Stop facilitating and start teaching

Teachers should teach, not “facilitate,” writes Fred Strine in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The “sage on the stage” is more effective than the “guide on the side,” he argues.

Education requires discipline, both intellectual and behavioral, and discipline must be imposed before it becomes engrained. That’s the way it works for families as responsible adults raise their kids, and that’s the way it used to work in public schools when I started teaching eons ago. But all too often nowadays kids are left to raise themselves and teach themselves.

. . . intellectual inertia needs a genuine push toward knowledge. Facilitators are too wimpy, too passive to push anything or anyone.

Via Core Knowledge.

Update: In The Oprahization of Academia, an English professor takes another knock at facilitators.

About Joanne


  1. I just saw Doug Fisher speak at the UCI Writers Project (of which I am a Fellow this summer). He very clearly says that Focus Instruction should be only a fraction of the actual instruction, leaving room for Guided and Collaborative Instruction to take place. We cannot have the expectation of differentiation, of learning for ALL, and not use collaboration or peer-teaching. It is a tool and one that must be employed to reach some students. This isn’t just an issue of engagement, but of achievement. Collaboration, peer-teaching, and a student-centered environment are not NOT disciplined. In fact, the level of engagement in a class with a teacher that know how to use these strategies is not only higher, but the instructional time is more efficient. The teacher-centered disciplined teaching that “used to work” earlier in his career is false. It didn’t work and it surely does not even until this day. It was used because of what we didn’t know then. There is no excuse now. It is still not used as often as it should be because it is a more challenging road to teach. The past was not better. It was, however, most likely, easier.

  2. Ms. Wolpert-Gawron,

    And because Doug Fisher says it, it must be true? Where’s the critical thinking here?

    When applied indiscriminately, groupwork is an insult to the subject, the teacher, and the student. Learning requires careful thought, which in turn requires quiet, a degree of solitude, and excellent examples. A teacher should know and love the subject and be able to draw ideas out of the students. She should be versatile in her methods and employ groupwork when it is appropriate, in the form that is appropriate. It makes no sense to declare that “focus instruction” should only be a fraction of the actual instruction. The amount of time spent on “focus instruction” would depend on the nature of the lesson.

    I have studied in many different schools and contexts. I respect teachers who have something to teach and are willing to teach it. I have always gained more from lectures and class discussions than from group activities like the “jigsaw,” which in far too many cases encourage superficial and shoddy work, and discourage original thought, close reading, probing, and dissent. (See my piece on the jigsaw on the Core Knowledge blog.)

    I loved Fred Strine’s article and found the language fresh, clear, and invigorating. I bet he was an excellent teacher.

  3. After seven years of teaching full time, I still struggle with getting the balance right on this. I have been working with computer technology for more than 20 years and by far my most meaningful learning in the field has been by myself grappling with the problem, digging through a reference book, or more recently browsing through online sources of information. Classroom learning provided me a framework from which to operate, but I have learned far more outside of the classroom on my own.

    So, as a teacher of computer technology I am still figuring out what is the best combination of sage-on-the-stage vs guide-on-the-side. At what point does my “teaching” interfere with the “learning”? Students are so conditioned to be passive learners that by the time I get them in my college courses, they are highly resistant to learning with the method that has by far been most productive for me; nose in a book solving a problem! Somehow I am made to feel that I’m not doing my job if I’m not leading them every step of the way towards the correct answer.

    I think there is a delicate balance here that for me is yet to be resolved. Perhaps it should simply vary according to the subject being taught and as the situation demands.

  4. Margo/Mom says:


    Any teaching methodology performed poorly or inappropriately is likely to be highly ineffective. This is one reason that evaluative research should always include an evaluation of the faithfulness of implementation.

    I have read elsewhere of your description of “jigsaw,” and I am not convinced that you have experienced it appropriately. But jigsaw is really just a mechanical tool to accomplish something (interaction of students around content). I can certainly quote chapter and verse of sage on the stage methodology used very poorly (including a professor whose course I dropped immediately when it became clear that his overheads were nothing more than a outline of the text–rather than sit there with my highlighter and mark the text portions that he judged to be important, I transferred to someone who really knew how to teach).

