[perfectpullquote align="full" bordertop="false" color="#EEEEEE" class="" size="16"]"The question we most commonly ask is the ‘what’ question—what subjects shall we teach? When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the ‘how’ question—what methods and techniques are required to teach well? Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the ‘why’ question—for what purposes and to what ends do we teach? But seldom, if ever, do we ask the ‘who’ question—who is the self that teaches?”
- Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen our teaching focuses entirely on learning outcomes, we can become narrowly focused on seeing our students as skillsets. This can lead us to break learning into smaller and smaller parts so that we can successfully measure student "success." But if, as Palmer emphasizes, we see ourselves as more than the sum of our skillsets, we will be able to ask questions in our learning design process that help us connect the core of who we are as educators to the larger mysteries of our content areas. This creates learning experiences that are rich, meaningful, and highly motivating.
Many of us can think of a person who transformed our life in some profound way, albeit unknown and unrealized at the time. One gift of age is the ability to look back with gratitude upon those who saw something in us that we could not see in ourselves, or perhaps someone who led us to love a learning path that we might never otherwise have entered.
One such educator in my life was Ray Pestrong, my geology professor at San Francisco State University. I took geology not because I wanted to, but because I had to satisfy a Physical Sciences credit. Ray was a slight man who always seemed hyper-caffeinated and who introduced himself as “Ray Pestrong but please call me Ray. I’m a paranoid guy from New York, so don’t get close to me from behind all of a sudden, or you’ll scare me.” He laughed and I liked him immediately. I don’t think I had any other professor in my undergraduate years who brought their own vulnerability into the classroom, and there was Ray, introducing himself with humor that was both humble and transparent. Ray was a visual poet, and like all poets, was thrilled by mystery. His passion was to use photography to compare the ways that biological life forms match geologic forms. He delighted by examples of ways that geological formations and biological formations mimicked each other. His hobby was taking photographs of large land masses and placing them next to photographs of biological forms under the microscope. Ray knew who he was and wasn’t afraid to share that “who” with his students.
Ray showed us photographs of the geometric shapes at the tops of lava cones in Mammoth Lakes, which matched almost perfectly the shapes of certain bacteria under a microscope. He showed us the sensual curves of many rock formations, set side by side with slides of small areas of the human body. He showed us shining slides of cell replication set alongside slides of lava pillow formation under the sea in Hawaii. He explained how certain angles form in nature along paths of least resistance, and why so many rocks erode toward a spherical shape. And then he sent us off with a project to do. We were to read certain chapters of our text that dealt with large patterns of land formation. Then we were to go on a hunt to find and photograph miniature versions of those large patterns in the parks, the puddles, and the vacant lots in the city where we lived. We were to explain the patterns we found according to the textbook theories of large land mass formation. To accomplish this, we would need to “make ourselves very small”. The projects I undertook forever changed the way I see the world around me. As I write this, I am on vacation with my family in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, where we’ve been hiking through palaces of stone created by time, erosion, and wind. I’ve been teaching my children to look for ways the land has been shaped, to make themselves very small, and to love the land. We protect what we love.
Ray Pestrong could have taught geology in more conventional ways. I’m sure I would have learned a lot for the sake of the grade. But because he was a man who was faithful to his own “who” questions, he instead taught me to love what he loved. His inspiration made me a life-long student of geology. I didn’t become a geologist, but I did become a teacher, and I drew deep learning from Ray’s example.
When I taught high school history, I looked for themes in our massive textbook—ways that history seemed to repeat itself again and again. I wondered together with my students about the human condition that can lead us again and again down pathways of “us” and “them” and into unspeakable violence. We looked for reasons. We searched for connections between what we saw in our world today and what we saw in the people whose shoulders we stand on. We learned thousands of facts along the way and created many sequential timelines. But our goal was not simply to master facts or discrete skill sets. Instead, we strove to remain faithful to our collectively-determined goal of trying our best to make our own corners of the world better, kinder, more creative and productive. These larger questions guided our efforts to learn the details of historical events and processes.
Later, when teaching college students about English as a Second Language, we engaged in a collaborative search for understanding of the deep, mysterious processes of language learning and how our use of language in society impacts others, ourselves, and the greater good. We studied ourselves, our families, our students, and our friends. We weren’t looking for patterns in rock formations, but for patterns in language and the ways that language leads us to judge and misjudge ourselves and others. Our quests for learning were based on questions that were too large for any of us to answer in one lifetime. From the perspective of learning design and teaching method, the questions were the ground beneath our work.
Questions for self-discovery
The questions below are offered in the hope that they may help my colleagues uncover their own unique approaches to creating learning that is faithful to their values, reflects their passions, and evokes a sense of wonder in their students.
- What are your own deepest values? If you could teach for a brighter future, what values would you teach? How might these values be explicitly connected to what and how you teach—or how might they form a “hidden curriculum” that is taught by your own example?
- What fills you with a sense of wonder? What aspects of the content you teach lead you to a sense of awe at the deeper mysteries beneath the skill sets you teach? What larger questions remain unanswered by the greatest minds in your field?
- What led the pioneers of your field of study to embark on their learning quests? What filled them with wonder? What gave them the audacity to question and challenge the beliefs of those who had come before them? What has led ideas and knowledge to evolve in your content area?
- What do you enjoy doing for its own sake that is related to your content? Are there aspects of art, beauty, or design that draw you into long periods of focused attention and could work in your content area? How might you use intrinsic enjoyment of aesthetic qualities of your content to evoke enjoyment in the assignments you develop for students?
- How free do you feel to be your authentic self with your students? What might you be able to start sharing with them that will make you unique, quirky, and interesting? What day-to-day enjoyments might you have in common with your students, or what might you be able to laugh with them about?
Thanks to a geology professor with great self-awareness and keen pedagogical skill, the earth that had been a stranger became an intimate friend that continues to play a large role in my life. The learning experiences he created some 30 years ago inspired me to walk with my own students to the edges of cliffs of unknowing. Now as I stand, literally, on the edge of a cliff today at sunrise above Palo Duro Canyon, I feel that same sense of awe that will keep me coming back for a lifetime. A quest is never inspired by asking Siri how to get to some known destination. A quest, by its very nature, is something that leads us into unknown territory, but with a promise that the journey will reward us with beauty and with change.
Rebecca Zambrano is the director of online faculty development at Edgewood College (Madison, Wis.) and a member of
The Teaching Professor editorial board.