to make the painful things possible

To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced.

…A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries, and an air of hospitality.

Openness is no more than the commonsense meaning of space. To create space is to remove the impediments to learning that we find around and within us…. So creating a learning space means resisting our own tendency to clutter up our consciousness and our classrooms. One source of that tendency is our fear of appearing ignorant to others or to ourselves. Even though we are bright into education by ignorance, the fear of “not knowing” often leads us to pack the learning space with projections and pretensions. Teachers lecture longest when they are least sure of what they are doing.

…If we can affirm the search for truth as a continual uncertain journey, we may find the courage to keep the space open rather than packing it with pretense. Second, we must remember that we not only seek truth but that truth seeks us as well. When we become obsessed with our own seeking, we fill the space with methods and hypotheses and reports that may be mere diversions. But when we understand that truth is constantly seeking us, we have reason to open a space in which truth might find us out.

The openness of a space is created by the firmness of its boundaries. A learning space cannot go on forever; if it did, it would not be a structure for learning but an invitation to confusion and chaos. A spaces edges, perimeters, limits. … The teacher who wants to create an open learning space must define and defend its boundaries with care. Not only will this keep the space open, it will also keep the students from fleeing that space. The openness of space–which is at first appealing to our jangled minds–soon becomes a threat. As the clutter falls away we realize how much we depend on clutter to keep our minds employed, to make them feel masterful. We do not want to face the barrenness that comes when our mind-made structures fail, so we run toward some distraction. If you doubt this, try creating a long silence in your classroom as Abba Felix did in his. Feel the anxieties arise in you and your students alike.

…The desert teachers know thees anxieties well. They know that in the desert, before we encounter truth, we must first wrestle with the demons of untruth that arise in the silence, demons that come from our own need to manipulate and master truth rather than let truth transform us. …So the desert teachers disciplined themselves to stand their ground, to stay within the boundaries of the learning space so that truth might seek them out. One symbol of this discipline was the “cell” (often a hut or cave) in which these teachers lived.

…Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us. Such teachers will not allow their student, or themselves, to flee from the “cell.” They will hold the boundaries firm, and hold us all within them, so that truth can do its work.

But precisely because a learning space can be a painful place, it must have one other characteristic–hospitality.

…So the classroom where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome. This may suggest a classroom lacking essential rigor, a place in which questions of true and false, right and wrong, are subordinated to making sure that everyone “has a nice day.” But that would be a false understanding of hospitality. Hospitality is not an end in it self. It is offered for the sake of what it can allow, permit, encourage, and yield. A learning space needs to be hospitable not to make learning painless, but to make the painful things possible, things without which no learning can occur–things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypothesis, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought. Each of these is essential to obedience to truth. But non of them can happen in an atmosphere where people feel threatened and judged.

…I have been in some classrooms where people seemed to be pressing each other, asking hard questions, stripping off the veils of falsehood and illusion. But behind the appearances, something else was often going on. In an inhospitable classroom, many questions do not come out of honest not knowing. They are rhetorical or political questions designed to score points with the teacher or against other students, questions asked not for truth’s sake but for the sake of winning. In such a setting it is nearly impossible to reveal genuine ignorance–which means that genuine openness to learning is nearly impossible as well.

To Know as We are Known by Parker J. Palmer on pages 69 to 75 (from chapter 5, “To Teach is to Create a Space…”).

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