In 1993 an article was published which coined the phrases “Sage on the Stage” and “Guide on the side”.
The core idea in the original text was whether or not learners were seen as active constructors of their learning, and the distinction is now seen as being between a model where a lecturer tells students things which they memorise, and one where students actively construct their own meaning with teachers there to support and scaffold as required. Teachers no longer ‘teach’ – they ‘facilitate’ learning.
Aside from beliefs about how knowledge is best formed in our heads, three other beliefs have co-evolved alongside this to inform the “Guide…” model:
- The belief that children would learn better if only we would get out of their way and let them.
- The belief that with an explosion of information, it’s more productive to focus on teaching independent learning skills.
- The belief that technology could do a better job of personalising and opening up the educational experience than teachers can.
In practice, I think the majority of teachers use a mixture of teaching models as required, but as I’ve argued here, it doesn’t stop them having a nagging ‘ideal’ at the back of their minds. So, as a result of the above beliefs, I think that the dominant conception of ideal teaching looks a bit like this:
What’s wrong with this model…?
Now… I DON’T intend to disagree with the idea that knowledge is constructed in an individual’s mind through an ACTIVE process of combining what is already known with what is newly encountered. Learners can’t be passive receivers, and everyone’s version of reality will be somewhat unique.
However, there are significant limitations with the three other beliefs inherent in the ‘Guide’ model which I started with:
- “…children would learn better if only we would get out of their way and let them.…” In some ways, at some times, yes. This ISN’T a rant against inquiry-based learning in all its forms, as I’ll make clear in a subsequent post. However, the undoubted natural learning instinct in children is simply insufficient to induct them into modern society
- One of the supreme triumphs of human evolution is the ability to directly transmit specific information to each other. Letting a child “find out for themselves” does not give them an advantage – being told by someone else does. We need to bring children up to speed on what’s been achieved prior to their arrival on Planet Earth, so they can then spend time improving things. Don’t waste their time making them discover what they could simply be told.
- Secondly, letting children follow their natural areas of interest will often lead to them learning an awful lot about very little. Fully educated citizens need to understand a broad spread of things they may never develop an interest in, nor ever make direct use of. It helps them to better function within the whole, make better sense of life, be more creative with what they are good at, and generally ‘be prepared’.
- “…with an explosion of information, it’s more productive to focus on teaching independent learning skills...” This has been the centre of a lot of discussion elsewhere. My own personal take on it is here.
- Basically – independent learning skills DO offer an advantage… but one which is fundamentally constrained by the quality of knowledge that’s already in our heads.
- “…technology could do a better job of personalising and opening up the educational experience than teachers can …” The impressive capabilities of computer technology have misdirected us from remembering the true power of having a human adult to guide a human youth.
- Partly, this relates to the incredible way in which human teachers can detect, integrate and respond to the child before them, despite the myriad of subtle things that might be going-on at that moment – both within and around the pupil. [Perhaps the greatest feat a AI could ever hope to achieve]
- Less obvious though is an argument I’ve made here and here regarding the dubious enterprise of ‘personalisation’ for children in the first place… We can never really know the long term future of an individual child, and we don’t really know the truth of who and what they are as they stand before us – just the symptoms they’re exhibiting at that moment and some possible influencers from their past and present. Teachers are at our most powerful with children when we “keep the pack together” and lead them strongly in the same direction, addressing individual needs that arise as we go.
…Most fundamentally though, I think we have also become blind to the subtle programming within the human psyche – particularly in children, but still there throughout adulthood – which means that we are drawn irresistibly towards adult human modelling, to confident authority figures, and to the emotional context which another human gives to any of our experiences.
- As Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests, we learn a tremendous amount through both deliberate and unconscious observation of others, and the power differential that is set-up between a child and the adult who is granted dominion over them can be an intoxicating force for good.
- Frankly put… We want gurus… We respond to good leaders…
Take a look at the following model:
The real problem with the original ‘Sage on the Stage’ model of teaching was either that teachers didn’t do enough to ensure that pupils really were actively learning, or that they didn’t really know their stuff well enough to lead learning anyway. Effectively they were just ‘stooges on the stage’.
Now, it’s important to point out that this new model still places strong emphasis on teachers being expert in the creation and management of learning scenarios. They still need to know how to lead an active learning environment, and indeed to ensure that all their pupils are learning.
