May 18, 2018—There is strong agreement among many scientists and poets that all things are connected; the human and natural world are not separate but rather constitute an integrated whole.  The naturalist John Muir observed that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  And the author and story teller Annie Dillard argues that the best way to attend to the fears and uncertainties of life is not to dismiss them but rather to walk with them deep into the mystery: But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, … the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”  If Muir and Dillard are correct that all of life—physical and emotional—is interconnected and bound together in a unified whole, why is it that education, which teaches about life, is often informed by metaphors of disconnection?  What drives the fragmentation of self and knowing into content knowledge, outcomes, and facts rather than curricular integration, completeness, and unity?  And how might being schooled in a context that favors separation over fullness, parts over wholeness, and mind over emotions impact the instructional life of teachers and students?

Western ways of knowing, curriculum, and pedagogy have a history of breaking things into smaller and smaller parts which fuels the impulse in education toward disintegration; taking the whole of life and fracturing it into pieces.  For instance, curriculum writers—professionals who map out the day to day instructional activities of teachers and students—have at times “written” teachers out of the craft of teaching.  What has been dubbed “teacher-proof” curriculum is built on the promise that following a prescribed script will efficiently transfer abstracted forms of knowledge—subject matter—through the teacher, into the minds of learners.  The teacher, under such a model, becomes one more piece in a linear system of knowing to be moved around for the purpose of accomplishing strategic outcomes and performance goals.  In 21st century schools, many critics of testing, accountability, and standards chafe against the ways that assessments, if improperly applied, tend to reduce the wholeness of the learner into numeric indicators to be tracked and managed.

Data and the patterns that can be discerned over time are an important tool for educators hoping to make the most efficacious instructional choices for their students.  Numbers can answer the question, “what does this student need right now to enhance their learning?” Yet when employed too regularly, or without taking time to reconnect with the wholeness of life and the learning task, it becomes easy to lose track on the unified whole of the world, which puts the teacher and student in opposition to each other.  According to the quantum physicist Richard Feynman the danger of focusing on the narrow and particular story, one goal of data, is to lose the essence of the larger story: “The internal machinery of life, the chemistry of the parts, is something beautiful. And it turns out that all life is interconnected with all other life.”  The fullness of learning occurs when teacher, student, and text are in dialogue with each other, each with a distinct voice to contribute to the conversation and living into the process of being connected, of being fully human.

What would teaching and learning spaces look like if measures of wholeness, integration, and interconnectedness were the indicators of success in schools?  Imagine if pay for performance was anchored around the degree to which a teacher puts the world back together for students, re-connecting learners with the immensity and interconnected nature of reality.  What if teaching was an act of integration rather than disaggregation?

May 2nd, 2018—When you struggle as a teacher, and all teachers struggle at some point in their career, who do you turn to for wisdom and guidance?  Do you rely on your instructional teammate?  A relative who has taught for over 30 years and knows the ropes?  Maybe a university professor who was always there with just the right advice or question that broke open a deeper understanding of the problem?  Or perhaps a beloved K-12 teacher, because of all the people you know they had the gift of seeing you fully for who you are, even when you didn’t trust yourself?  For the past 20 years I’ve turned to Parker Palmer’s landmark book on the inner life of teachers; Courage to Teach for guidance when I’m troubled as an educator.

On the University of Denver campus we recently hosted a two day celebration of the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking text with sessions designed to invite faculty, staff, and students into deeper contact with the call to serve and care for others.  The highlight of the event was a live video chat with Parker Palmer.  Each of the six panelists was invited to engage Parker around the following questions, 1) when did you first encounter Courage to Teach, 2) in what ways has the book changed your practice, and 3) what aspect of living the Courage to Teach still engages you.

One of the panelist spoke of the challenges and internal conflicts she faces initiating and sustaining change in her educational setting.  She described the constant struggle as “swimming upstream” against the strong current of institutional norms and resistance to innovation. For her the effort was exhausting and dispiriting and she wondered if Parker had any guidance or insights on how to remain true to her passion. In the way of a wise educator he paused in response to this heart-felt question, for a moment of reflection and empathy, before engaging the question.  He began his answer with a description of floating the Colorado River in a raft and ended with the observation that every good boatperson knows that if you overshoot your destination you can move to the side of the river and use the back-eddies to navigate against the current to your intended destination.

