Reality Check: Sage on the Stage vs. Guide on the Side

Twenty years ago, a small article by Alison King appeared in the journal College Teaching. It was titled “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.” That article would come to represent the big debate on education reform.

Today, that debate rages on as educators argue over the merits of traditional teaching versus constructivist teaching approaches. A lot of folks have anchored themselves firmly in the camp of Guide on the Side. More often than not, those who hold an either-or view on education are administrators and policymakers who haven’t taught a day in their life.

In reality, Sage on the Stage vs. Guide on the Side are political talking points. In reality, BOTH approaches to teaching are necessary. In reality, good teachers select the approach that works best for them and for the content that they are teaching.

There is plentiful research that supports direct instruction (aka the sage approach) as an effective and efficient way to teach students in situations where they hold little or no prior knowledge, and in situations where skills need to be taught to the point of automaticity. An obvious example is the foundational skills needed for math and reading. In higher education, lectures are the most common form of direct instruction. Lectures are efficient and have a place in virtually all content areas. Sometimes they are the most appropriate method of teaching. For example, I had a music history professor as an undergrad who only lectured. I learned a lot in that class just by listening and taking notes (granted, he was a phenomenal storyteller).

There is less research that supports the effectiveness of constructivist approaches. However, we do know that constructivist teaching is a better fit for content that requires problem solving and critical thinking skills. That being said, virtually all content teaching needs to start out with a direct instructional approach and move towards a constructivist approach. In other words, teachers generally need to provide a more direct instructional approach in the beginning, and then slowly pass the responsibility of learning over to the students.

How would this work for information literacy instruction?

First, you need to consider the automatic skills that students should have before they can advance to higher order thinking skills. For information literacy, these skills include understanding and using search syntax correctly, knowing how to navigate databases, and knowing the criteria for evaluating information (e.g. CRAAP test). These are the skills that require direct instruction. Fortunately, these are also the skills that can be most easily taught through tutorials, which are a form of direct instruction.

Once students have the foundational skills in place, they are ready to move on to higher order thinking skills. Because information literacy is a critical thinking skill, constructivist approaches should be applied (e.g. inquiry-based or problem-based learning). To ultimately be information literate, a student needs to have established schemata about the research and writing process. Schemata allow students to identify solutions for new problems based on past experiences. Inquiry-based learning can promote the building of new schemata, which is why constructivist approaches work better for this level of information literacy instruction.

The need for constructivist approaches in information literacy instruction is why it can be difficult to teach. Developing constructivist approaches requires a lot of preparation. Students should have just enough information to be able to move to the next level, and you typically answer questions with more questions to foster deeper thinking. Constructivist approaches also take longer, which is why one-shot sessions just don’t work well.

I think information literacy is in a particularly tough spot regarding successful approaches to teaching it. Like virtually all content, it relies on both direct instruction and constructivist approaches. However, it simply can’t be learned without adequate opportunity for those constructivist approaches. One possible solution might be flipped instruction. Another possible solution is the fully integrated approach I wrote about in a previous post on Google Docs (in fact, fully integrated is more in line with situated learning – a truly constructivist approach).

The continuing debate over Guide on the Side vs. Sage on the Stage is in my opinion, ridiculous. Both approaches are needed for successful learning to take place. So, next time someone asks “Are you a Sage on the Stage or a Guide on the Side?,” simply smile and say “Both!”


10 thoughts on “Reality Check: Sage on the Stage vs. Guide on the Side

  1. “There is plentiful research that supports direct instruction (aka the sage approach) as an effective and efficient way to teach students in situations where they hold little or no prior knowledge, and in situations where skills need to be taught to the point of automaticity”

    Hello, I would be really interested in getting those references, could you please name a few ?

    This is a really interesting post.

    Thank you very much

  2. I had a nagging curiosity towards the debates in education and being unfamiliar with them I found this post to be good induction. Thanks!

  3. […] Hat tip to Web of Substance for this link to an article about whole-class interactive teaching. Whole class instruction has become unpopular in education circles. One often hears the tedious bromide that teachers should be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage” (the phrase gets over 13 million hits in Google, but here is an excellent balanced critique). […]

  4. I think it would be unwise for any instructor to pigeon hole themselves as one or the other. I good instructor does their best to accommodate the learning needs of the class. There will always be some students that have a preference for auditory learning.

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