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

Today, I am revisiting one of my most-read and most-shared posts: Reality Check: Sage on the Stage vs. Guide on the Side. That post really encompasses my own teaching philosophy, which I would describe as pragmatic or maybe more appropriately, social realist (after learning about Maton’s Legitimation Code Theory).

So, how do you know when to step into the sage role and when to step into the guide role? Many of us do this intuitively, but to explain the process requires a lot of self-awareness about one’s own teaching. A really strong foundation in instructional design doesn’t hurt either.

Before I get into the mechanics of sage vs. guide though, a different perspective on student-centered learning needs to be discussed. Student-centered learning is typically thought of as a constructive approach that literally puts students at the center of learning, hence the teacher becomes a guide on the side. My definition differs somewhat. My personal definition of student-centered learning puts students’ social, emotional, and cognitive needs at the center of learning. When you look at it that way, the approach to teaching changes based on a variety of factors, including what gaps exist between what students know and what they need to know (the prior knowledge gap), and matching teaching methods to topic.

I am going to address methods-matching in this post. And the simplest way to do so is to look at teaching methods that fit the three types of knowledge: declarative, procedural, and conditional. Declarative knowledge is factual knowledge (“knowing what”). Procedural knowledge is “knowing how,” and conditional knowledge is “knowing when and why” to apply declarative and procedural knowledge.

With declarative knowledge, lecturing is a method that works just fine (no, the lecture is not “dead”). This is your sage on the stage moment. Of course, lectures can be very ineffective (I think we’ve all experienced at least one professor who droned on..and on..and on). So when lecturing, it is important to keep in mind two aspects of how people learn: 1) they need to be paying attention, and 2) and they need to remember what was talked about. Getting your students (or audience) to pay attention and maintain attention is definitely challenging, but not impossible. One of the most effective methods of the lecture mode (in my opinion) is the use of storytelling as a tool to promote engagement in the lecture and enhance recall. We know student response systems can improve attention as well because they are often used to test recall (so students pay attention) during lectures. Aside from that, any effort to make lectures more active will promote student attention and recall.

Procedural knowledge is all about practice, so experiential learning approaches are important. This is your guide on the side moment. Simulations, roleplay, and project-based learning are just a few strategies for creating experiential learning in the classroom. Internships, field trips, and apprenticeships are real-life approaches to experiential learning.

Conditional knowledge requires the application of critical thinking and problem solving skills that demonstrate a a deeper mastery of declarative and procedural knowledge. This also requires experiential learning, ideally through work within communities of practice. Getting a feel for the “when and why” of knowledge application is really a matter of the dispositional development of learners. It generally doesn’t happen in any given course, but rather over time as a student gains mastery within a field or discipline.  In that respect, conditional knowledge is what the ACRL Framework encompasses (or the elite specialization code in Legitimation Code Theory as discussed in my previous post).

To sum it up, good teaching is a complicated process that cannot be limited to a singular philosophical role. Trying to be a guide when you really need to be a sage or vice-versa is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Knowing when to be a guide and when to be a sage is the hallmark of great student-centered teaching and learning (and it’s also an example of conditional knowledge!).