There is a cliche that ones hears a lot in education about the need for teachers to not be a “sage on the stage”, but rather a “guide on the side”. The main idea behind these two cute terms is to denounce the role of a teacher as being a “sage”; the font of all knowledge in a classroom, someone who stands in front of the empty-headed students and tells them everything they need to know. We decry this idea of a sage, and quite rightly too. In a post-Google world, the notion that anybody – including a teacher – could still be the source of all information and wisdom is pretty ridiculous.
Likewise, the other half of this expression implies that the more proper role of a teacher is that of being a “guide” for students. Someone who goes along on the journey with students as a partner in learning. As my good friend Tony Butler would say, it’s about creating a “big brother, little brother” relationship with students rather than a “master/apprentice” approach.
In the old-style classrooms of the 19th and 20th century, the emphasis was often placed on the teacher moreson than the students. Most industrial model classrooms are founded on the idea that they have a “sage” at the front of the room dispensing scarce knowledge. The emphasis in these classrooms was strongly on the teacher and the act of teaching. Learning was assumed to have taken place because the teacher had performed the act of teaching… If we teach them, then surely they must have been learning, right? I remember hearing a teacher once say, after his students performed extremely poorly in an exam, “I taught them but they just didn’t learn!”
Our 21st century paradigm of education moves students back into their rightful place at the center of the learning process, and we now talk a lot more about the importance of learning over teaching. We think more about how students learn, and even the educational language we use emphasises learning as being far more central these days. And this is all good and absolutely on the right track…
While I totally get what these two expressions are trying to say, I’m a bit concerned that as we strive to elevate the importance of learning, learners and the learning process, that we don’t swing too far the other way and somehow make teaching a dirty word. One of the things that struck me as I wrote the book was just how frequently my volunteer proofreaders would pull me up on my use of the word “teaching” and replace it with the word “learning”. And while I did agree with them some of the time, there were a few cases where I thought it was almost coming across as a sort of political correctness, replacing “teaching” with “learning” at every opportunity as though there was some inherent fault with the idea of teaching.
And it made me wonder, have we swung the pendulum too much away from teaching and towards learning? In our eagerness to ensure our classrooms are constructivist, student-centered places, are we in danger of devaluing the act of teaching?
In a lot of the research I read, the critical factor for success of learners was the quality of the teaching. In fact, when all the various factors are taken into account – class sizes, funding, type of school, level of technology and so on – the one factor that makes the biggest difference by far is the quality of the teaching that takes place. Good teaching inevitably leads to good learning, academic success and overall student satisfaction. Report after report comes to the same conclusion, citing the quality of teaching that takes place in a classroom as the major factor.
Perhaps this bias was amplified because I was writing about interactive whiteboards, a technology that is often accused of heralding a return to the “sage on the stage” days, and therefore a return to a more didactic form of classroom operation. Certainly, I understand why people would say this, since the very nature of IWBs suggest a classroom where the focus of learning is at the front of the room – a place usually inhabited by the teacher not the student. In practise I found that good teachers use IWBs to be more inclusive of their students’ needs, more flexible in differentiating for different learning styles and more creative in how they design and pace lessons, but I can certainly see how they could be used poorly by less skilled teachers.
But all of this got me thinking about the value of teaching. The value of explicit instruction. The value of a wise teacher directing the flow of learning in their classroom. I think it’s something we all understand is a foundation for effective learning, but I wanted to question it so that we don’t automatically abandon the value of teaching as though it was somehow “damaged goods”. If teaching – and the quality of it – really is the big factor in creating successful learning, should we be more willing to occasionally play “sage”? Rather that abdicate the act of teaching, have 21st century classrooms simply redefined our idea of what it means to teach, causing us to reinvent a different kind of “sageness”?
So, where is the balancing line? In your classroom, how do you find the right balance between providing explicit teaching instruction versus making your classroom a completely learner-centric environment? If you had to describe it a newly-graduated teacher, how would you explain the best way to find this balance? What does it look like? How can you tell when it tips too far one way or the other?
CC Flickr Photo Credit: Teaching Math or Something
Is Teaching a Dirty Word? by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.