Dance with your Students: Paradoxes for Change Chaz Pugliese, Pilgrims, uk. Menu

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Dance with your Students: Paradoxes for Change
Chaz Pugliese, Pilgrims, UK.

Thinking the world together

Palmer’s tension paradoxes

Creative tension in the classroom.

Teach from the heart

Thinking in polarities of the black and white, good/evil type is such a widespread characteristic of the Western world that has almost become a societal convention. This way of thinking is so ingrained that it is very hard to escape it. So much so that even when the intent is to readdress the balance, in a society where polarizing is the rule, it is difficult to do so without going to extremes. Here’s a few examples from the ELT discourse: to correct overemphasis on Teacher Talking, Student Talking is normally stressed, to correct excessive regard for cognitive factors, the affective side of learning is stressed, and so on. Either/or thinking is rooted because we’ve come to see and think the world apart. I’m not going to argue against this too long: as a matter of fact binary logic has been instrumental to a lot of scientific discoveries. However, it is undeniable that this way of thinking has provided us with a rather distorted, fragmented view of reality that has had an impact on teaching.

Thinking the world together

What has interested me for some time is finding ways to escape this either/or thinking in the classroom. The objective is to look at the classroom and the whole teaching/learning processes holistically. In other words, my quest is for ways to think the world (and hence the classroom) together. Teacher and educationalist Parker J. Palmer tackles the issue in his book ‘The Courage to Teach’. He rightly points out that thinking in polarities has driven the (western) world to disconnection. This is perhaps best illustrated by the way we sometimes engage ourselves in conversations: tell me what you think and I will devote all my energy to beat your thesis to a pulp. Sound familiar? Competitive conversations are not a new phenomenon by all means: what they show us is our incapacity to listen to our partner, along with an incapacity to produce generative, meaningful dialogue.

One way to get past the either/or thinking is through embracing paradoxes. While paradoxes are natural in a child as s/he naturally navigates from joy to sadness, from action to sleep, adults are taught to be choosy and to discriminate. We are taught that survival depends on our capacity to analyze life, and so that’s the task we set for ourselves: operate a shift from the whole to the parts. We separate head from heart, facts form feelings. This is what happens in our inner, private lives but it obviously permeates our professional lives as well. And in ELT we have created bridges between theory and practice, between teaching and learning (as if these two could be separated), between product and process. If you dig deeper you will find accuracy versus fluency, native teachers versus non-natives, L1 and L2, and that all time staffroom favorite of mine ‘I’ll do grammar can you do vocabulary?’.

The questions I have been asking myself lately are: (how) could paradox contribute to pedagogical design? How would our teaching and learning experiences be different if we adopted the following tension paradoxes? What are the steps I need to take?

Below is a list of general paradoxes useful in all teaching situations:
Palmer’s tension paradoxes

  1. The space is bounded and open

  2. The space is hospitable and charged

  3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group

  4. The space should honor the little stories of the students and the big stories of the field and tradition

  5. The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community

  6. The space should welcome both silence and speech.

To which the following may be added:

  1. The space should embrace reflection and practice

  2. The space should welcome teacher’s feedback and the student’s input

  3. The space should offer opportunities for content learning and personal development

  4. The space should welcome the teacher’s stories and the students’.

  5. The space should invite questions from the teachers and from the students

  6. The space should support the teacher’s leadership but also the students’

  7. The space should welcome freedom and discipline

By space it is meant the classroom, its physical arrangement, but also the rapport with the students, the learning I hope to facilitate, the dialogue I hope to promote, the understanding I hope to foster.

Notice how the focus is no longer on either/or but on AND. This makes pedagogic sense because decision making is strengthened by this way of thinking in that the teacher isn’t a prisoner of two fixed polarities, but s/he can choose what she wants from either. Furthermore, this approach enables us to look at a lesson as a dynamic process: there may be a moment where reflection is appropriate, and another where the students need/want to practice. But these choices are not exclusive and they are there to best serve learning. As Palmer puts it: ‘Teaching and learning require a higher degree of awareness(…), and awareness is always heightened when we are caught in a creative tension. Paradox is another name for that tension, a way of holding opposite s together that creates an electric charge that keeps us awake’’
Creative tension in the classroom.
To show how to use creative tension in the classroom, let’s just take paradox 6 above: I imagine myself in a classroom, I ask a question and the students don’t answer. All of a sudden silence is so loud it is terrifying. Like most teachers, I’m prone to think that something has gone wrong. Panic makes me interrupt silence, because I rush to think that a. my students are finding it hard to understand the teacher’s profound question, or b. the teacher’s question far from being profound was downright boring and hence best ignored.

Of course, it could also be that the students are simply mulling it over, and possibly rehearsing their language before answering. But I will never know, because by the time they are ready to answer, I will have moved on to the next (easier) question or stage of the lesson. So paradox 6 urges me to respect silence and to stop assuming that my students’ silence signifies a problem. Or take paradox 13: a classroom where discipline reigns may be every teacher’s dream. But a classroom of this kind where nothing physical happens, where students sit at their desks all the time may be the worst nightmare for all those who like to learn by doing, by moving around. So paradox 13 is there to remind me of my students’ different styles and needs.

Teach from the heart
It’s not hard to get rid of either/or thinking in the classroom. However, all changes have to come from within and no change is possible if the keystone it’s built upon clashes with our identity and integrity as teachers and human beings. My advice is to go for a walk, practice listening, reflect on your teaching self, engage in dialogue with colleagues, be observant, teach from the heart and keep exploring until you have understood how to dance with your students.

Parker J. Palmer (1998) The courage to Teach (Jossey Bass)

The Building Positive Group Dynamics course can be viewed here.

The Creative Methodology for the Classroom course can be viewed here.

The Expert Teacher course can be viewed here.

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