However, in line with what I’ve said earlier – this model reduces the active attempts to personalise learning. The aim is to keep the pack together, adapting to differences when they make a difference, but retaining the same central focus of the group.
This allows the teacher to become powerful again in their key position of being a TEACHER, and to put more of their time into becoming expert in what it is they actually want their pupils to learn about.
Simply put, pupils need teachers who can offer them wisdom and inspiration – but not simply for how they can become ‘better learners’. This is wisdom and inspiration in the actual areas that it may be most beneficial for them to learn about.
In this sense, there are two reasons for why my new model of the ideal teacher requires a focus on more than just ‘competent’ knowledge.
Teachers are at their strongest when their subject knowledge allows them to perform the following two functions:
Firstly they lead their pupils’ minds way out beyond their interests, experiences and self-judgements of ‘what’s relevant’. – And I mean ‘lead’ – not just drop them somewhere in the ocean without any idea how they got there. There are all sorts of ways in which ‘going off piste’ – ‘incidental’ knowledge – ‘going off at a tangent’ is actually incredibly useful for helping pupils not only make links between the new stuff and things they already know, but also for staking out the farther reaches of new terrain with intrinsically memorable features.
We will all have experienced children who can do this for themselves – making a wacky connection with something beyond the remit of the lesson, or indeed asking a great question which takes the subject matter into new waters. Yes, it’s fine to be able to say to a child – “You know what? – That’s a great question which I don’t know the answer to. Why don’t you go away and research it…?” But it’s even more fruitful if the child comes up with the same question and you’re able to actually answer it, or say that you don’t know, but take it in a parallel direction drawing in other peripheral knowledge. Everybody in the room can benefit from that, and may well be interested in it too if it’s an unlikely way of looking at things.
Consider this last diagram:
I think we all know the difference it makes to us as teachers when we’re teaching a topic we know a lot more about than is necessary. We find that we can explain the material in far more different ways and come up with just the right way to conceptualise something that will hit home with someone who isn’t really sure. We may even have noticed that pupils seem more naturally interested in what we’re saying, without there obviously being a reason why…
… Possibly the reason why we will have observed them seeming more interested however derives from the second really important function which a richly knowledgeable teacher can do: They channel for their pupils that which is intrinsically ‘vital’ about these strange new territories; not simply what is potentially ‘useful’ about them – but what it is that makes people love and obsess about them.
Few teachers wouldn’t say that they want their pupils to be inspired. But inspired by what?
- NOT just by discovering themselves
- NOT just by finding out more about something they love
- NOT just by some naturally impressive, but perhaps untypical, teacher
- … By being connected with what it is that is compelling, intriguing, satisfying and fulfilling in any area of human knowledge and endeavour.
In the absence of a pupil being able to properly immerse themselves in every aspect of life, it is the teacher who has the power and opportunity to transmit this subject ‘vitality’ into the hearts and minds of pupils.
Now, most subject-specialist teachers are specialists because at some point they found a passion for their subject and wanted to communicate what was great about it. Hopefully then they can ignite the flame of that passion when they are teaching others.
This might be more difficult for Primary teachers. It may well be that they chose that age range due to a lucky mixture of feeling invigorated by younger minds and a genuine enjoyment of a mixture of subjects.
However, we all have areas to teach sometimes which we don’t genuinely feel a passion for – that’s human life. BUT… even if we ourselves lack a natural passion for subject or topic area, it is perfectly possible for us to ‘get’ why other people DO feel a passion for it – if we just probe around it enough with an empathic, open mind.
This then should be the mission for all teachers: To regularly reconnect with what it is that we feel passionate about in the subjects that we teach, and to seek out what it is that can make other people feel quite fanatical about subject areas we would rather not teach. It is amazing just how much we can start to channel another person’s enthusiasm once we’ve got inside their way of looking at things…
So… to summarise:
I believe that the role of expert – or at least additional subject knowledge in teachers has been undervalued in recent decades, with the rise of the idea of teachers as facilitators of personalised learning.
I believe that the role of the ‘Sage on the Stage’ can be perfectly compatible with a conception of learning as being an active endeavour, and indeed is the most powerful way that we can accelerate the induction of the young into the world around them.
I also believe that if teachers cease to put so much focus on actively seeking out ways to personalise learning, then they would have the opportunity to immerse themselves more fully in the farther reaches of the subject which they are there to open-up for a child, and in the process better stretch learners into genuinely new areas of discovery and understanding.