The What and the How of Teaching (reflections on Parker Palmer, part I)

The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question – what subjects shall we teach?

When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question – what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

–  Parker Palmer, from The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life; quoted in the blog entry “Lessons from a master educator” by Kenneth Bernstein.


It had been a busy week, so the weekend brought a welcome chance to kick back and… catch up on all the listserve messages, blog postings, and tweets I had marked as “Favorites” in order not to lose track of them.  There are amazing discussions going on all over the Internet, and I’m sure I’m only aware of a minuscule fraction of what is out there.  Ken Bernstein, whom I have gotten to know through Teacher Leaders Network, had posted a link to a blog article “Exploring Some Words of Parker Palmer.” I know Mr. Palmer to be a deep and progressive thinker about education, as is Mr. Bernstein for that matter, and with the high level of tension around educational policy issues that exists now, I really needed the chance to retreat and reflect on the roots of good teaching practice. So, with a coffee mug in hand and both cats on my lap, I called up the article on my phone and settled in for a good long read. Mr. Bernstein began the posting with the four questions listed above.

What subjects shall we teach? Ooh, me, me! I know this one because I’m always reading up on ideas for educational reform. English and math; they get tested all the time and we’ve been focusing on them since the 19th century. And… science, because we’re (supposedly) falling behind the rest of the world. Maybe history, because it helps you with English if you teach it right. And… language, perhaps, and if there’s still time, the arts. Voilà. Next question. <sarcasm mode off>

What methods and techniques are required to teach well? As a Teaching Assistant at UMass at the tender age of 21, I did what most beginning teachers do – I taught the ways I knew. I was lucky in that I was attending an outstanding M.A.T. program that was giving me a solid base of learning theory and practical ideas and techniques to supplement what I had observed through 16 years of schooling. But nonetheless, I began teaching with a one-size-fits-all approach. As I gained a toehold and acquired a larger and larger toolbox of techniques and methods, I allowed myself to confront the fact that different classes responded differently to identical activities. Eventually, as I continued to expand my knowledge about learning theory, I also faced up to the fact that different students within those classes respond differently to identical activities. My work as a teacher had been subtly and yet dramatically transformed – no longer was I trying to teach French, nor even to help each of my classes learn. Now, I was trying to help Ellen, Emma, Kendall, Madison, Margie, Maya, and each of the other students learn in a common classroom.

It is a given in our Middle School team meetings that, just as our students live very much in the moment, so must we. What worked last year, or for that matter last week, may have everything – or nothing – to do with what we need to be doing right now. It is a challenging approach to helping kids learn, but one that is ultimately much more rewarding as we see specific kids making progress in the ways that make the most sense for their needs.

In that context, we can return to Mr. Palmer’s first question about what we teach. Our various experiences throughout our careers along with research into what helps middle school students learn also informed the design of our school. We deliberately do not use words like “core curriculum, “co-curricular,” and worst of all, “extra-curricular.” Instead, we view Humanities and Math/Science (both double-blocked to facilitate interdisciplinary instruction), language, health and the arts, athletics, student government, advisory, and community service as all part and parcel of the same program, helping students develop artistically, athletically, intellectually and socially. So the answer to the “What subjects shall we teach?” question has shifted dramatically based on what we know our individual kids need in order to learn and develop effectively.

Through my online learning networks, I know a number of people who are suggesting a radical shift in how we conceive of education, thinking of our schools not as places where students learn reading, writing, math, and so on, but rather as places where students learn and develop creativity, logic, communication, and so on. Instinctively, I see tremendous power in this concept, and would not want that power to be lost by simply creating new departments that divide the work in different ways. How, I am wondering, can we create an integrated whole that still responds to the uniqueness of each child? (your ideas welcome below!)

I’m going to pause here for another nice cup of coffee (alright, decaf!) and continue reflecting on Parker Palmer’s four questions in my next entry.


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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

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