It’s hard to be the ‘sage on the stage’

“Sometimes I wonder whether student-centered learning is driven not just by Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but also by plain old expedience,” writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field.

On Thursday, she teaches writing fundamentals to disadvantaged 11-year-olds in an afterschool program. The kids are restless, hungry and easily distracted.

And so, as my voice gives out and my energy drains and as my ability to keep the kids focused on my questions diminishes, I think to myself, wouldn’t it be less exhausting if I stopped being the Sage on the Stage and instead become the Guide on the Side?

And then I wonder: how many teachers choose guidance over stagecraft . . . because it’s so much less exhausting?

“Sage on the Stage instruction is quite often the most efficient way to teach and to learn,” Beals writes. Furthermore, “attention is a muscle that atrophies if unused.” Every year with a “guide” will make it harder for the next teacher to be a “sage.”

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    I find that being an actual “guide on the side” takes more energy than being a “sage on the stage..” You have to go around, find out what each student knows and/or is planning to do, and engage, critique, correct, encourage.

    Of course, if “guide on the side” means “work at your seats and I’ll get back to you in twenty minutes,” then it’s easier.

  2. Ruth Joy says:

    I’ll be glad when teachers don’t have to apologize for being the sage on the stage.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      There’s a balance to this: it’s called the Socratic Method.

      It takes a LOT of work, and even more practice.

      • It is not suitable for all ages or for all kids. Different ages and different levels of classes need different approaches. Some instructional methods are also not appropriate for kids on the autism spectrum or for kids with ADD/ADHD, and boys in general – “discovery learning” and continuous group work, for instance. Group work essentially brings the dynamics of the playground into the classroom; the most socially powerful run the groups. (and IME, most teachers are unable/unwilling to prevent this, if they’re aware of it at all) Effective teaching, in my book, means tailoring the method according to student needs.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          So when I said that Socratic method was a balance — I wasn’t attempting to say that it was the BEST or ONLY good way of teaching. I was merely pointing out that it was more engaged with the students than a lecture was, but more structured and centered than the guide-on-the-side stuff.

          No teaching method is suitable “for all kids” (though Socratic is good for pretty much *every* age group, contrary to your statement).

          Ricki (below) touches on an important point though: not all methods are suited to all TEACHERS. First and foremost, a teacher has to use a teaching style and method with which they themselves are comfortable, and for which they have a talent or facility. (Finding this, of course, requires both trying out a number of styles and a great deal of practice.)

          And this means — if what you’ve said is true about not all methods being suited to all students (and I think it generally is) — that if every teacher were performing optimally, doing what they do best, then not all **teachers** would be suited to all students. (Shocking, I know.)

          This should hardly be surprising. It is, however, a brute fact that is annoyingly inconsistent with our curriculum-driven industrial model of mass education.

          • ….and with the “blame the teacher first” attitude. I’ve remarked, facetiously, on occasion, if they would ever consider doing “accommodations” for issues teachers had like they do for some students.

  3. Also, the problem with going one-size-fits-all is that different people are good at different things. I’ve been in a lot of lectures where I learned a lot, fast, and was interested. But I’ve also been in bad lectures. Recently I was at a presentation of “student centered learning” where the guy they hired to do it – who was totally the wrong guy to, if they were trying to promote it – did a sample class. It was chaotic and awful and I thought, “If I were a student in this class, I’d hate it, and I wouldn’t learn as much as from a good lecturer.”

    I also suspect that the discipline the class is in plays a role: I am in STEM and it seems to me that “sage on the stage” is still a lot more common here.

    • I agree that subject matters. I’ve taught college and high school biology. There are some parts that students might be able to discover on their own, but semiconservative and antiparallel DNA replication aren’t among them. They draw, and I made felt boards so that they could simulate it, but without me standing in front of them I don’t think that they would have gotten it. There’s a reason that Watson and Crick won a Nobel for figuring out DNA structure and some of its implications.

