Parker J. Palmer: Is It Possible Your Students Aren’t Brain-Dead?

Parker J. Palmer

In The Courage to TeachParker J. Palmer shares the following anecdote:

I once led a faculty workshop where the conversation had turned toward students, and many participants were complaining about how silent and indifferent they are. The workshop was being held in a glass-walled conference room at the core of a new classroom building, and the curtains that might have shut off our view of the surrounding hallways had been left open. In the midst of the student-bashing, a bell rang and the classrooms surrounding the conference room began to empty out. The halls quickly filled with young people, talking to each other with great energy and animation.

I asked the faulty to observe the evidence before us and then asked them to explain the difference between the students they had been describing and the ones we were now seeing: “Is it possible that your students are not brain-dead? Is it possible that their classroom coma is induced by classroom conditions and that once they cross the threshold into another world, they return to life?” (p. 43–43)

Points of the story worth reflecting on include:

  1. That students often act “brain dead”—”silent and indifferent”—in our classes.
  2. That in our frustration over this we may speak about students in overly negative and underly productive ways.
  3. That despite how they may act in our classrooms, many students have not only the capacity but also the tendency to be alive, awake, and engaged in conversation.
  4. That some sort of “cosmic rift” takes place as our students move between our classrooms and the rest of the world.
  5. That we can make changes in the conditions of the classroom to our and our students’ benefit.

So, let us be encouraged to pay more attention to our students as people, to the connections and disconnections between our classrooms and the rest of the world, and to our own attitudes and assumptions. And let us be encouraged to pay more attention to what we can do to shape our classrooms differently.

At the same time, perhaps this anecdote puts too much on us as teachers. As if we were to blame for the troublesome conditions of the classroom. As if fixing things were a simple matter of stopping doing the wrong things. As if students would engage if only we would let them. Perhaps. But Palmer doesn’t offer “solutions” for teaching as much as he asks questions—and not merely rhetorical ones.

One question that Palmer asks is: “Is it possible that your students are not brain-dead?” Understood literally, this would be something of a nonsense question. But what Palmer actually seems to be asking is: What are the implications of the disconnect at hand? What should we do, in other words, in regard to our attitudes and teaching practices in light of the following dual facts: (a) that, often with good reason, we may feel there’s something wrong with our students but (b) that there isn’t anything wrong with most of them, except that they are people and, like all other people, have noble and not-so-noble qualities?

Palmer presents a genuine (and genuinely difficult) puzzle. But he doesn’t solve it for us. We must do that work for ourselves.

Photo of Parker J. Palmer from

3 responses to “Parker J. Palmer: Is It Possible Your Students Aren’t Brain-Dead?

  1. These are some good and valid questions and I do not believe it places too much of the onus on us as teachers. The truth is that we have been in the same model of education for over 150 years and it is also true that education is one of the slowest moving institutions in terms of change.

    Teaching is about content but it is more about relationships and building connections from content to our students. We are bridge-builders and not content-dumpers. And it should be noted that we as teachers must put in the effort to understand this current generation of students. A great place to start is with Tim Elmore’s blog Growing Leaders or reading an excellent text, Generation iY, also by Tim Elmore. Understanding your constituents means you are better able to meet their needs. If we think that standing up in front of the class having a monologue is most effective with our students because we think our content is so important, we need to think again. This generation has its faults but it is a generation with much passion and the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves. A good teacher will know their content; a great teacher will know how to connect their content to their audience so that it produces change.

  2. Thanks so much for this comment, Antone.

    I agree, certainly, that what Palmer is getting at has deep roots in the way in the default ways of teach. These are the “classroom conditions” that seem, in retrospect, designed to stop students from learning and need to change.

    At the same time, I think that the issues he is uncovering are simultaneously more deeply personal and more broadly institutional than just individual teachers changing how their classroom practices.

    On one hand, individual teachers only have limited control of the conditions of their classrooms, since all of our classrooms are embedded in large institutional and cultural contexts that can be mitigated but not negated. On the other hand, even if we were to change our institutions and cultures, we would not, finally, root out the human disposition toward disconnect (or alienation).

    So it is a pedagogical puzzle, an institutional puzzle, and a human puzzle. I think we can make gains on all fronts.

  3. Pingback: Perception Does Not Always Have to Be Reality – antonemgoyak·

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