Parker J. Palmer

As the author of The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer, draws upon his own experiences as an educator to develop his theories of inspirational instruction and ethical teaching

For many years, the best method in which to teach our nation's children has been discussed, debated and deliberated at length. Educators have felt tremendous pressure to choose between two dynamic and completely divergent schools of thought, each of which has its own long list of benefits and shortcomings. Traditional curricula proponents are adamant that teaching should reflect a time-honored reliance on basic, monotonous instruction methods which are essentially a rigorously structured, repetitive and uncreative approach to learning.

Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, draws upon his own experiences as an educator (Palmer is a sociologist with a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley) to develop his theories of inspirational instruction and ethical teaching. Palmer asks teachers to set aside the traditional concept that merely incorporating previously successful "tricks of the trade" into the curriculum is sufficient to improve education in our nation's schools. He contends that reform must begin with examining the motivations of the teacher more rigorously than the methods used to teach. He also believes that if teachers are able to develop a greater sense of their own integrity, they will put more heart into what they are doing. Hence the reason for the book's subtitle; Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, is certainly appropriate.

According to Palmer, teachers today are far too data-driven, in that many are desperate to achieve quotas and "look good on paper" at any cost. A teacher who is more people-driven then, is more likely to keep the best interests of the students in mind, over their his own agenda. Teachers need to remember that this is a human oriented career choice, not one of numbers and statistics.

The author provides two distinct examples of curricula in which the subject is put first, and students are allowed to employ it directly, with the teacher acting not as a mediator but as an observer. The first example takes place in a medical school and the second is an example from one of Palmer's own classes; Methods of Social Research. He believes that if students begin with a concrete example, which he calls the microcosm, a quality teacher can lead them to their own discoveries of general principles. Yet the instructor, at the same time, must possess the self-assurance and sense of authority to unlock the thoughts of the students in an expressive and truthful manner. Palmer further explains that the classroom must be both "hospitable and charged" in order for students to feel welcome to speak their minds. At the same time they need to feel uninhibited, they also need to learn respect and tolerance for the opinions of others.

The relationship between teachers and students today is far more personal than in the past. Thus attempting to limit the confines of that relationship to basic, simplistic and constrictive terms is likely to stagnate the creative potential of students who are able to think beyond the basics. Of additional concern is the fact that those students who are able to grasp concepts quickly often find the repetitiveness of standard, emotionally disconnected instruction uninspiring.

Palmer believes that individuals learn complex concepts and processes most successfully when they are actively and wholeheartedly engaged in the learning process. A natural, inherent propensity towards gleaning excitement and motivation from learning is undoubtedly an important quality of a successful student. Yet just as not all students learn the same way, or at the same speed, not all students have the same inner motivation to learn. These students need higher levels of stimulation in order to be motivated, a responsibility that lies with both the teacher and the teaching method.

Furthermore, teachers are responsible for regularly assessing the progress their students are making; finding out what works and what doesn't through trial and error, asking the students questions about their preferences, and observing the progress made in each individual student under both similar and diverse conditions. Teachers must promote students' development as learners, focusing on the processes that are the most facilitative in regards to improving each student's performance both academically and socially.

While it is true that adults, and especially teachers, tend to view all students as successful learners to some degree and reject the sorting and labeling of students according to arbitrary standards, this does not mean that classifying students into groups is either ineffectual or detrimental. In fact, it is simply the standards that the groups are based upon that need to be changed. Instead of dividing students by how well they learn or how much they've learned, they need to be classified by how they learn. The processes children use to absorb information varies from individual to individual, however, there are similarities that can allow for accurate grouping. These students can then be taught with methods that are most appropriate to their learning style.

Effective teachers, according to Palmer, recognize that students do not all learn in the same way, at the same time. Thus their purpose is to help all students achieve their personal best. Under the umbrella of Palmer's theories, teachers can devise a plethora of activities to spark student's interest in learning, while at the same time, acquainting them with various skills and knowledge that they must have to succeed. The skills acquired through these entertaining activities are vital to, and can be directly applied to student levels of proficiency.

While some use of traditional strategies is still necessary in certain forms, a teacher's true goal should be to invoke students' responses based on their own thoughts and opinions about the leaning process. In other words, teachers should focus on helping students to become engrossed in meaningful materials and get them excited about learning. Passive learners will not extract the full advantage of an instructor's teaching methods as much as they will from being an active participant in the learning process. Over time, students who are exposed to a more inspirational approach to teaching are expected to develop the ability to ask themselves independently, the important questions and will eventually reach a point in which they have internalized the learning strategies; making self-monitoring automatic. By following Palmer's suggestions, students can not only become successful in their education; they can learn to enjoy the process.

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