What Am I Really Teaching?


For years I have adopted the worldview that how I do something is as important as what I do.  I’m not saying that I always get it right – I’m just saying that this idea stirs something within me.  Today I read something from Parker Palmer* that provided some more stirring around this issue.

I offer it to you.

If you want to understand our controlling conception of knowledge, do not ask for our best epistemological** theories.  Instead, observe the way we teach and look for the theory of knowledge implicit in those practices.

The teacher is a mediator between the knower and the known, between the learner and the subject to be learned.  A teacher, not some theory, is the living link in the epistemological chain.  The way a teacher plays the mediator role conveys both an epistemology and an ethic to the student, both an approach to knowing and an approach to living.  I may teach the rhetoric of freedom, but if I teach it “ex cathedra”, asking my students to rely solely on the authority of “the facts” and demanding that they imitate authority on their papers and exams, I am teaching a slave ethic.  I am forming students who know neither how to learn in freedom nor how to live freely, guided by an inner sense of truth.

If this is the case, then as a teacher I can no longer take the easy way out, insisting that I am only responsible for conveying the facts of sociology or theology or whatever the subject may be.  Instead, I must take responsibility for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formulate pressure on my students’’ sense of self and world.  I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills.  I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world.  That way, reinforced in course after course, will remain with my students long after the facts have faded from their minds. 

When I read this I had an “oh wow” moment.  Not because it was new to me but because it so clearly articulated.  This is something that I deeply believe.  How I do something is as important as what I am doing – especially when it comes to how I engage others.

My teaching methodology invites a learning all by itself – a learning of culture – of worldview.  That culture/worldview invites students to view the facts of my teaching through a specific lens.

I so resonate with Palmers example around freedom.  If I teach about freedom with an attitude of seeing myself as the final authority I subliminally teach that my way is the only way…which informs what I really believe about freedom.  Namely, that you are free to believe what you wish as long as you agree with me.

This was the tone of my early faith.  It is something that I have been in the process of unlearning for decades.

But this principle is a lot bigger than me.  I see this everywhere.

I speak with organizational leaders, on a regular basis, that are constantly amazed that even though they tell their employees that they are encouraged to “think creatively” – they don’t.  They blame it on the “millennials” or “poor upbringing.”  Which may be at play.  But these same leaders are largely clueless as to how they are a part of the problem.  Namely, the “how” of their teaching does not correspond with the “what” of their message.  They say they want everyone’s best ideas, but only the ideas that support the view of the leader are deemed worthy.  All others are considered bad and belittled.

Rather than continue with a series of proclamations on the gap between what we say we want and how we behave I’ll simply close with a few questions for thought.

  • In what ways am I convinced that I’m helping others to learn and yet unintentionally (or intentionally) sabotaging their learning by my poor or inconsistent teaching methodology?
  • In what ways am I allowing my good intentions around a certain matter to keep me from evaluating my effectiveness in it?
  • How might I sit more curiously with an issue that I’m struggling with right now with this thought in mind?


To Know As We are Known/A Spirituality of Education, Parker J. Palmer.  Harper and Row, 1983.  PP. 29-30.

**Epistemology – the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion (Google dictionary).