Rage in the cage, a sage is on the stage!

April 20, 2007

Mike O’Connell, “an associate lecturer in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County and the University of Wisconsin-Richland,” has written a column in The Chronicle that questions the current conventional wisdom about teaching. As many of us in higher education know, the “guide on the side” approach has become the big trend at all levels of learning, in opposition to the “sage on the stage” model.

For novices who happen to stumble upon this posting, “guides” facilitate discussion and collaboration, while “sages” stand in front of a class and make grand proclamations that do not “actively” engage students. To hear some people, one would imagine sages as autocrats who do not tolerate dissent, while guides just go with the flow to facilitate the “interactive learning” model. I assume that it’s simply another term one could use to describe the “active learning” model, which my own university has adopted as the theme for its quality enhancement plan.

O’Connell provides a rather disheartening depicition of his university’s approach to achieving the goal of facilitating “[inter]active learning,” which actually has some of the same problems he seems to have with that approach: one person does the work originally assigned to a group, and they receive the same credit (or lack thereof) as other group members who do little or nothing because they know that so-and-so will do it. (This problem actually resonates with both Diane and me, because we faced the same problems with group work in school.) Defenders of group work would probably say that it prepares students for the realities of the contemporary workplace, where collaboration is important. Of course, a cynic would probably agree with that statement about the realities of the workplace, but not for the same reasons.

After summarizing Alice King’s Manichean juxtaposition of “guide” and “sage” models, as well as the rather head-spinning terminology she utilizes to describe the virtues of the former, O’Connell provides his own contrary and flattering description of the latter. He also demonstrates that, despite their more traditional approach, the best sages can engage students just as much as guides.

One might be skeptical of the sage model of teaching, and that seems perfectly understandable. I don’t think anyone has gotten through school without encountering at least one lecturer who drones on in the same manner as Ben Stein’s deadpan stock caricatures (though the ones we have generally encountered don’t share his wry and mischievous monotone). On the other hand, my own experiences with group learning and “breakout groups” within a class (or presentation) make me skeptical of the guide approach. As a bit of an introvert, I have an aversion to receiving “manageable” mini-lectures, and then being forced into “breakout” groups to demonstrate my knowledge immediately. Instead, I like to set aside time to really ponder and learn something.

Of course, there’s the trendy air attached to these new models of learning. They’re nothing new, however, as the column points out. In fact, when I took education classes in the early 1990s, I remember hearing the party line about “student-centered learning.” Since it’s the big thing right now, I wish that I could buy into it. However, I also have too many nagging questions about an emphasis on this model. Is it actually a relatively new idea for a more enlightened time, or is it little more than a faddish marketing ploy? Can students see through the pedagogical techniques, roll their eyes as they get into the “breakout session” du jour, and maybe even try to sabotage classes that rely too much on it? Or have I just seen too many Beavis and Butt-head episodes where the boys don’t “get” (and never will “get”) Mr. Van Driessen’s teaching techniques?

For anyone who has seen the animated pair in action (or inaction), the show features two teachers with completely opposing pedagogical outlooks. Still living in the 1960s, Mr. Van Driessen tries to act as a “guide” who wants to gently inspire his students with an overly non-coercive approach. In contrast, Mr. Buzzcut remains mentally in the military, and he treats his students as “maggots” who need swift retribution for not doing what he says. In the long run, B & B remain unfazed by the pedagogical strategies of both teachers (likely tempered by the teachers’ contrasting personalities). Perhaps this is a rhetorical tool by Mike Judge, whose films and television shows question the effectiveness and doublespeak of various kinds of authority. Nevertheless, I think the analogy from B & B can stretch to the “guide” and “sage” models (even though Buzzcut certainly doesn’t have a truly “sage” manner).

A variety of circumstances can temper the proper approach to teaching a class, including number of students and their individual personalities. Based on these factors, truly effective teachers should be able to figure out for themselves when it’s appropriate to use a guide and sage approach. In fact, it seems wise to think beyond them, as I’m sure true sages and guides do. O’Connell’s fond memories of sage professors demonstrate that they can also engage students in active learning, albeit in a manner that doesn’t rely on faddish techniques with fancy names. If nothing else, students will remember the truly effective ones, who are “independent, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, profane, unimpeachable.” And yet, the same professors can integrate interactive techniques into classes without awkward segues that almost scream “pedagogical trick alert.” I can say that because I remember them. I remember the history professor who made wry asides in his lectures on European history… and the other eminently quotable history professor who turned a historical research methods course into a something a lot more fun than it initially sounded… and the Medieval and Renaissance literature professor whose lectures conveyed to us his passion for the subject (and who even gets quite a few red hot pepper ratings on Rate My Professors).

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.

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One Response to “Rage in the cage, a sage is on the stage!”

  1. Amber Lynn Says:

    Well, heaven forbid professors actually impart the knowledge that they have gained from years of studying and researching.


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