Parker Palmer argued strongly that teaching is not merely a matter of technique

March 13, 2001

In chapter 1 of The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer argued strongly that teaching is not merely a matter of technique. This reminded me of something significant that happened on my first trip to Singapore, which relates on several levels to several of Palmer's points.

In the third year of Science One, a team of 5 science professors from the National University of Singapore visited us for a week. On their last day they invited me to visit Singapore for a week to give a plenary talk (I talked about "teaching for creativity") and consult with them on their Special Programme in Science, to be modeled to some extent after our Science One. I agreed, then began to wonder to what extent my way of teaching may not apply well or at all in Asia. For example, I assume that students are willing to be self-regulating learners who can share in guiding their own intellectual growth. More importantly, my classes are highly and remarkably deeply interactive. My students share relatively openly their intellectual growth, which includes exposing their ignorance in public, and my entire approach assumes this. I understood that Asian students are hesitant to share in this way, especially if it risks loss of face, and realized that it would be foolish to push my approach to teaching and learning in Singapore if my fundamental assumptions about students did not apply there. Therefore I requested an opportunity to work with a group of their students, to test my assumption that students are willing to be active learners and will share openly.

I made the request, NUS granted it, and then I really started to worry. I talked with all faculty I could find who had worked in Asia, and all of them said the same thing - - Asian students will not expose themselves in public, and will not participate in discussion. I talked with many immigrant students from Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Asian countries, and they shared the same view. Even my own former Asian-Canadian students, who had personally experienced the power of interactive engagement to transform their intellectual lives, warned me that it could never happen in Asia even though they themselves had made the transition in the Canadian environment. Everyone said the same thing, and all discouraged me from trying.

To make matters worse, my visit to Singapore was during the "dead week" between the end of classes and finals, and few students were on campus. Fortunately, I had suggested to my hosts that food is an important secret to community-building with students, and they advertised that the food for my two sessions would be great (it was wonderful, and it drew students!). They got 40 student volunteers for 2 2-h sessions on successive days, most of whom had not worked together before.

I began the first session with a bit of theatre and deception. Just a few words into my first sentence, I swallowed the sentence and began to pace back and forth, stroking my chin and talking to myself. After a while I said something like, "Oh, I may as well tell them. They might find out anyway." Here's what I said.

"When they first asked me to come to Singapore I got so excited I could barely stand it. All day long I thought about it, and the first thing I did when I got home was to get out my Atlas to find Singapore. I looked for it up at the top of Malaysia, right where I knew it was, but it wasn't there! I couldn't believe it." At that point the students looked back and forth at each other, incredulous that anyone could be so dumb as to think Singapore is way up at the north end of Malaysia rather than at the southern tip where it really is.

"I looked and I looked, but the darned thing just wasn't there. So I searched in ever-widening circles that took me up into Thailand and Laos, east into Vietnam, and even as far west as Bangladesh, but still no Singapore. Finally I found it, way down at the bottom of Malaysia. What a surprise! Can you imagine anyone knowing so little about southeast Asian geography that he could make that mistake? Isn’t that silly?" Again, the students looked at each other, and looked very embarrassed for me, but they didn't say anything.

Then I said, "Well I agree that it was a pretty dumb mistake, and I promise not to make it again. But I want to warn you not to get too cocky, because part of our subject today requires us to know something of Canadian geography. Has anyone here heard of Vancouver Island?" All of them had. "Is Vancouver Island big or small?" It was big. "How big?" Really big. "Is it bigger or smaller than Singapore?" Bigger. "How much bigger?"

All hell broke loose about that time, as the room erupted into active, metacognitive but non-self-conscious discussion. The group decided that Vancouver Island was at least 2 or 3 times the size of Singapore (more than an order of magnitude too small), and we went on from there. We went for 2 solid hours of interactive engagement about issues that were specific to local Canadian ecosystems, economies, and political systems, but of general scientific import and both challenging and interesting.

Those students were wonderful! Within minutes of the beginning of the session they were taking enormous personal risks by proposing hypotheses to explain phenomena and defending them, or by arguing against hypotheses others had proposed. They listened well, they spoke clearly and respectfully, they asked each other for clarification and gave it freely and sensitively, and together they embraced a wider array of possibilities than any of them could have handled alone - - in short, they behaved as well as any group of students I have worked with anywhere. Just a few minutes into the first session they had answered my question about assumptions, and I knew that there was no fundamental reason relating to students why NUS couldn't achieve anything they wanted to achieve with their own students.

Several faculty were at the back of the room during both sessions. After the first (even before the last of the students had drifted from the front of the room), the faculty rushed me with questions.

"What did you do to make them participate?"

"I don't know. I wasn't paying attention. You were there and paying attention, though. What did I do?"

We went round and round about this for a while, and finally I said "It's not a technique. I didn't do anything to make them participate. They wanted to participate - - I assume everyone wants to do that. All I did was listen. I wanted to hear them, they could tell that I did, and they gave me what I wanted. They wanted me to hear them, and I gave them what they wanted. We all wanted to think about some really interesting biology, and learn some really important ways to think together scientifically, and we did. It is a lot simpler than you think to get students to participate. You can do lots of things to help, and I did several of them today whether you noticed it or not. But the most important thing is for us to really want to hear what they have to say, and not to hide that. They will notice, and they'll participate if you respect it enough and respond in ways that encourage rather than discourage it."

Of course, we went round and round about the same thing for the rest of the week, and the next year we went round and round about it for 3 whole months when I returned. Teachers always go round about that, and as long as they think it is a matter of technique, nothing very dramatic will happen. Our Dean is enthusiastic right now about some new technology that will allow lecturers to read from a computer in real time the names of students who ask questions, along with their pictures, their scores on midterms, etc. She thinks the ability of professors to use the names of 300 students in class will help matters by bringing trust and intimacy to large classes. Perhaps. But to the extent that professors fail to communicate the deeper message that they are there to interact with their students, it won't and can't happen.

The story about the NUS professors assuming that I somehow "made" their students participate by applying a technique reminds me in turn of a 1300 mile motorcycle trip my son David and I took when he was about 11 years old. On the 2nd or 3rd day of the trip, I noticed something curious in the rear view mirrors. Every time we met a truck on the highway, David went through a complex and curious set of gyrations on the back of the bike. He did strange things with his hands, with his head, and with his feet, but only when we met trucks. At our next pit stop I told him what I had noticed, and asked him what he was doing. David told me that he had noticed that, when I wanted, I could do something to make the truck drivers reach up, pull on the rope, and honk their loud air horns, but he didn't know what I actually did to make that happen. He was simply trying things out to find my secret. There was no secret, because it isn't a technique, but David didn't know that, just as the NUS professors didn't know it. He didn't believe the simple truth, either, and neither did they.