The Courage To Teach: The Hidden Wholeness: Paradox in Teaching and Learning

In Chapter 3 (yes, I’m only in Chapter 3, I’m a slow reader), Palmer talks about paradoxes and using paradoxes in looking at ourselves and looking at how we teach.  He operationalizes paradoxes as opposites, or as he calls them, “either-ors”.  Instead of choosing one of the “either-or” options, he suggests we choose both.  To help illustrate what some of these paradoxes might look like, I’ll address six of them he talks about with regards to pedagogical design and learning spaces:

  1. The space should be bounded and open.
  2. The space should be hospitable and “charged.”
  3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  4. The space should honor the “little” stories of the students and the “big” stories of the disciplines and traditions.
  5. The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community.
  6. The space should welcome both silence and speech.

The space should be bounded and open.

I think this paradox is pretty easier to understand and I think many of us do this naturally without thinking about it. We choose the topics for class discussions, but we may not know which direction those discussions take. Palmer suggests that we allow those discussions to take whatever, whichever direction they may choose. From a practicality standpoint, I would suggest that although we don’t know which direction the discussion takes, we know when it goes ‘out-of-bounds.’

The space should be hospitable and “charged.”

In other words, we need to be ‘welcoming’ to students and to let them enter the ‘environment’ on their own time. Learning requires a safe environment and secure environment to happen. To use an expression I heard from Mike Wesch, we need to create environments where students are free to ‘wonder’. We’re charged with keeping that environment safe and secure.

On the other hand, we have a responsibility to make sure we reach the destination that we need to. There are always learning objectives after all…

The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.

Since I spend most of my time in the online world, that’s kind of the way I think of this one. When I set up an online discussion, I usually will require the students to make their initial posts before they are allowed to see each others’. The reason for this is because students have their own thoughts, opinions, experiences, and prior knowledge on a topic. Since their individual inputs are important to the group as a whole, I want them to express or share them without being corrupted (for lack of a better term) by other students’ thoughts, opinions, experiences, and/or prior knowledge. Once everyone puts their ‘cards’ on the table, the group can go on to construct knowledge.

Another implementation of this would be to use Angelo and Cross’s “One-Minute Paper.” Before beginning a class discussion, the instructor would have students write a “One-Minute Paper” based on their own thoughts and ideas on the topic. Once students did that, they could use those “papers” to help them with the group discussion.

Although Palmer said he never collected these papers, Angelo and Cross suggested that instructors do. They can help instructors seem if individual students understand what is happening in the course. Also, if all else fails, they can be used to keep attendance.

The space should honor the “little” stories of the students and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition.

In other words, we shouldn’t be so fast to discount a person’s individual experience. However, we need to be able to (and students need to be able to), recognize that their experience is just that — one person’s experience. Often times, the vast amount of data from the field suggests that experience is not universal. In fact, the experience might stand as an outlier.

The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community.

Again, I tend to default back to the online course mode. I set up each module in most of my courses with a discussion and a personal reflection. The discussion allows for the development of community — assuming students buy-in to the fact that community can be developed without face-to-face interaction. The personal reflection allows the students to reform or remold the learning into something meaningful for them.

The space should welcome both silence and speech.

I must admit I’m not very good at this one. I don’t handle silence in a discussion all that well. I have a tendency to try to fill the ‘void.’ However, silence allows for reflection and as Palmer suggests, maybe the students are “digging in” deeper.

What does this all mean to me?

Good teaching isn’t about using one method versus another method.  It’s about being able to ebb and flow with what’s happening in a class — knowing when to press harder and who we can press harder.  It’s about being able to identify when to ‘back-off’ and who to ‘back-off’ of.  It’s about being able to know ourselves, pedagogy/andragogy/heutagogy, and our content area and operating at the intersection of those things.  That is the whole point of the book after all…

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