Teaching from the Microcosm: A Practical Idea from The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer

By Beth Black, Undergraduate Engagement Librarian

I recently read the classic book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker J. Palmer, thanks to its inclusion on the reading list for our campus Teaching Support Program. I am grateful for this push because I found the book inspiring both philosophically and practically. In this post I will share a powerful, practical teaching idea: Teaching from the Microcosm (Palmer, 2007, p. 123-135).

In reaction to the perceived need to “cover the field,” Palmer encourages teachers instead to invite students into the big ideas and practices of a discipline by teaching small but critical samples of the data of the field. Through in-depth exploration students learn how a practitioner of that field generates data, checks and corrects the data, thinks about data, uses and applies data, and shares data with others. The entire lifecycle of information creation and dissemination can be taught through in-depth consideration of a single yet critical sample.

In The Courage to Teach, Palmer provides detailed examples of teaching from the microcosm in two contexts: medical school and a social science research course. In the medical school example, the instructors created learning groups that engaged with actual patients from the beginning and through the in-depth exploration of those cases, applied what they were learning in other courses. In the social science research course example students considered a single data table for a two-week period. During that time, Palmer used questions, some that appeared obvious and stupid, to help students look more deeply at the data table, how it came to be, the assumptions behind it, the processes through which the data was collected, etc. all the way through the social science research process.

In information literacy instruction, we often have a single class visit of 45-90 minutes and we often feel the pressure to “teach research” in this short period knowing it is impossible. Taking the microcosm approach, we might instead select a single search or a single information source and through questions, student exploration and discussion walk with students through a selected frame of the Information Literacy Framework. One example would be taking a single source and exploring how it came to be created through questions about audience, author, and purpose. Then as time allows moving into how this item finds its reader, through questions of dissemination and search.

In what ways have you taught from the microcosm?



Palmer, Parker J. 2007. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.