I find in Parker’s analogy a series of helpful steps for anyone working for change in a system they care deeply about, especially educational contexts with their strong tendency to preserve existing norms and protocols.  The first step is to literally get out of the current and stop battling the forces of tradition that seek to sweep you toward the intended goal and outcomes as quickly as possible.  Sometimes it is best to consciously search out the margins of the river where the current flows with a different sense of purpose. The second step is to realize that every rock, log, and obstruction in the river creates a back-eddy that can be used by the observant boater to move sideways to the current or even impossibly upstream.  In this way a change agent can artfully work the institutional barriers and roadblocks to quietly move past the obstructions toward a healthier more life-giving place to teach and learn.  The third step is to recognize that it takes practice to find the right eddies with the right physics of change capable of accomplishing your goal.  And a willingness to make mistakes; to end up where you didn’t intend or back where you started, swimming against the current.  The final step is to bring along an experienced guide who “knows the river” in all of its moods and rates of flow.  A person who can point out the sweet spots in the current.  A wise guide, when exhaustion threatens to overcome the boater, who points out the best eddies for resting, regrouping, and refocusing on the task of accomplishing change that is sustaining.  Someone who knows from experience when even the best boater risks disaster, given the strength of the current, and advises staying out of the river until the spring thaw diminishes and the river returns to more manageable flows.

With the analogy of institutional river of back-eddies in mind: who are your fellow paddlers?  Do you have a more experienced guide with you?  Have you studied the current, marked the obstacles, and tracked the location of the best eddies?  If you feel exhausted from the struggle where will you eddy out and rest?  If so, you are ready to push off into the current and work the margins toward meaningful and sustaining change.  Oh, and if you make a mistake and get “flushed out”, no worries; be patient, and work the eddy lines back against the current.

March 23rd, 2018—Perhaps you have heard someone say with a tone of admiration and respect that a teacher “put their heart and soul into a lesson.”  But what does putting one’s heart and soul into a lesson mean?  Is there a difference between a teacher’s heart and a teacher’s soul?  What might an instructional coach look for when guiding an educator toward greater effectiveness around connecting instructional passion (heart and soul) with educational outcomes and the learning interests of students?  I find this question about identifying ways of seeing the ineffable elements of teaching, such as a teacher’s heart and soul, compelling.  I’m constantly looking for ways to see the unseen in teaching because for me that is where the alchemy lies; where magic as craft knowledge of teaching develops. To put one’s heart and soul into a lesson doesn’t guarantee the success of the lesson or student learning but it does indicate a degree of commitment from the teacher making it more likely that students will take the lesson seriously.  The pledge of a teacher’s heart and soul, the open vulnerability of deep caring for content, can signal to students that the topic of the day is important.

I find that sometimes the best place to witness signature moments of teaching is to look outside the field of education.  This is because an unfamiliar venue may reveal elements of teaching, in this case the pedagogical unseen, that are often obscured by teaching contexts that are too familiar. I recently experienced a moment of seeing teaching anew during a concert by the Spirituals Project at the University of Denver.  At intermission I was asked what I thought of the concert.  Because the music was moving and spiritually stirring I was a bit at a loss for words. I couldn’t articulate what I had witnessed—experienced—because so much of it was indescribable and awe inspiring; just like great teaching.  But in my attempt to name the un-nameable I uttered: “Out of his hands came their voices”.  The ineffable and intangible nature of the human voice was brought as close as possible to the visible light of this world by the skilled conducting of M. Roger Holland, director of the Spirituals Project.

I was captivated by the transcendent link between the conductor, the written music, and the choir as individual singers and as a chorus.  Mr. Holland skillfully combined his individual passion for music with the shared passion of the choir to sing.  The alchemy occurred at the interface between his inner-calling to conduct and the inner-calling of others to sing.  In between the two (conductor and singer) was the music as text and notes, content in educational terms. It might be said that both the conductor and the choir put their heart and soul into the creative act of making music, of lifting notes off a piece of paper to float free around the concert hall. But this does not just happen accidently.  Transcendence for both conductor and choir requires trust, vulnerability, skill, and a willingness to release individual agendas to something greater than self; the universal impulse of Creation to sing.  Additionally, the alchemy of conductor and musical text increases the likelihood that the music will lift off the hands of the conductor and the voices of the choir to enter the hearts of listeners.  In education this speaks to the importance of going beyond pure technique and the importance of allowing the teacher to exercise some power over the selection of the curriculum.  This allows the knowledge of the teacher about the unique gifts/needs of their students to push toward the best fit between learner, content, and teacher.

There was a time, I believe, when educators were honored for their ability to bring learners into deeper relationship with the mystery of self, text, and things greater than self.  It could be said that “Out of their hands came the wisdom of students”.  These early educators were true to the root definition of education which is to draw-out knowing beyond simply imparting facts. To be an educator in antiquity was to be simultaneously a teacher, philosopher, and theologian.  Educators in the second through the fourth century who had the ability to elevate learning beyond day to day human experience, to encompass a higher plain of spiritual understanding or mystery, were called mystagogues. Like the conducting of Mr. Holland they had the gift of transforming learning into something that went beyond best practices.  They intentionally mystified the known in a way that moved learner, fact, and instructional technique into the realm of the unseen seen.  I wonder what greatness could be achieved for both teachers and learners if the goal of learning to teach included both technique and the dispositions of the mystagogue.  In such an education system when someone said a teacher put their heart and soul into a lesson we would know what that meant and what the implications would be for definitions of good teaching.


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