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Have Content to Cover? Why Not UNcover it Instead?

I can’t speak for everyone at CTLT, but it seems to me that one of the questions most frequently asked in our workshops and other offerings is something along these lines: “All this stuff [civic engagement, sustainability, support for student writers, active learning; insert your choice of these or more] sounds great, but I just don’t see how I can use it. I have so much content to cover in my class!”

At other times, I feel like maybe some of our constituents are trying to head off at the pass any conversation at all about issues like those listed above. They do this by sitting down with us and announcing, “Okay, so the first thing you need to know is that my course is really ‘content-heavy’!”

I’m not sure if folks would find it reassuring or disconcerting to learn that we assume that every course is, in fact, loaded with content. If a course doesn’t have a lot of content, why teach it? Couldn’t it be combined with some other “content-light” course or courses … if for no other reason than to make it worth students’ while to enroll?

So no one is ever going to get any argument from us about the importance of content in any given course. The point where our thinking might diverge is at the point where visitors to our center create what we might consider a false dichotomy between “covering content” and utilizing active learning strategies or promoting student engagement or even integrating issues of civic engagement and/or sustainability into the course. For us, it is rarely a matter of “either-or.” Instead, we tend to think in terms of “both-and.” Yes, we think, it is possible to teach both health safety and sustainability. (This is a pairing that came up in a workshop this morning, from someone who was, I think, actually teaching both.) Similarly, it’s possible to both utilize active learning strategies and “cover content”’; in fact, the idea of active learning is to use the active part to promote the learning (content) part.

But what I’d really like to do today is to think a little more deeply about this whole notion of “covering content.”

I’ve been reading Parker Palmer lately, and will admit that I’ve gotten a bit starry-eyed about his work. Having recently pulled The Courage to Teach off my shelf and blown off the dust that had accumulated while it sat there waiting for me to get around to reading it, I have become something of a convert to what I originally thought was “probably some kind of touchy-feely stuff about teaching.” A case in point has to do with his thoughtful discussion, in Chapter V, of what he calls “a subject-centered education.”

In this discussion, Palmer calls in to question what he sees as a false dichotomy between “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” classrooms. (A thorough, but quick, overview of the distinction between the two can be found on page 19 of L. Dee Fink’s book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences. Parker provides a deeper, more fully considered discussion in Chapter IV of The Courage to Teach.)

To suggest that our classrooms should be teacher-centered, argues Palmer, is to assume that we, as teachers, are concerned primarily with disseminating “TRUTH,” generally by transmitting it directly from our brains into the brains of our students. On the other hand, he argues, to suggest that our classrooms should be learner-centered, is to assume that all understanding is relative, that our students should be allowed to construct their own truths without reference to any previously established truth or understanding. (This is not, by the way, my own—or Bain’s—understanding of student-centered classrooms, but we’ll go with it right now, just for the sake of argument.)

What Palmer is arguing for (which is actually closer, I think, to Bain’s—and Lamonica’s—vision of student-centered learning, but with enough difference to make it intriguing) is a “subject-centered classroom” in which the goal is to create a “community of truth” charged not with covering content, but with UNcovering it.

The “content” in this case is not TRUTH, but truth, which Palmer defines as “an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (Palmer 106). The goal of the subject-centered classroom is to allow students to join that conversation by involving them in the “passionate and disciplined process of inquiry and dialogue” (106).

I like a lot of what Palmer has to say. I love his unpacking of the “cover” metaphor for teaching. When we cover something, we obscure it; we hide it from view. In this sense, teaching should not be about “coverage” at all, yet all too often I think we inadvertently obscure the content we’re trying to teach, ironically by the means we’re using to teach it.

Instead of covering content, Palmer would argue, teaching should be about uncovering it. We do this by engaging students in a shared consideration of “great things” (Palmer 110). How we foster that engagement is up to us, as Palmer is quick to resist the urge to reduce teaching to “tips, tricks, and techniques” (12), but it clearly can’t be accomplished by traditional approaches to “content coverage.”

If you’ve got some time this summer (I know that’s asking a lot), you won’t go wrong by spending it with Parker Palmer and The Courage to Teach. It’s just the right size to tuck in to a carry-on bag for a trip out of town, and it’s available in e-book format as well. I personally had to really push myself through the introduction and the first few chapters. (Remember what I said about being leery of “touchy-feely teaching stuff”?), but once I got to Chapter IV, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop marveling about how “smart” it was. In addition, honesty compels me to admit that Chapter IV wouldn’t have made as much sense without Chapters I-III, so there you go …

Happy summer; happy reading; and happy thinking about teaching & learning!

Comments

Claire,
Hello from follower/reader in S.C.!
Thank you for your thoughtful post. I have a soft-spot for the work of Parker Palmer...agree that when consumed thoughtfully it can be transformational. I read it as part of a grad course years ago (shortly after it was first published)...then it caught dust until I read it again...CAREFULLY ... a couple of years ago. Along with the important points you share about the learner-centered classroom, Parker's ideas about the role of fear in our teaching and learning enactments is important, I think.
Anyway...thank you again for sharing this.
fwiw...I had missed that Parker published a new book last year (2010) "The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal - Transforming the Academy Through Collegial Conversations". Bought it, no opportunity to read it yet...but eager to read his ideas applied specifically to HE context. Passing along in case you have not seen it. I'll be interested to see what you think/share about it here.
Best,
Cindy Jennings

Cindy, You just made my day. I had no idea we had a follower in SC! I read The Courage to Teach with a group of "women academics of a certain age" this past spring; we're thinking about reading The Heart of Higher Education in the fall. If you get to read it this summer, I'd love to know whether you'd recommend it for our group. :)

Claire,
Yes...following you for a while now. And...sharing this post in particular with colleagues here.

Hmmm....hoping to get started reading the new book soon, but meanwhile wondering about a 'networked' reading of the Palmer book. We could host on a 'neutral' space/wiki/blog and share between/amongst colleagues on both campuses. Could be good! Just a thought.

Thanks for this wonderful information,its always good to share knowledge because its through that,that others will learn and become better citizens.I hope to get one of your books.Great site.