Teaching From the Microcosm: Practical Ideas from "The Courage to Teach"

Posted by Beth Black on 9/9/19 12:47 PM

First Year Experience, Second Year Transition, InfoLit – Core


couragetoteachI came across the classic book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker J. Palmer, thanks to its inclusion on the reading list for our campus Teaching Support Program. It is a powerful book and I am immensely grateful to Parker Palmer for writing it—according to the forward, it took 10 years to complete. Despite its age, originally published in 1998 and reissued at the 10th anniversary in 2007, it speaks to today’s teaching landscape well. Of particular interest to my work was Parker’s practical teaching idea: Teaching from the Microcosm (Palmer, 2007, pp. 123 - 135).

In reaction to the perceived need to “cover the field,” Palmer encourages teachers instead to invite students into the big ideas and practices of a discipline by teaching small but critical samples of data. Through in-depth exploration students learn how a practitioner of that field generates data, checks and corrects the data, thinks about data, uses and applies data, and shares data with others. The entire lifecycle of information creation and dissemination can be taught through in-depth consideration of a single yet critical sample.

In The Courage to Teach, Palmer provides detailed examples of teaching from the microcosm in two contexts: medical school and a social science research course. In the medical example, the instructors created learning groups that engaged with actual patients from the beginning, and through the in-depth exploration of those cases, applied what they were learning in other courses. In the social science example, students considered a single data table for a two-week period. During that time, Palmer used questions, some that appeared obvious and silly, to help students look more deeply at the data table, how it came to be, the assumptions behind it, the processes through which the data was collected, et cetera, all the way through the social science research process.

In information literacy instruction, we often have a single class visit of 45-90 minutes and we often feel the pressure to “teach research” in this short period knowing it is impossible. Taking the microcosm approach, we might instead select a single search or a single information source and through questions, student exploration, and discussion, we can walk students through the processes by which that information source came to be created and found. In an information literacy context, more emphasis might be placed on the search, evaluation, and use processes.

In my next post I'll stay with Parker Palmer to talk about another inspiring idea from this text, paradoxes in instruction. Stay tuned!

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. 

CORS bannerPalmer, 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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