject centered classroom, the teacher's central task is to give the great thing and independent voice - a capacity to speak its truth quite apart from the teacher's voice in terms that students can hear and understand" (120). Giving the subject its independent voice means for Parker, that students are interacting directly with the subject and with each other as well as hearing lectures about the subject from the professor. For example, Parker would certainly affirm many of the techniques and values expressed by Brookfield and Preskill, Discussion as a way of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 1999).

This raises naturally a questions from one teaching an overview course where there is a substantial amount of material. Parker's response is that "if the aim of the course is to deliver a great deal of information, the worst way to do it is by nonstop lecturing" (124). Parker proposes a solution he calls "Teaching from the microcosm." It is based on the idea, which he never substantiates, that "each discipline has an inner logic so profound that every critical piece of it contains the information necessary to reconstruct the whole" (125). Parker would advocate teaching a few things in greater detail with much more student interaction than trying to cover a subject more broadly with less details. He would say that a grasp of the a few details will actually give a better picture of the broader topic. The idea seems very interesting, sadly he offers very little to sustained it.

The final chapter on the communal side of teaching concerns the teaching community. Parker suggests that teaching is the most "privatized of all the public professions." All other professions, in comparison, are practiced in the presence of ones peers, in contrast a teacher in a classroom is almost a private domain with respect to one's professional peers. The burden of this chapter is to encourage conversation between teachers. Parker provides a few tools and suggests to help faculty have meaningful conversation about teaching.

This book really is an outstanding achievement that deserves much of the praise given it. Parker paints a compelling new picture for education. But this picture is more like impressionism than a portrait; many details are lacking and much is unsubstantiated. The picture compels because of its beauty and possibly because alternative pictures are perceived as ugly. To be fair, impressionism is probably exactly right style for painting a picture calculated to engender a reform movement. A more detailed book would be too long to be consumed by enough people.

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