Saturday, March 11, 2006

Models for education

Education theorists have given us two broad caricatures of teaching -- "the sage on the stage" and "the guide on the side." If you know anything about current education, you know that the first is bad, the second good. Yes, the reasoning, like caricatures themselves, is reductive.

The first caricature transforms the classroom into a performance venue, the professor strutting and fretting his or her 50 minutes, all eyes and ears attending to a glamorous genius. On this account, any presentation of genuine scholarship and intellectual accomplishment is mere preening: "Who does he think he is? A sage?!" The second caricature imagines a classroom full of highly-motivated, self-directed students, in need of just an occasional correction in steering. This caricature assumes a much greater degree of student interest in "group-work" and the like than is often (usually?) the case. For many students, "group-work," games, and other "activities" are welcome respites from more difficult work; other students see such stuff as infuriatingly condescending.

These caricatures of "sage" and "guide" have little to do with what can really happen in a college class. They erase the possibility of a professor who talks (or professes, as a professor is supposed to do) and leads a discussion -- orchestrating in real time, imperfectly of course, a multi-voiced improvisation on a theme. To my mind, that's the most wonderful sort of class, one whose shape is unpredictable, sometimes awkward, sometimes delightful, and never to be repeated.

comments: 2

Dr. Lisa said...

Wonderfully put--many thanks. You have no idea how helpful this is to me. I am a fresh-out assistant professor, and I struggle constantly with sorting out how to "be" in my classes. Our faculty training program is entirely enamoured with "guide on the side" models. However, I have found as a young female faculty that students have no trouble de-centering me from the position of the "authority," thank you very much. At the same time, the "star" model doesn't fit, either.

Michael Leddy said...

Lisa, I'm glad you found what I wrote helpful. I think it's good to remind students too -- however long one has been teaching -- that the way one teaches is a matter of making a particular choice (and not some other choice). I tell my students that I don't "let the class out early" because I need to get paid for the full fifty minutes. : )