Notes: Good Teaching — A Matter of Living the Mystery


Palmer, Parker. “Good Teaching: A Matter of Living the Mystery.”

  • Introduction

    Good teaching is an act of generosity, a whim of the wanton muse, a craft that may grow with practice, and always risky business. It is, to speak plainly, a maddening mystery. How can I explain the wild variety of teachers who have incited me to learn — from one whose lectures were tropical downpours that drowned out most other comments, to one who created an arid silence by walking into class and asking, “Any questions?”

    Good teaching cannot be equated with technique. It comes from the integrity of the teacher, from his or her relation to subject and students, from the capricious chemistry of it all. A method that lights one class afire extinguishes another. An approach that bores one student changes another’s life.

    Faculty and administrators who encourage talk about teaching despite its vagaries are treasures among us. Too many educators respond to the mystery either by privatizing teaching or promoting a technical “fix.” The first group uses the variability of good teaching as an excuse to avoid discussing it in public — thus evading criticism or challenge. The second group tries to flatten the variations by insisting on the superiority of this or that method or subtlety. In both quarters, [?] the far-ranging conversation that could illumine the mystery when we think of it as a “black box,” something opaque and impenetrable that we must either avoid or manipulate by main force. Mystery is a primal and powerful human experience that can neither be ignored nor reduced to formula. To learn from mystery, we must enter with all our faculties alert, ready to laugh as well as groan, able to “live the question” rather than demand a final answer. When we enter into mystery this way, we will find the mystery entering us, and our lives are challenged and changed.

    Good teachers dwell in the mystery of good teaching until it dwells in them. As they explore it alone and with others, the insight and energy of mystery begins to inform and animate their work. They discover and develop methods of teaching that emerge from their own integrity — but they never reduce their teaching to technique.

  • The Transaction Called Knowing

    • objective knowledge vs knowledge as conversation

    The only objective knowledge we have is the provisional outcome of a complex transaction in which many subjectivities check and balance each other. It is a fluid process of observation and interpretation, of consensus and dissent, conducted within a far-flung community of seekers who agree upon certain assumptions, rules, procedures — many of which are themselves up for debate. This, I think, is an image of objectivity that is faithful to the way we know. It is also an image that clarifies the goal of good teaching: to draw students into the process, the community, of knowing.

    objectivity at its best is a commitment to critical discourse

    • critical thinking is also a conversation (an internal one)
  • On Content and “Covering the Field”

    • Instead of teaching facts, have them available on print as a reference
    • Using facts as case studies (texts) to teach from

      When we deliver the facts on paper, we free the classroom for various exercises in generating facts, understanding facts, using facts, seeing through the facts — exercises that might draw our students into the community of truth. One such approach I call “teaching from the microcosm.”

  • The Autobiographical Connection

    • embracing multicultural, multi-perspectival viewpoints

      The authentically educated person is one who can both embrace and transcend the particularity of his or her story because it has been triangulated many times from the stand points of other stories, other disciplines — a process that enriches the disciplines as well.

    • making learning personally relevant

    • showing how the learning was relevant to us as teachers

      We teachers can also show students how the ideas we care about are related to our own life stories.

    • showing the subjectivity behind knowledge

      the major ideas at the heart of every discipline arose from the real life of a real person — not from the mind alone, but from the thinker’s psyche, body, relationships, passions, political and social context.

      good teachers help students see the persons behind the ideas, persons whose ideas often arose in response to some great suffering or hope that is with us still today

  • “Hearing Students into Speech”

    • silence a symptom of disempowerment

      the silent one is understood as the victim of a system that denies his or her story, that ignores or punishes people who tell tales that threaten the standard version of the truth

    • honor minority viewpoints

    • more interactivity, questioning
    • respecting responses
    • a few students dominating discussion: allow each student only three chances to speak
    • an activity for controversial topics:

      With smaller classes, when a divisive issue is up for debate and my students retreat into privatism, I sometimes give each of them a 3×5 card and ask that he or she write a few lines expressing a personal opinion on the issues. I collect the cards and redistribute them so that no one knows whose card he or she is holding. Then I ask each student to read that card aloud and take sixty seconds to agree or disagree with what it says. By the time we have gone around the group, the issue has been aired, diversity has been exposed, the unspeakable may have been spoken, and a foundation for real conversation has been laid.

  • Conflict, Competiton, and Consensus

    • two kinds of conflict: competition vs consensus

      Many people regard conflict as terminal rather than creative because they have experienced it in settings that are competitive rather than consensual. In competition, the purpose of conflict is to determine which few will win at the expense of the many. In consensus, everyone can win through conflict as the clash of apparent opposite gives rise to fresh, fuller truth.

    • creating a safe, hospitable space for creative conflict

    • showing the power of consensus through simulation:

      To give my students experience of conflict in a consensual setting, I sometimes use a simulation game. The game poses a problem that individuals first solve privately. Then small groups are turned loose on the problem after being given a simple set of conflict-consensual rules — e.g., “Present your views clearly, but listen to reactions before pressing your point.” “Don’t change your mind just to achieve harmony.” “Avoid conflict-reducing techniques such as majority vote, coin-flips, bargaining.” “When stalemate comes, don’t assume that some must win while others lose; seek a solution acceptable to all members.” “Remember that consensus does not require that everyone love the solution, but only that no one be strongly opposed to it.” The rules authorize and guide the very conflict that students want to avoid.

      When the game is over, individual and group solutions are scored for accuracy. If a group has followed the rules, the group score is almost always better than the average of individual scores — and it is often better than the best individual score in the group. When these results are not achieved it is often because the group failed to follow the rules. By playing the game, students learn that all of us together can be transferred from the simulated problem to the real problems we are studying.

    • remind students that the conversation that determines facts and knowledge is based on sustained conflict

  • The Nemesis of Evaluation
    • don’t grade on a curve
    • possibility: allow students to determine the weight of different aspects of the class
      • lets them lead with their strengths
    • let work be evaluated multiple times
    • grade groups rather than individuals
    • publicly evaluate and reflect on the progress of the class as it happens
  • The Courage to Teach

    In its original meaning, a “professor” was not someone with esoteric knowledge and technique. Instead the word referred to a person able to make a profession of faith in the midst of a dangerous world.


One thought on “Notes: Good Teaching — A Matter of Living the Mystery

  1. First of all: Thanks for these notes – most of the ideas are very inspiring and thought-provoking.

    What I find just too far from everyday reality is this:
    “grade groups rather than individuals”.
    In my opinion, this guideline is unrealistic as long as there are report cards for individuals, but not for groups. Evaluation of individual achievement is unavoidable.


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