Paradoxes in Instruction: Practical Ideas from “The Courage to Teach”

Posted by Beth Black on 9/19/19 10:27 AM

First Year Experience, Second Year Transition, InfoLit – Core


sophIn my last post I wrote about teaching from the microcosm, one of my favorite chapters from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. Now I’d like to delve into another concept I’ve adapted from this classic text to include in my own work: paradoxes in instruction. 

Palmer emphasizes the paradoxes required for good teaching. A paradox is a joining of apparent opposites and is “found not by splitting the world into either-ors but by embracing it as both-and” (p.65). This holding together of opposites generates creative tension that awakens both teachers and learners. 

Palmer identifies six paradoxical tensions he builds into the teaching and learning space (pp. 76 – 86):

  1. The space should be bounded and open. The teacher creates boundaries by using a question, a text, or a body of data that is so compelling and clear that it keeps the group focused. Yet within that boundary learners are free to speak, to question, and to go in unplanned directions. Within an information literacy session this might take the form of inviting student experiences and interests into our instruction.
  2. The space should be hospitable and “charged.” This is a space where students are welcomed and feel safe enough to be challenged and feel the risks inherent in learning. In my teaching, I do this by making visible the thinking and feeling parts of information seeking. Naming them makes them normal and frees students to deal with them.
  3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group. Individual learning requires that a person be able to identify what they know and be open to what they do not yet know. The paradox is that a classroom is not solely a place of individual learning and expression. It is also a place for group learning. A skilled teacher provides a space for a group’s voice to be gathered and heard so that both the individual and group can hear and understand, while having the option to change and learn. Something as simple as a “think, pair, share” technique applies this paradox to our teaching.
  4. The space should honor the “little” stories of the individual and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition. The abstractions of the topics we often teach are more easily learned when they can be connected with the personal experiences and stories of our students. By showing respect for our students’ “little” stories we teach how to be respectful of big ideas and concepts that are new to our students. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy gives us big ideas to which we can connect our students’ experiences.
  5. The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community. Learning requires reflection, usually done alone, yet also flourishes in community, where ideas are shared, challenged, and expanded. While we can’t easily send students off by themselves in the middle of a class session, we can honor a student’s solitude by affirming their right not to participate overtly in a class discussion. Instead seek other ways of discerning participation. Palmer notes that in his experience the stated permission not to speak “seems to evoke speech from people who are normally silent” (p. 84).
  6. The space should welcome both silence and speech. This paradox recognizes that words are not the only way we teach and learn; silence is also an insightful teacher. Silence can be particularly challenging in a classroom environment as the psychological pressure to fill the silence can be intense. Strategies to make space for silence are providing something for students to do as they think, such as making notes of their thoughts to a question, and as a teacher being prepared to count to 10 or 15 to give the silence a chance and to fight the fear it can induce.

These paradoxes and the idea of paradox in teaching extends to all disciplines. I invite you to find the ones that speak to you and start experimenting with their application in your teaching!

See more tips for instruction and strategy from Beth Black with our new book: The Credo Second-Year Transition Guide: Extending Retention and Student Success Efforts Beyond the FYE. Beth shares her own experiences, and interview librarians and academic leaders from across the country to explore how libraries can best support an often overlooked group of students. 

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Palmer, Parker J. 2007. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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