More on Sage vs. Guide

Keith Burnett responded to my response on his preference for being a Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage:

I’m both in different parts of the lesson. I think that many people assume that PowerPoint use implies Sage role, and I was trying to provide counterexamples.

That Burnett did well, and it's also clear that he plays both roles, choosing the role appropriate to a student's stage in the learning process.

Unlike Burnett, however, not everyone seems to understand that both roles are appropriate. If you google the words "sage stage guide side", you'll find more than a few links to titles saying "Guide on the side, not Sage on the stage." Here's a typical example from the Internet Time Group:

an instructor’s energy should be channeled to become the medium whereby the discovery of learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment. No longer a "sage on the stage, " the online instructor becomes a "guide on the side," helping others to discover and synthesize the learning material.

Discovery learning is simply re-inventing the wheel. The time spent in "discovering" could be better spent using the wheels that have already been designed.

Here's another one, an excerpt from an article in College English by Alison King:

In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes. The professor is the central figure, the "sage on the stage," the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam-often without even thinking about it. This model of the teaching- learning process, called the transmittal model, assumes that the student's brain is like an empty container into which the professor pours knowledge. In this view of teaching and learning, students are passive learners rather than active ones. Such a view is outdated and will not be effective for the twenty-first century, when individuals will be expected to think for themselves, pose and solve complex problems, and generally produce knowledge rather than reproduce it.

There's some truth in this perspective. We've all had classes in which we took notes, crammed for an exam, and regurgitated information on the exam. The problem, however, is that this is a caricature of lecturing. Not all lecturers assume that students are empty containers, and not all use lecture as their only mode of teaching. Interestingly, the same people who promote this perspective are often the same ones who give presentations in lecture mode at a conference.

Again from the excerpt:

According to the current constructivist theory of learning, knowledge does not come package in books, or journal, or computer disks (or professors' and students' heads) to be transmitted intact from one to another. Those vessels contain information, not knowledge. Rather, knowledge is a state of understanding and can only exist in the mind of the individual knower; as such, knowledge must be constructed--or re-constructed--by each individual knower through the process of trying to make sense of new information in terms of what that individual already knows. In this constructivist view of learning, students use their own existing knowledge and prior experience to help them understand the new material; in particular, they generate relationships between and among the new ideas and between the new material and information already in memory (see also Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione 1983; Wittrock 1990).

And again, we can say, yes, students construct their understanding and in terms of previous experience. However, this does not mean that they cannot "generate relationships" from the information in lectures to their own experiences. If lectures are "bad," so are books and any other "containers" of information.

When students are engaged in actively processing information by reconstructing that information in such new and personally meaningful ways, they are far more likely to remember it and apply it in new situations. This approach to learning is consistent with information-processing theories (e.g., Mayer 1984), which argue that reformulating given information or generating new information based on what is provided helps one build extensive cognitive structures that connect the new ideas and link them to what is already known. According to this view, creating such elaborated memory structures aids understanding of the new material and makes it easier to remember.

It's not clear that one way of engaging with new information is more likely to be remembered than another. This is an interpretation. Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) note that it is much more likely that any better remembering is due to more "time on task" rather than the notion of self-constructing as opposed to learning from provided examples, and they write:

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.

None of this is to oppose the "guide on the side" perspective. Rather, there is a time and place for being a sage and for being a guide. Repeating mantras is no more than educational indoctrination.

Jason, reporting about Mike O'Connell's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a post worth reading on this issue and ends nicely on this note:

In short, I think we need to get beyond the “sage” and “guide” dichotomy, and use both for truly effective teaching. One cannot just impose a set teaching style when it doesn’t work. It behooves teachers at all levels to consider what really works (or what might really work), drawing upon the makeup of individual classes and individual students to make the course truly memorable and meaningful. Otherwise, we’re just playing with techniques, and using unwitting students as guinea pigs.