      Whether you find the lecture or guide format to be more tiring also seems to depend on personality and the material. When I taught college lab and lecture, often with the same students. some parts were fun to lecture about and the students seemed to learn well. For other parts, the lab helped immensely. Even though I was in constant motion working with different groups of students, it was ‘easier’. I think that, when things are flowing and the students are learning, though, it feels easy no matter what approach you’re using.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        ” I think that, when things are flowing and the students are learning, though, it feels easy no matter what approach you’re using.”

        Which is a major reason why, to use the language of the immediately preceding post, teachers are often not “engaged.” Much of what students are told to learn is boring and/or unimportant to them, so they don’t put in the effort and they don’t learn. No pedagogy can change that.

        • There’s a thread on the Chronicle’s teaching page about college students like this. One poster wrote about her standard ‘lecture’ about how doing boring thigns well is a life skill. Learning uninteresting information is a life skill. Being conversant about thigns that you don’t really care about is important if you’d like to get a job, keep a job, or earn a promotion.

          This cuts in both directions – I know people how keep up with at least one sport, TV show, genre of music, etc, for conversational purposes (you can’t know everything, but you can get by with ‘I’m not a movie person, but I love show X’, or ‘I don’t watch football much, but I saw a baseball game…’. Likewise, students have to learn that you neer know when you might need to know a bit about literature or science, even if only to be able to answer reasonably when your boss shares the cool new thing that they learned/read.

          Unfortunately, this lessons often seems to ‘take’ better with students who are naturally polite or curious enough to be mostly paying attention anyway…

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Yes, lots of things you have to do in life are boring. But if it’s part of a job, it’s accomplishing something, and it’s getting you paid.

            Requiring a young person to spend years doing things he or she finds useless and boring because parts of life will be boring seems cruel and unnecessary.

          • SC Math Teacher says:

            But, Roger, that is only how it may seem to their young and not yet fully formed minds. They are not the best judges as to what is useful. Some may be bored, and we should be mindful that droning on and on is not wise…but that’s not good lecturing anyway.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            No, they are not the best judges as to what is useful. However, to put this as nastily as I can, by the time they get to high school, they have been lied to by the school system that what they are being told to learn is useful. The honest answer to the question, “When will I ever use this?” is usually, “You will need it for a course you will be required to take in the future, and then you will need it if you decide to major in this subject in college.” (That question is often asked in middle school, but students have usually given up trying to get an honest answer by high school.)

            Michael Lopez is right. Kids would love to be told, “This is what will be useful to you and this is what you have to learn.” But they know it’s not going to happen because schools aren’t set up on that basis.

          • SC Math Teacher says:

            I don’t really disagree with you. The majority of my algebra students will not need to know how to factor trinomials. Some commenters here have suggested a European model that would explicitly track some toward the vocations and others toward a university track. I think that would go a long way toward providing true meaning to the education that many students receive. I wonder, though, how that would work as a practical matter, what with demographics being what they are.

          • I usually feel fortunate to teach biology, because there is often some way to make the information seem relevant. When we’re struggling through metabolism, I point out that they only learn a subset of the metabolic intermediates, and I pick which ones based on whether they’re likely to see the names again. When you see ‘citrate’, you can relate that word to the citric acid cycle. When you see alphaketoglutarate, know that its not some concoction from a lab. We learn what a plasmid is because one day you’ll be voting on issues surrounding GMOs. I pull in weird medical cases from House and bizarre findings from the Discovery or Discovery Health channels. We talk about how tumors and cancers and certain developmental problems relate to transcription and translation.

            I also tell them that most of them won’t use this information every day. Some will be in medical or agriculture or research fields and will need to understand the details. For others, though, I remind them that they’ll serve on juries, vote, wonder about passing on traits to their kids, and read the back of their cereal boxes, so they should get what they can from high school so that they’re not so lost trying to figure this out on their own as an adult. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes they discover that biology is as cool as I tell them it is.

