Let’s talk about ‘The Teacher’. What exactly is the point of them…?
“To teach!” some might hotly (or facetiously) retort.
“To help learners learn!” some might worthily respond…
The thing is, nothing else in nature or technology can learn like a human being. To be able to derive abstract ideas from spoken words and combine them in a single moment with movements, sensations and emotions… to be able to associate them with the past and to imagine possible futures…
It’s simply not surprising that there’s a lot of debate over exactly what teachers could best be doing in the classroom.
Humans have a significant learning advantage over other animals; we can just tell each other stuff which prompts us to picture, reflect and remember. This should surely be great news for education, and it’s no surprise that being told stuff, by a ‘Sage on the Stage’, has historically been a big part of schooling once children are able to speak, sit still and think abstractly. We simply aren’t limited to our own direct experience.
But…there is little doubt that some things can only be learned through experience (the pattern of our mother’s face, the throwing of a ball, the meaning of the word ‘hot’) and truths which we’ve actively sought-out and discovered for ourselves, can form some of our strongest, richest, most formative memories.
There’s also little doubt that much of the information sprayed at people during lecturing bounces off. Even if it all makes logical sense in the moment, streaming info is too fast to fully integrate into memory, and our attempts to reflect about ideas will lead us to miss other things. Add in also the growing belief that real learning must be personally relevant and bespoke, and it’s no great surprise that we’ve switched to seeing ‘The Guide on the Side’ as the most desirable model for a teacher.
Of course, most teachers are pragmatists. Most of us admit to doing a fair bit of both telling and facilitating, but a dominant meme seems to pervade the backs of many minds: If only education was perfect, then all learning would be self-constructed by the learner along their chosen path. The teacher would be an expert in the needs of the child and the art of motivating, and ideally just be there to ‘facilitate’ learners in pulling-down whatever knowledge was most relevant to them. That’s the truly ‘child-centred’ thing to do, right?
Well, I suppose so. I’m actually wary of being too ‘child-centred’. What can popularly seem to be in the interests of a child, might not be in the best interests of their future adult-self. So I guess I’m more ‘future-adult-centred’ when it comes to educational philosophy, but that doesn’t scan very well.
More fundamentally, I think reducing The Sage on the Stage model simply to the notion of ‘lecturing’ misses some pretty powerful things about the impact of The Sage. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t about technique – I’m not simply diving down the line of how a skilled teacher can lead from the front whilst maximising engagement and retention through interactive whole class explicit instruction. That is certainly true, and it genuinely isn’t lecturing, but some would have it that it’s still a bit distasteful to use as our primary teaching technique; a way of intensively battery-farming learning which is mostly for the convenience of the teacher, they might argue.
No, the big news for me is that there are three things that a real Sage can do, which neither a Guide on the Side, nor a computerised tutor can:
Firstly, they can command instinctive attention.
I’m not talking about short-term ‘engagement’ here, because Angry Birds can do that. Rather, we have evolved to seek-out and follow a human guru/leader/wise one/figurehead – whatever. It doesn’t matter how scientific we get, all of us have the instinct to attend to, admire, respect and look-up to someone. It doesn’t even matter if we dryly view each person as equally flawed and simply the product of genetic and social circumstances beyond them – we still like to indulge in a bit of hero-worship.
This is a highly adaptive survival trait in human infants, so – like it or not – the examples we set and the things we tell kids when we stand in front of them can be disproportionately powerful in their forming minds. As adolescence kicks-in, the attraction to role-models and leaders will shift from parents and super-heroes to peers and cultural pin-ups, but the right kind of teacher can still offer a strangely attractive beacon of hope, inspiration and certitude.
Secondly, they can knit a special kind of learning.
Despite the wonders of technology, we actually need ‘live’, in-situ, teachers who have superior knowledge and can see further in a subject area than their tutees. We need people who can create a focal point outside their pupils’ experience, actively making links and narratives which connect the dots in that particular classroom of learners, and then adaptively reconstructing these narratives in subtly different ways to match the evolving understanding and experience of the individuals.
If pupils give answers which aren’t quite correct, or they state related but not directly relevant knowledge, or they ask unexpected questions which spring out of discussions, a great teacher won’t simply always resort to saying “That’s incorrect – but good effort!”, or “I’m sorry – now’s not the time…”, or “Hmm… What do the rest of the group think?” or “I don’t know…but hey! Why don’t you find out…?” In classic educational moments, teachers will identify exactly whereabouts these unexpected ingredients sit relative to what they want pupils to know. They will be able to briefly, deftly sketch-out an extension to the conceptual canvas which helps create a greater understanding in all the pupils there. In essence they will take the ingredients before them and knead them into an educational dough mixture that gives the most digestible, nutritious mix.
Finally, they teleport us into worlds we never imagined, and inspire us to make them our own.
Sages parachute pupils into places they would never have likely thought of going without them, and possibly couldn’t have reached. This is how they can be most powerful. If teachers just take a supporting role in guiding children wherever they seem most inclined to go, then children will learn possibly quite a lot about really very little. The younger we are, the less we realise what we’re missing-out on. The good guide will of course suggest things, and might be quite good at modelling an interest in learning in general, but an interest in learning, like curiosity, is something which tends to be domain specific; there are no ‘generally curious’ people out there – not if our brain is functioning in the way it should.
A coaching teacher who says “Hey, I don’t know everything either – we’re all learners together! Isn’t learning great!” might have some limited impact with inspiring children to take an interest in learning something, but, I believe, little more. What REALLY turns-on the fires of curiosity and interest is witnessing a genuine passion in a subject enthusiast, and starting to experience what they experience. The very best teachers communicate to learners just what it is in the essence of a topic which makes some people fanatics about this kind of thing. This is the real value in having subject specialists with experience of throwing themselves deeply into learning at degree level. Even if they didn’t study the exact topic or subject at hand, they hopefully have experienced what it is like to become a bit obsessive about an academic area, and can channel that fire in their exposition of other subjects.
Of course, not every teacher can be a genuine enthusiast about each area that they teach, but they can nevertheless endeavour to find a way into the heart of what it is that can make any area of study fascinating, even if just on the right day, from the right perspective, and channel that.
Can we all become The Sage? In the right moment, without a permissive culture, yes. Indeed, I would say that – provided we aren’t compelled to stick with a script nor actively discouraged from occasionally ‘going off on one’, we probably will all naturally do it quite often when placed in an actual teaching position. But what we really mustn’t do is to turn The Sage into a thing of mythology, through turning teachers into little more than sympathetic companions who know a lot about organising learning experiences, but leave all the content stuff to Google.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s put our hands together for…‘The Sage’…!”