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  • Mark Nichols


In a recent tour through several educational journals and websites I came across the contrast of Sage on the Stage (bad) vs Guide on the Side (good) on multiple occasions. This widely used adage is a perfect opportunity to consider the importance of vocabulary and the problem with either/or approaches to education.

Lets start with a Sage, or as defined in the dictionary a profoundly wise person. Recently the progressive educational community has determined that having a Sage at the front of the classroom (ie lecture) is unilaterally a bad idea. Having experienced some painful lectures in my career as a student (and definitely given some as a teacher) I understand the desire to label these learning experiences as “bad”. On the other hand I have often been challenged and changed by a wise professor (Sage) lecturing about a topic they have spent their entire life exploring. In some of these lectures I was mesmerized by the skills and stories of the Sage, in others I had to work hard to get past the presentation to get to the message – but when I did it was well worth it. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed Molly Worthen took on the “anti lecture” trend in higher education and argued for the value of a great lecture. She argues that lectures should not be abandoned because they are boring or difficult for students but instead should be used to teach students how to listen, process and think. Interestingly all of these concepts are embraced as very important “21st century” or “soft skills”. Sometimes we just need to sit down, shut up, focus, and listen to what the speaker is presenting. At times a lecture is the most efficient way to get the same information to a lot of people. The keys are quantity and quality. If all I do is lecture then it can become a problem since people need time to reflect and practice what is being taught. If my lectures are simple uninspiring recitals of facts that can be found elsewhere it also becomes problematic. But the Sage on the Stage approach is not in and of itself evil. Having wise people in the room is never a bad thing, and taking time to listen to them is usually a pretty good idea. If we just simply accept the idea that the Sage on the Stage is bad then we are limiting our students ability to learn.

Just as confusing is the other half of this equation – the guide on the side. At the beginning of my educational career I spent several years in programs and schools with wilderness programs based on the concepts pioneered by Kurt Hahn and Outward Bound. As part of an academic and emotional growth curriculum we would take students into the wilderness for 7, 14 or 21 days. These were powerful learning experiences for both the campers and the guides. When I reflect on these experiences the concept “guide on the side” makes absolutely no sense. As guides we were fully immersed in everything that was going on from start to finish. We brought some Sage-like qualities to the trip but we also adjusted and adapted to the personalities the campers, the trail and the conditions. We were as dirty, tired and smelly as the campers because we hiked the same trails, cooked the same meals, used the same BIFF (bathroom in forest floor), slept in the same tents, carried the same weight and climbed the same peaks. On a traditional 21 day format the guide would start in the Sage (wise person) role because we were more trained and experienced but the goal was to fully participate with the campers so they were ready to take full responsibility for the experience. In the traditional model the guides would “abandon” the fully equipped campers for the last three days of the trip and they would use what the knowledge to navigate to the final destination. But even then we did not get picked up in helicopters and taken to the guide break room, we would track all of the groups to make sure that they did not run into any serious issues. At the end we were a tam of 20 or so people that had worked together to accomplish a goal. It was an exhausting, exhilarating experience that changed the lives of everyone involved. That is what a guide is.

While I understand the gist of the Sage on the Stage vs Guide on the Side contrast I argue that we need to be much more conscious of the language we use and how it impacts what we do. Just because words rhyme and create a catchy phrase does not make them correct. Before they become the basis for decision making and practice they need to be thoroughly unpacked and discussed. In fact we should make it a practice to define our terms before we argue for any specific approaches. As for Sage on the Stage vs Guide on the Side argument I would lean more towards learning environments that include: sages on a stage with 30 other potential sages and guides that are fully immersed with the learners to accomplish important and shared goals. But that is not very catchy.

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