  4. The people who aggressively disparage the “sage on the stage” don’t realize what a mess they are causing. Students, too, are getting the message that they shouldn’t have to listen to the teacher (or, for that matter, to anything or anyone). Sometimes the message is subtle, sometimes direct–but it’s there.

    The “achievement gap” is in many ways a listening gap. The kids who will fly off the handle if they aren’t given something concrete to do every minute–these tend to be the ones who do poorly. (There are exceptions: students who focus and listen but don’t do well, and students who seem perennially distracted but somehow ace their courses and tests.)

    Guess who’s more likely, overall, to get into a good college and do well there? The student who can listen. Not because this student is “docile” or “passive”–but because he or she has developed the discipline of focus and attention, which are essential for most intellectual fields.

    It’s inadvisable for a K-12 teacher to teach by lecture exclusively. Even in college, lectures are complemented by discussion sections, labs, etc. But the campaign against “teacher talk” is misguided and destructive. Not only does the teacher have something to convey, but the student benefits from learning to take it in.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Indeed, the students are often aware of their own ignorance and limitations, if only on a subconscious level. Many students are genuinely EAGER for an adult to stand up and say, “This is what you have to learn, and I’m going to teach it to you. Part I…”

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Diana- ‘The seem distracted but ace tests’ kids are often the ones who listen/retain better if they can doodle/move/avoid eye contact with the teacher.

      I come from a very ADHD family. For some of us, it actually takes extreme mental effort to sit still, stop fidgeting, and look directly at the teacher. So, if you force us to focus on THAT< we can't focus on the lecture..our internal monologue gets totally taken up with not moving instead of with thinking about what you're saying.

      The key is to remember that for some kids, the outer posture is not a good guide to the inner state.

      These aren't 'Kinetic learners' in the edu-speak sense. But they're kids with a deficit in bodily control. Asking them to simultaneously sit still AND learn new material is like asking a normal student to do calculus proofs while simultaneously analyzing Keats. She may be able to do either well, but she can't do both well at at same time.

      These kids get better with age (but not perfect– I still need to doodle to learn difficult new material), but you have to separate their 'behavior' lessons from their academic lessons.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        And, FWIW, I always PREFERRED ‘Sage on the Stage’– group work was incredibly irritating, felt like a waste of time, and made me want to scream because often the majority of the group would coalesce around the WRONG answer and refuse to listen to reason. Because majority rules, even when the majority was sitting quietly but NOT listening and so has no idea what the teacher just taught!)

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          The quality of an assignment done by one’s self, with respect to one’s self, depends on the quality of the assignment.

          The quality of “group work” with respect to any of the individual students, however, depends on three things, though: (1) the quality of the work; (2) the quality of the group with respect to that work; and (3) the quality of the group with respect to the social aspects of classroom life.

          Any time there are more variables, there’s more room for things to go wrong. (There are obviously more factors that go into the ultimate quality of an assignment, but those factors are all shared equally by both types of assignments.)

          That’s not to say that group work can’t be excellent. Just that, all other things (including teacher thought and effort) being equal, it’s less likely to be successful for each student simply in virtue of the fact that there is more than CAN go wrong.

          • Well put. In addition, it’s more difficult with group work to catch what actually does go wrong, since there’s so much going on at once in the room. The teacher-facilitator who “circulates” and listens in will only catch snippets of the various conversations.

      • Deirdre, I have had students who were very fidgety yet interested in the substance of the lesson–and capable of listening to the teacher and others. It’s evident when that’s the case.

        What worries me is the “turn and talk” impulse–the tendency of many students to start talking to their neighbors at random moments (about anything at all). Students who do that are rarely focused on the subject, in my experience; they’re more concerned about what’s going on socially in the room.

        I don’t see this as their fault entirely; they are receiving many messages that the classroom is a place for socializing.

        If it were established that students should listen in class, then much of the problem would disappear (not all, but a lot). Unfortunately, teachers are told over and over to avoid talking and to have students constantly “turn and talk.” That feeds the problem, unless the discipline of listening is already established.