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!).


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!”