Saturday, 24 April 2021

Book review: The Courage to Teach

Many years ago, after I won my first staff teaching award at the University of Waikato, the excellent Dorothy Spiller at our Teaching Development Unit (as it was known at the time) strongly recommended that I read the book The Courage to Teach, by Parker J. Palmer. Finally, more than ten years and several additional teaching awards later, I have gotten around to reading it.

I can now see why Dorothy recommended the book to me. However, I am glad that I didn't read it sooner, as it is unclear whether I would have gotten much out of it then, and I'm probably still not ready or open enough to get a lot out of it now. Or maybe the book just isn't speaking to me in the way that it seems to do to other readers. Anyway, let me go back to the beginning.

This is not simply a book about teaching. It doesn't contain a magic formula to turn average teaching into excellent teaching. This is a book about thinking about teaching. As Palmer puts it early on:

...good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

The irony, perhaps, is that the implication is that good teaching itself cannot be taught. So, rather than attempting to tell people how to teach, this book invites readers to ask the question of who they are as a teacher, and how they can bring that authenticity to their teaching, in a way that connects students to the subject matter. The assertion that technique matters less than enthusiasm for the subject made me realise some things about my own teaching and the roots of its success.

However, what I feel was all the good material, the parts that I felt connected to and could recognise myself in, came within the first couple of chapters of the book. Having noted early on that the book is not about technique, Palmer then veers off course and argues strongly against what he refers to as 'objectivism' in teaching. I found that a little confusing, because Palmer is not referring to the philosophical objectivism of the Ayn Rand variety, but rather an ontological objectivism that assumes that there are objective 'truths' that teachers can teach and students can learn. I suspect that most academics would refer to that ontology as positivism, not objectivism. Given that a belief in positivism (to use the more commonly adopted terminology) lends itself to the adoption of particular teaching techniques, and Palmer clearly has no time for positivism , then the book really does privilege some teaching techniques over others. Unfortunately, I am clearly sited on the other side of the ontological divide from Palmer. And so I found the rest of the book interesting, but neither as stimulating nor rewarding to read as others might.

The last section of the book is devoted to a consideration of movements for social change in education. The book was originally written in 1997, and I was reading the 10th anniversary edition (written with additional foreword and afterword from 2007). Palmer could see learning institutions had lost their focus on teaching and learning, and increasingly focused on standardised testing (at K-12 level) or research outputs (at tertiary level). This last section is a call to action, a rallying cry for teachers to stand up and push back against the forces that seek to reduce recognition of the value of excellent teaching. In the afterword, Palmer notes some modest successes in the ten years since the release of the original book. However, I wonder whether he would feel that those successes have been sustained. My experience is that research has even more primacy now than it did when I started as an academic, and the focus on international rankings has doubled down on this due to the weighting that rankings place on excellent research.

Overall, this book is probably worth reading if you agree with Palmer that positivism is contrary to your teaching philosophy. For others like myself, there's got to be something better.

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