Paradoxical Tensions for Learning and Teaching Spaces

Not all good teachers use the same technique, but whatever technique they use, good teachers always find ways to induce this creative tension.  ~Parker J. Palmer

(Re)reading Parker Palmer’s deeply reflective treatise on teaching and learning has brought me many ‘aha’ moments this spring. One particular piece that has continued to fuel my pedagogical values is Palmer’s concept of paradoxical tensions in education. Palmer believes we must build these six education paradoxes into our teaching and learning spaces. He notes that “these are neither prescriptive nor exhaustive,” but offers them as samples to “illustrate how the principle of paradox contributes to pedagogical design.”

The space should be bounded and open. Any space without boundaries, argues Palmer, is not really a space, but a chaotic void, where no learning is likely to happen. The space itself must be open to many paths and voices. All ultimately, the “openness of a learning space reminds us that the destination we plotted at the outset of our journey as learning community may not be the one we reach.” Consider that perhaps our true destination is that which we travel together as a community of learners.

The space should be hospitable and “charged.” While an open space is liberating particularly for learning, getting lost in the unknown is a concern. A hospitable learning space is open, safe, trustworthy and free. Boundaries around the learning environment offer some assurances, but “any education expedition has important requirements: places to rest, places to find nourishment, and places to seek shelter during feeling of overexposure.” But if that space is to take us somewhere, Palmer argues, it must be charged. Deep learning moves forward with the “need to feel the risks inherent in pursuing the deep things of the world or of the soul.” The idea of offering daily time for learners to discover, follow, and flow in and among a passion is a key ingredient to creating a charged learning environment.

The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group. If an environment is to support learning, it must invite students to find their authentic voice. Palmer notes that “[learners] need to be able to express ideas, emotions, confusions, ignorance, and prejudices.” It is a balance between being a forum for individual expression and the group’s collective voice. It is a paradox of individual and collective voices to promote consensus decision-making. Ultimately, Palmer believes that “no decision can be made as long as even one voice dissents, so the group must learn to listen to individuals with care.” Honouring the individual while respecting the group values.

The space should honor the paradox of the “little” stories of the individual (personal experience in which the learner’s inner teacher is at work), and the “big” stories of the subjects and tradition. Working to balance personal smaller stories of individuals in the classroom with those larger stories that are universal in scope, and depth, should be a priority. Learning withing one’s on inner landscape has true value when it occurs within the wider learning community. As Palmer puts it: “We must help students learn to listen to the big stories with the same respect we accord individuals when they tell us the tales of their lives.”

The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of the community. The need for solitude and community for depth of learning is not lost on most educators. A true authentic learning community does not just alight with solitude, but it is essential to help learners realize what their inner teacher is trying to tell us and them. Learning within community “helps us to see both barriers and openings to the truth within” each of us.

The space should welcome both silence and speech. A difficult balance in any given situation, but none more true in our classrooms. We educate and learn not just through words, but through opportunity for reflection that silence allows. Authentic education requires this of both teacher and learner.


It is now time to sit in these paradoxes and to explore how these might look in practice in our learning spaces.

That’s for another post.


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