    In my early education I certainly learned how to learn from sage on the stage teachers. If they were interesting I paid attention. If not, I developed some strategy for demonstrating minimal attention (asking a question periodically) and spent my classtime reading ahead in the text, reading for enjoyment or completing written homework for another class.

  5. Margo/Mom–Yes, it depends on the quality of the implementation and the nature of the lesson. Bill Genereux, I agree with you about the delicate balance.

    I don’t think jigsaw is inherently bad; I think it is overapplied and misapplied. The same is true for the “workshop model” overall.

    Certain kinds of lessons demand direct instruction (lowercase) and leadership from the teacher. Other kinds demand quiet study. Others still benefit from interaction among students. And one may combine all of these to great effect.

    I object not to groupwork or any of its variants per se, but to the overwhelming insistence on it at PDs, ed courses, and so forth. I also object to the jargon used to put down certain kinds of teaching: “chalk and talk,” “sage on the stage,” etc.

    As Demiashkevich points out in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935, pp. 122-123), the “new” methods are not really new. Nor are the “old” methods outdated. We innovate best when we combine new and old in a way that both responds to the situation at hand and extends beyond it.

    To that end, all teaching methods are valuable that illuminate the subject and bring out the best in students and teachers.

  6. [Diana] Certain kinds of lessons demand direct instruction (lowercase) and leadership from the teacher. Other kinds demand quiet study. Others still benefit from interaction among students. And one may combine all of these to great effect.

    I object not to groupwork or any of its variants per se, but to the overwhelming insistence on it at PDs, ed courses, and so forth. I also object to the jargon used to put down certain kinds of teaching: “chalk and talk,” “sage on the stage,” etc.

    [Nancy] Just as those of us who have successfully used cooperative learning, constructivism and project-based group work to deepen conceptual learning object to knee-jerk dismissal of these techniques as shallow, unfair to bright students, or likely to result in shoddy work…

    Dan Willingham agrees with your contention that teachers should match instructional techniques to the subject matter/discipline in question. While students obviously have preferred learning modes or styles, he says, aiming instruction at students’ preferred work styles does not stretch them–and certain modes of learning dovetail best with particular disciplinary content.

    While I agree that mixing up teaching strategies is always a good idea, my fear is that the “real” subjects (mathematics, reading, writing, history) will become direct-instruction exclusively, while lesser-light subjects (music, physical education, art, perhaps science) will be seen as best for “hands-on” learning. Which–in the hundreds of schools I’ve visited–is pretty much the way it looks right now, despite the efforts of PD providers or progressive education fans in ed schools.

    I also believe that it’s not ever wrong to try to reach a student (especially a struggling student) via their preferred learning mode. For those of us who learn best alone, in a quiet atmosphere, or from an expert in front of the room, it can be difficult to understand how a bunch of 12-year olds can learn while they’re sitting around talking, or measuring the height of consecutive ball drops.

    For solo learners, seeing the linear function of those ball drops on a graph is real–the rest balls just seem silly and superfluous. But for kinesthetic learners, or those who prefer to learn in groups, that ball drop exercise and the attendant conversation makes the experience both graphic and memorable.

    Heather’s got a point: the teacher-centered learning that some of us prefer has only worked, historically, for a subset of learners.

  7. Here’s the missing ingredient in this conversation, if I may. It’s rarely an issue of which approach is right or best, but rather how quickly it becomes standard operating procedure, no questions asked (or allowed). This can take on cartoonish dimensions: a principal goes to a PD about hands-on learning on Friday, and on Monday, there’s a memo insisting EVERY math lesson must include manipulatives. Someone here’s something about group work, and the next thing you know, you’re written up if you have students sitting in rows. Adopt the workshop model, and suddenly children can’t possibly learn to read unless they’re sitting on a rug.

    This is one of those classic disconnects between the research community and teachers. There’s not a good idea that doesn’t become a bad idea the second it hardens into orthodoxy. Having many arrows in your quiver, and learning when to pull each out, is the soul of good professional practice.

  8. a) focus teaching
    b) collaboration
    c) peer-teaching
    d) none of the above

  9. BadaBing says:

    I wish I were one of those teachers that believed in group projects, peer-teaching, collaborative learning, more projects, student-centered learning, hands-on learning, and still more projects. I wouldn’t be so exhausted at the end of the day.

