Is Teaching a Dirty Word?

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
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CC BY-SA 4.0 Is Teaching a Dirty Word? by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

6 Replies to “Is Teaching a Dirty Word?”

  1. Hi Chris

    A very timely post for me. Just last night I had a long conversation with some college teachers of mine about the changing nature of information and the implications for the ‘sage on the stage’.

    We talked anecdotally about that ‘great teacher’ that everyone has had that they learned so much from. I suspect that what a lot of these teachers have in common is that they were very organised, knew their topic inside out, and carefully scaffolded their material so that students were always very clear about what they learned and what they had to learn next. I imagine most great teachers also have a knack for explaining difficult topics in easy to understand ways, they are good ‘sages on stages’.

    In a student centred, constuctivist classroom a good teacher still has to be very organised, know exactly what the core lessons are they want their students to get, and they need to be carefully scaffolding the experiences and skills so that their students have the support to be successful. I think that there is also a lot of teaching in this kind of classroom, except that instead of it being broadcast enmass to everyone it is done on a need to know and just in time basis.

    Your post makes me think of the Math Teacher hat that I also wear. In math there are two ways for a student to learn how to do something. They can explore the topic and come to a deep understanding by building up rules themselves or they can be taught how to find the answer and the deeper understanding can come later. The students that are good at math can learn through the first inquiry based method, but for the students that struggle it just raises their already high stress levels. Recently I have started using a very successful math program for stuggling math students called the JUMP program. The basic premise is that you first teach the rules and then once the students experience success they start to want to learn more about the underlying fundamentals. I think my point here is that different approaches work better with different kinds of students and different kinds of learners and different kinds of subjects.

    Maybe there is still a place for the sage on the stage, but the mistake we make is in thinking that it is a model that should be forced on everyone.

  2. Great observation, Chris: “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.” I totally agree.

    Good questions, too.

    When in doubt, we can look at learners’ preferences. Students often prefer strong leadership. However, the preferred (and I guess, appropriate) dynamic varies as each learner moves through different levels and types of competence.

    I’m not sure how effective it is to describe good practice to a new teacher. Many greybeard chalkies over the years have said in essence that one only learns to swim in the water. (I used to wonder what that implied about their belief in efficacy of teaching!)

    Ben McNeely wrote, “This is how the Net Generation learns: by doing.” This is not a new phenomenon: it connects with problem-based learning and Vygotsky’s work in the 1930s.

    The ‘Sage on the Stage’ is using a mass-production model. Brilliant teachers detect enough feedback from their audience to pilot the whole body of learners past the key landmarks that each learner need to see. This is easier if the whole cohort enters with identical pre-knowledge: approximately true in our current carefully staged syllabus, but actually pretty unrealistic at the detail level where children really do their learning.

    The ‘Guide on the Side’ language should remind us of our role (along with their peers) as More Knowledgeable Other, modelling, monitoring, correcting and confirming, in each learner’s own passage through the Zone of Proximal Development (in Vygotsky’s terms).

    However, our students still have to pass externally set exams, so teachers are commissioned to push through learners who are not yet ‘in the zone’ for the particular problems they face.

    A miracle of schooling is that, if we cannot devise a way to discover and respond to the readiness of each individual, it often works to stand ‘on the Stage’ to broadcast information and challenge, trust most students to help each other, and seek out the exceptions who need a better ‘big brother’.

  3. “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?”

    From someone who will graduate next June, I will speak to the myriad classes I have observed. First off, we are told again and again to ‘be the guide’. But, what I have found most interesting in my ‘learning and observing’ is it seems there are as many styles as molecules in the air. Maybe. I go in and weigh the day; how is it going, how are the children engaged, why and what is next, are they excited, are they happy, are they bored, etc. What I experience is if there is too much students centered learning and ‘guiding’, children begin to bounce off the walls and lose focus. If a teacher is mainly the sage, students are bored out of their skulls and just want a little fun. If there is a sage and guide who respect and encourage, kids are engaged. The most inspiring teachers are the ones who are comfortable in all roles. Spending a day with a teacher who is handing over too much power to the children is chaotic. Some like this style. But, by the end of the day I wonder if this is what you speak of as de-valueing the act of teaching. I wish these teachers would stop wishing to be the student’s ‘friend’ and be a sage for a bit. The children’s eyes are hungry for a bit of clarity.

    When I student taught my sixth graders, I slide into all roles because I don’t know where I will be yet. But, when I am clear and focused for a bit of the lesson, I sense a calm in the room. Is this value of scholarship? Isn’t there inherent worth in education and learning? I learn constantly. Sharing what I am engaged in during the lesson and how I am learning it is the process of my being a teacher. When I can inspire from the front of the class and then turn it to them, I feel I am teaching. When a student then shares what they understand and am learning, they are teaching us.

    This feels like what you speak of as “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”?”
    Redefining is the way, it seems. We must play sage and play guide and allow those students the same roles, it seems. We have so much to learn from each other. All of us.

  4. Phil, Russell and Soon to Graduate,

    thank you so much for your insightful, intelligent and well-thought out comments. I think you have all managed to get at the heart of what was in my mind when i wrote that post, and that is that good teaching never relies on just one “style” of teaching, that there are times when being “sage-ish” is right and appropriate, that there are times when playing guide is right and appropriate, and that good teachers know the difference.

    I’m with you… I believe that there ARE times when being sage – teaching to the group – is absolutely the best and sometimes only approach that makes sense. Introducing new concepts, explaining some intricacy, giving group instruction… these all require a group of learners to listen to a teacher deliver a broadcast message to the class.

    Of course, the problem is that some teachers ONLY know how to teach using this one style, and are not good at “letting go” and getting out of the kids’ way, enabling the learning to center on the students while they move into a new mode of moving from one to the other, connecting like minds, directing them to resources, posing interesting questions and so on.

    I think we need both of these modes of teaching, and all the various shades in between. We need to be able to move smoothly between being a sage and being a guide, knowing when one or the other is the most appropriate. Knowing when and how to do this is where teaching becomes an art.

    I guess the point of the original post was to suggest that there is still a place for teachers to play sage occasionally, in situations that require it. With so much focus these days on NOT being a “sage on the stage”, we have to be careful that we do not become so “anti-sage” that we avoid explicit teaching altogether.

    I’ve seen people who constantly think “student centered classroom, student centered classroom, student centered classroom, student centered classroom…” but then begin to feel a sense of guilt when they need to stand in front of the kids and actually “teach” them. There’s no need for that guilt, because there is nothing wrong with teaching in that style if it’s the right mode for what you and the kids need.

    Thanks again for your comments. They’ve certainly helped me clarify and extend what I was trying to get at in the original post.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?