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.”

What works? The sage on the stage

Unless they’re experts, students learn more when teachers fully explain the material, write Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner and John Sweller in the new American Educator.

Discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, constructivist learning — whatever the label, teaching that only partially guides students, and expects them to discover information on their own, is not effective or efficient. Decades of research clearly demonstrates that when teaching new information or skills, step-by-step instruction with full explanations works best.

Minimally guided instruction (“the guide on the side”) takes a great deal more time than explicit instruction (“the sage on the stage”). The  brightest and best-prepared students may “discover” what they’re supposed to, but the less-skilled students will fall even farther behind, the authors write.  “Minimally guided instruction can increase the achievement gap.”

In a second story, Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine discusses “highly effective instructional practices, such as teaching new material in small amounts, modeling, asking lots of questions, providing feedback, and making time for practice and review.”