The Great Idea of Parker Palmer

Current pedagogical debate often focuses on the shift from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning. The former is characterized by the Mathematics professor who says, “Our primary responsibility as mathematicians is not to students but to mathematics: to preserve, create, and enhance good mathematics and to protect the subject for future generations.” At the other end of the debate, we risk “mindless relativism” and teachers yielding “too much of their leadership; it is difficult to confront ignorance and bias in individuals or the group when students themselves comprise the plumb line.” —Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Parker Palmer
Parker Palmer

To understand Palmer’s view requires an understanding of the “Great Idea”. He says,”If we want a community of truth in the classroom, a community that can keep us honest, we must put a third thing, a great thing, at the center of the pedagogical circle. When student and teacher are the only active agents, community easily slips into narcissism, where either the teacher reigns supreme or students can do no wrong. This can lead to disinterest and poor engagement on the part of learners or to a teacher’s capitulation to relative truths where everyone has their own truth. A learning community that embodies both rigor and involvement will elude us until we establish a plumb line that measures teacher and students alike—as great things can do.”

This is what Palmer calls a subject-centered approach.  The great idea is the topic, or the discipline, under examination. In Physics it might be Newton’s Third Law, in Literature it might be the use of foreshadowing in a Shakespearean play. Such great ideas have motivated great teachers when they were students. They are the concepts, theories, and techniques that teachers love to teach because they hold some special value or significance in the world.

Putting the Great Idea at the centre of classroom activity means that the idea itself becomes the source of all truth about it. Teacher and students are co-learners who can never exhaust all the worthwhile inquiry into the subject. In this way the subject ceases to be a second-hand account of some isolated and distant reality and comes alive as yet another important human phenomenon.

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