One of the subtitles of this book is “A Master Teacher Offers A New Model For Authentic Teaching and Learning,” and I think it’s quite accurate.
To Know As We Are Known is written by Parker J. Palmer, who won the 1993 award for “Outstanding Service to Higher Education,” and is a sought after speaker in secular and religious communities. Now that I’ve set some pretty high expectations for you, let me address why this book, and his teaching method, is quite revolutionary.
He essentially uses the discipleship model of Jesus and later apostles as a framework for how to engage your students and teach. The three metaphors, he says, are “the study of sacred texts, the practice of prayer and contemplation, and the gathered life of the community itself” (p. 17). We’ll come back to what these mean for the classroom in a few moments.
He first begins, though, by deconstructing the theological and sociological implications of how people normally teach. Students sit in rows. The classroom is to be quiet. On occasion a student might ask a question, at which point, the expert teacher will clearly answer the question and move on. The teacher, of course, is at the front by his/her lectern lecturing and explaining profundities that only he can teach.
“Such an arrangement speaks. It says that in this space there is no room for students to relate to each other and each other’s thoughts; there is no invitation to a community of troth; there is no hospitality” (p. 75).
He goes on to suggest that this kind of setup actually stifles the learning process, because it creates lazy students whose only responsibility is to memorize what the professor said, and be able to regurgitate it on later exams. I’ve noticed in my own life how completely true this is. In most of my seminary classes, the student was a setup to be a passive partner in the learning process. You sit…you take notes….it’s rather relaxing. In most of my classes I recall sitting there rather dumbly as information is coming to me. I just knew that I had to write or type fast enough and I would be ok. I think that anyone that has encountered any typical classroom can attest to such an effect on the student.
So how does the study of prayer, sacred texts and community affect a teaching environment?
He says that a classroom should be such where community between the students themselves and the teacher is built. To encourage this everyone sits in a circle. There are no rows. The teacher is one of the people in the circle. He says:
“But when the chairs are placed in a circle, creating an open space between us, within which we can connect, something else is said. The teacher may sit in the circle and talk, but we are all being invited to create a community of learning by engaging the ideas and one another in the open space between” (p. 75).
In a setup like this, there is no “hiding” as a student. You are forced to actively engage. Everyone can see everyone.
Palmer begins each class with a moment of silence. It’s not necessarily prayer, though he says many often do pray during this time. But it’s a time in which everyone can settle in and become centered. He also will also occasionally have moments of silence during discussion if the ideas seem to be getting tangled up. He says:
“In most place where people meet, silence is a threatening experience. It makes us self-conscious and awkward; it feels like some kind of failure. So the teacher who uses silence must understand that a silent space seems inhospitable at first to people who measure progress by noise. Silence must be introduced cautiously; we must allow ourselves to be slowly re-formed in its discipline before it can become an effective teaching tool. But once the use of silence is established within a group, once we learn that we make progress in being quiet…then silence becomes a potent space for learning…eventually my students feel a sense of community in the silence that is deeper than what they feel when the words are flowing fast and hard” (p. 81).
As an extension of the silence, he also recommends asking a lot of questions in the style of Socrates, Jesus, and many other great teachers of the past. This is often referred to as the “socratic method.” So instead of simply lecturing the whole time, he’ll spend much of the time asking questions of the students and pushing them to become active learners.
When I went to my first D.Min intensive, I experienced this under the teaching of Alan Roxburgh and Mark Branson. I’ll be honest that I never had much context for this kind of teaching before. I had never experienced it in the past, and yet it was amazing. If a student asked a question, for example, the teacher would often respond with a question. This would challenge the student and other students to think through the issue at hand more deeply. And so a minute or two (or more) might be taken up where the teacher is causing the students to think through their bias’ or suppositions in order to understand the subject more. The teacher is then transformed from being a robot-like expert who spits out answers, to a guide, and an encourager in the learning process. Other students, instead of being in a competitive relationship, then, challenge each other and help each other to learn more.
Most educational systems assign large amounts of reading that urge students to become speed readers. With this process, you can only engage with the materials on a superficial level. But using the model of Christian discipleship, Palmer encourages teachers to give less reading for the purpose of being able to process more deeply. He says:
“When all the students have read the same brief piece in a way that allows them to enter and occupy the text, a common space is created in which students, teacher, and subject can meet…there is often need for longer reading assignments to gather information and perspectives, but a shorter text can become the arena of focused exploration ” (p. 76).
This all isn’t to say that there are no lectures in this teaching style, but that the lectures might be shorter, and greater responsibility is given to the student to process and learn together. Palmer referenced a history teacher that used this method and helped to create a “space in which students became dependent on each other to spot the fallacies, a space that not only invited but compelled students to participate in their own and each other’s education” (p. 78).
In short, this is a process that respects students and comes alongside them for the purpose of encouraging their learning.
Like I said before, being involved in this style, I know that it works. I think that it helps to create a more independent learning style where students take greater responsibility for their learning, because they know the’ll be held accountable during discussion and interaction times.
There’s a lot more that can be said concerning the book and the style that’s being put forward, but I think you get the gist.
I highly recommend the book.