May 21, 2014

Time to retire the phrase “guide on the side”

If you attend any blended learning conferences or read any digital learning materials you’ve probably come across a version of the phrase suggesting that the teacher’s role in blended learning changes from “sage on the stage to guide on the side.”

This expression came up in an informative panel discussion that I joined in New York City last week, hosted by The DigitalJLearning Network. Panelists Liz Pape, Jennifer Levy, Allyson O’Rourke Barrett and I spent an hour answering questions from Network Director Gary Hartstein and from the audience of Jewish Day School educators experimenting with blended learning.

Gary acted as the ideal foil for this point by asking about the teacher’s role in blended learning and using the “guide on the side” phrase (although, to his credit, largely to make the point that the phrase is commonly used). He asked what we should do to help teachers better understand their role. My response—which hadn’t occurred to me until I heard him phrase the question—was that we should retire the phrase “guide on the side.”

Why? Because one of the enduring misconceptions about online and blended learning is that they are teacher-less (especially online learning), or at least that they diminish the role of the teacher. There is no doubt that some online courses do not have teachers, but all of the good online or blended courses and programs with which we are aware use teachers in a role that is central to learning. Still, the misconception persists.

Even when the important role of teachers is acknowledged, the perception remains that perhaps the teaching function is being devalued. In a focus group that we held years ago, for example, a teacher said that he thought that perhaps he was being asked to video his lectures and put them online so that the school could replace him (and all the other teachers).

Within this context it strikes me that “guide on the side” does mistakenly imply a reduction of the teacher’s role. With this phrase, blended learning advocates mean that the teacher works with students in a variety of different ways, and that the time lecturing to a full classroom is reduced or perhaps eliminated. The difference does not mean that the role is less important. But “on the side,” by the very nature of the phrase, suggests a reduction of the importance of the teacher. I believe advocates of online and blended learning should drop the phrase.

12 Responses to Time to retire the phrase “guide on the side”

  1. John, I couldn’t agree more that the phrase should be retired. Having spent some time with blended and online learning, both as teacher and student, it is clear that good blended learning requires more from the teacher, as would any form of student-centered learning, even in a face-to-face classroom. The primary takeaway for me as teacher has been a change in role from a purveyor of knowledge to an interventionist and problem-solver. Rather than diminishing the role of the teacher, that role is enhanced in the blended world.

  2. Joel, thanks for your comment. I’ve heard from another teacher who said she doesn’t believe that “guide on the side” suggests a diminished role for the teacher, so it’s clear that in part we are dealing with how the phrase is interpreted. But I’m glad to hear your perspective given how much you’ve thought about these issues in light of your experience as a classroom and blended teacher.

  3. John,

    As you might expect, I disagree with your assumptions and conclusion about the use of “guide on the side.” First, I believe we should separate the phrase from connotation that it means that teachers aren’t needed in an online or blended classroom. That assumption has been around for awhile and was probably connected, in some part, to stories about virtual schools and online curriculum. This is a separate misconception about online & blended learning that won’t be addressed by banning a phrase.

    The actual phrase, “Sage on the stage vs. guide on the side” comes from the 1990’s where I first encountered it. At the time, it meant to me that in a classroom lecture environment “sage on the stage”, we may be imparting knowledge to our students, but students themselves were inactive participants. I remember this phrase in tandem with criticism that classrooms were too focused on the factory model. To be a “guide on the side” meant that students were more actively involved in their own learning. Whether self -directed or project based, teachers who were guides were making the best of their skill set. Anyone can be a talking head in front of a group (you HAVE been to conferences, yes?), but it takes a special person to guide students, to ask critical questions, and to direct their learning. Educators as guides are no less teachers than those who lecture full time.

    That the Sage/Guide reference has been used with blended and online learning has been only natural. If online courses assume the role of lecturer, then teachers can better use their time with students whether its individual tutoring, collaboration, critical questioner, or “just in time” teaching to small groups. To be a “guide”, to me, should be our primary goal as teachers.

    So, no, I don’t want to remove the phrase from use. I’d prefer to clear up the misperception that great teachers aren’t needed in online or blended classrooms.

    • Well said. This saying applies now as it did in the 90s to a learner-centred approach to teaching. It should not be retired due to connotative factors, rather its correct interpretation should be given more prominence.
      Thank you.

  4. Yes- it makes me think of the coaching role. Sometimes a coach takes on the role of consultant, other times collaborator, and other times mentor depending on the needs of the learner and the context of the activity and learning goals. Coaching also connotes an active, not passive, process. Although the coach may not always be directing instruction, they are monitoring processes and determining how to support learners towards meeting the learning goals. The take-away from me has always been that the facilitator’s role is on a continuum. Thanks for sharing your post.

  5. Brian, thanks for your comment-and for disagreeing with me! Different points of view make for interesting conversations.

    I agree with you on the merits of most of what you say (and btw my history with “guide on the side” goes back to early 1998). My disagreement with you is that I have been in enough conference sessions and other meetings where I believe that teachers being told they will, in the future, be “on the side” starts the conversation by giving them a negative perspective.

    You say:
    “I believe we should separate the phrase from connotation that it means that teachers aren’t needed in an online or blended classroom.”

    If we knew that would happen I would agree with you, but given how common the misconception is I think advocates need to err on the side of always stressing how important the teacher is.

  6. Bob, I agree with you about the facilitator/coach role, how the role changes based on student needs, and especially that it is an active process. Thanks for weighing in!

  7. John,

    i see your point and it confirms the fear teachers are expressing that online learning will phase them out. If that is the case, we all need to start conversations by stressing that great teachers are essential for online and blended learning to succeed. (which is true) What’s also great for teachers is that because eLearning shifts part of the lecture process to the online course, teachers can now focus on personalized instruction (aka, guiding on the side).


  8. For me the problem with this phrase is that ‘on the side’ implies watching from the sidelines & perhaps only stepping in when there’s need to call a time out. It takes the emphasis away from the word ‘guide’ which is where I think it properly belongs. I’ve been rephrasing this as sage on the stage + guide at the side, so active learning is accompanied by active teaching.

  9. I prefer the phrase “Meddler in the middle.” Dr. Dean Shareski.

    When I see great Blended/Digital Learning the teacher is never on the side, but right in the mix of what every student is working on that moment. Most of the teachers in this situation say it is harder and more challenging, but much more rewarding.

  10. John, thanks for this comment-I like “meddler in the middle.” In the middle to me implies that the teacher is central but isn’t necessarily the main or only source of student learning, which is along the lines of what Brian Bridges suggested in earlier comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera