12/29/2010 12:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Some Words to Consider From Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer has been an important figure in American education for several decades. His book The Courage to Teach has influenced many educators, myself included.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Palmer, and to obtain several of his books I had not previously known. I have been reading The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, which contains a long reflection on a Chinese poem translated by Thomas Merton. Therein I encountered a number of passages that I find very relevant to consider as applicable to our current approaches to education "reform" in this nation. Without further adieu, allow me to quote two passages, the first beginning on p. 74 and going on to the next page, the 2nd somewhat further down page 75.

I feel sorry for teachers (to take one example) who are required to spell out precise "learning objectives" long before a class begins so that they can measure their own "effectiveness." I feel sorry for their students, too. Education dominated by preconceived images of what must be learned can hardly be educational. Authentic teaching and learning requires a live encounter with the unexpected, an element of suspense and surprise, an evocation of that which we did not know until it happened. If these elements are not present, we may be training or indoctrinating students, but we are not educating them. In any arena of action -- rearing children, counseling people, repairing machines, writing books -- right action depends on yielding our images of particular outomes to the organic realities of ourselves, the other, and the adventure of action itself.

Our culture's fearful obsession with results has sometimes, ironically, led us to abandon great objectives and settle for trivial and mediocre ends. The reason is simple. As long as "effectiveness" is the ultimate standard by which we judge our actions, we will act only towards the ends we are sure we can achieve.

I have never been a proponent of the behaviorist approach, and our entire use of "objectives" seems redolent with it. To me, it causes us to forget the very real -- and messy -- collection of human beings before us in our classes.

Yes, there needs to be some means of ascertaining whether our instruction is helping the students to learn and grow. We tend to depend upon simplistic external measures, such as the low-level, high-stakes test that have overwhelmed so much else in education. If we raise test scores, we then claim we have achieved an objective, we have demonstrated our "effectiveness."

But what have we achieved? Is not the goal of raising test scores a clear example of the kind of thing Palmer describes as "trivial and mediocre ends." We do know how to raise test scores. But when we do that does mean we have demonstrated that we have increased learning, nor is it evidence that we have empowered our students to apply what they have in theory "learned" to any novel situation, one not defined by four or five previously selected choices one of which is considered to be correct. Unfortunately, the real world does not work that way. And insofar as what we do in education is not connected to the real world, it serves neither the students who are subjected to it nor the society that hopes for future benefits from what those students learn.

Insofar as we reduce learning and teaching to a series of discrete and narrowly defined objectives, we may be able to measure that kind of results, but we will not be learning whether the real persons before us are truly learning. The "data"' we obtain to "drive our instruction" only further diminishes what should be the exciting experience of true learning.