What do teachers do?
Sage or Guide?
Ian Gallacher’s excellent guest post last week about what conductors do - and how they do it - sent me back to thinking about why I think orchestra conducting is a reasonable comparator to teaching. Like teaching, it has someone in the front who is leading the group, but a critical difference - as Ian pointed out - is that the “students” already know what is coming next. And they are already professionals, already experts. They don’t need to be taught anything.
I think perhaps the analogy for me is less literal and more about those magical moments when the whole group is making music together. That is what I am hoping for every year - that at some point each class of students will come together not as individual students merely focused on their individual grade, but rather enjoying learning together, helping each other, and as Parker Palmer calls it, every one contributing to a “community of truth.”
The novelist Jesse Ball in his book Notes on My Dunce Cap, puts it this way:
You should give as much as you can, keeping in mind that you will give and be disdained and misunderstood for years on end, perhaps for the entirety of your career. You will be thought stupid. You will be understood by the entire class as a whimsical jackass. But on some days, the tide may turn, and then one is helped, and another is helped. Depending on the students, it may be possible to create a small and separate cosmos - a joyful laboratory. Then you need to do very little as a teacher, because everyone is busy learning from each other.
Some of my best classes happen when I give students a project to work on with each other and I get out of the way. I will sit off to the side, and invite them to come ask me questions if they need to. Sometimes, I will walk around the room because I have found that when I am in near proximity, I am more likely to get a question. Sometimes I will observe a group working together, but not chime in at all.
Doing this is sometimes referred to as serving as the “guide on the side” as opposed to being the “sage on the stage.” Most teaching, for centuries, was in the form of the sage on the stage. And of course there remains a role for simply teaching students something you know and understand - learning by transmittal as it is known. Where the assumption is that the student is an empty vessel into which we pour knowledge. But I find more and more that I should be working on setting up work plans for students to do in a portion of class time, so the entire class is not me plodding through a powerpoint, listening to the sound of my own voice.
On many of these days, when I am sitting off to the side and my students are working together, actively learning, that sounds like music to me. Like a symphony with no set score - admittedly played by non-experts - which in concept sounds awful. But to me it is the best teaching music there is, and each time I wonder why I don’t do it more often in my classes.
Do you? Please comment and describe your classes of this kind.
Letters of Recommendation
This week I can recommend a terrific article on the subject of teaching in more of a “Guide on the Side” way: Alison King, From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side, 41 College Teaching 30 (Winter 1993).
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from the American writer Jodi Picoult:
The fact that you worry about being a good teacher means that already are one.
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I think early in my career I tried to be a Sage - "I know everything about English and I will TEACH you!" These days, I'm a lot more confident in my abilities as a teacher and therefore much more willing to sit down and shut up. In more professional language, I'm working a lot to build my classes around peer-to-peer learning, which means that I introduce a topic and a skill and then I get out of the way. It's been going very well.
I sometimes have to talk for most of the class, but I'm convinced that more learning takes place when I talk less and students talk more. Ask yourself: What percentage of the class consists of the you talking and what percentage consists of your students talking or working silently?