  10. Thank you, Robert, for expressing my thoughts so succinctly. Sometimes it’s teachers; more often its administrators or policy makers, who take an idea that has worked well for someone, somewhere and try to make it an eternal truth.

    False dichotomies have been too common in educational discussions: direct instruction vs. hands-on-learning; whole language vs. phonics; performance assessments vs. standardized tests…. It’s refreshing to think (and act) in terms of a using a professional repertoire customized for audience and purpose.

  11. With all due respect to Mr. Strine’s years of experience as a teacher, in the article he comes across as a cranky old guy yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. And nowhere in the article is the concept that some pedagogies work better than others, and which works best depends on the subject, the level at which it’s taught, and the individual abilities of students (and how those individual abilities mesh as a class). Teachers should know what tool is best for the job and be good at a variety of tools for each situation. I’m always surprised when experienced educators steer so wide of this painfully obvious fact.

  12. Robert, in some ways your criticism is fair–but Fred Strine’s article must be taken in context. He’s responding not to a particular pedagogy, but rather (as I take it) to the extreme application of it. Some of us have heard the “guide on the side” mantra too many times and seen it enforced in ways that make no sense.

    Robert Pondiscio put it well: “It’s rarely an issue of which approach is right or best, but rather how quickly it becomes standard operating procedure, no questions asked (or allowed).” His examples are to the point, and I could provide more.

    Also, Strine is right about the danger of giving kids too much authority. They really do start to believe that their opinions are as good as anyone’s. If their families teach respect for elders, they are likely to show such respect to teachers. If not, then they likely won’t. The school must teach respect–and this does not happen overnight, nor does it happen when the kids are automatically set up facing each other.

    Teachers must earn respect, some say. No–that’s a different kind of respect. Teachers should have–and show–basic respect no matter what. Once that is established, the more profound respect can be built between student and teacher.

  13. Fred Strine says:

    Robert Pondiscio’s “quiver” reference is totally apropos. All great teachers understand this and use multi-faceted approaches. Too bad small minds in positions of authority often insist whatever the latest “research” shows is the “only” way to teach. Great teaching is an art form. It’s rare, and it can’t be cloned. Insisting that everyone “be on the same page” insures mediocrity. I’d rather have a shot at greatness and fall short (Who’s perfect?) than to be an assembly-line teacher. New isn’t always better, and it DOES take experience to learn that lesson.

    The Tree Syndrome

    Firmly rooted in fertile research,
    The sapling sends no buds aloft.
    Its destiny lies in the
    Stunted undergrowth;
    Its only acquaintances—
    Scrub of similar stature.

    Pity the life not knowing
    The forest of towering oaks
    To which it ought to aspire.

    Fred Strine

  14. So much of what we do in the classroom depends on teaching styles, learning styles and personalities. In order to have something to offer to all of the “learning styles” we must use a variety of presentations where and when they are appropriate. It is beneficial for students to learn to learn via a variety of methods.

    However, I have seen some teachers try to use a method that has been very effective for someone else but it does not work for them. This could be because of the teacher’s comfort level with the strategy, his/her personality, the comfort level of the students, their relationship with the teacher, inappropriate topic for the strategy etc.

    Successful teaching/learning depends more on the relationships built between teacher and students. True respect, which is a two-way street, is developed not imposed. Without this element any strategy or method used will not be fully effective.

  15. Fred Strine says:

    Thank you, Joanne, for opening this discussion of my article. Much of what passes for “new” in education is just recycled, turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) John Dewey progressive (socialist) doctrine—fine in theory (utopian) but short on reality given human imperfection. Public education AND politics keep hoping to guarantee equal outcomes. It ain’t gonna happen.

    Carolyn is right on target. Good teaching really boils down to teacher-student rapport, a pre-requisite not restricted to ANY single method. Simply put, my article is an open rebellion against current rampant dogma. I was not free to teach my way, though test scores, student support, and parental support said I was an outstanding teacher. I chose to take the year off. Actually I am NOT retired, just temporarily fed up. Gee, does it show?


  1. […] commented on Joanne Jacobs article, “Stop Facilitating and Start Teaching,” based on Fred Strine’s article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Strine indicates […]

  2. […] Post-Intelligencer column calling on teachers to, well, teach, set tongues wagging here and over at Joanne Jacobs.  He honors us with a visit in the comments section and a correction: He’s not retired, […]