I expect most educators are familiar with this concept: You can be a “sage on the stage” in your classroom, using your expertise to share knowledge with your students through lectures and presentations. Or you can be a “guide on the side,” using your skills to engage your students in first-hand learning through projects and experiences.
I also get the sense that teachers can be sensitive when discussing this dichotomy or even thinking about how they fit into it. It makes perfect sense that it could be a touchy issue: Most teachers are very proud of what they do, and we can react quickly if we feel people are judging how we choose to teach and manage our classrooms. (That’s certainly true for me.) Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to take a stab at outlining my own thoughts on the sage vs. guide dichotomy—and maybe it might even spark productive discussion!
I’ve been thinking about my own tendencies as a sage or a guide throughout my teaching career so far, but I was especially motivated to write this post in response to the strong positions taken by Ted Dintersmith in his 2018 book What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, a book I also wrote about in this recent post.
First, let’s clarify: Few primary and secondary teachers in the United States are going to be entirely “sages” or entirely “guides” 100% of the time in their classrooms. Even in the classrooms I’ve observed where teachers create the most top-down systems of imparting knowledge to students, there are still occasions where students are asked to struggle with material on their own and don’t receive all the answers from their teacher. Even in the most open, project-based learning environment, a teacher will almost certainly still ask for moments of silence where they can give students instructions and lay the guidelines for learning. The sage and the guide are highly contrasting images of teaching, but few educators are ever going to fully embody one or the other.
I don’t even know if I could quantify how much of my time in the classroom I spend being a sage or a guide. If I had to take a guess, I have probably been more of a guide for the past five years. Nevertheless, it seems that many thinkers in education today are strongly opposed to the sage approach—including Ted Dintersmith—and I want to push back against that line of thinking. I believe the ideal teacher should be able to act as both a sage on the stage and a guide on the side, and they should carefully evaluate when it’s most valuable to use each approach.
Agency and Adults
In his book, Dintersmith talks about his ideal goal of schools creating “PEAK” learning environments, where PEAK stands for providing Purpose, Essentials, Agency, and Knowledge. The key letter here is A, because one implication of prioritizing students’ agency above all else is that being a “sage on the stage” as a teacher—choosing what students should learn next—becomes virtually impossible.
What School Could Be is based on Dintersmith’s tour through hundreds of schools in all fifty states, and while he describes a wide variety of different ideas and approaches, it’s clear that he believes teachers should be guides on the side. Here he describes the Acton Academy in Austin, Texas:
The school has no teachers, just a few adult “guides” who aren’t expected to be subject-matter experts or allowed to answer questions.
This description sounds pretty extreme, and even approaches the idea of “unschooling,” where children play and learn entirely outside of a set curriculum or any of the bounds of traditional schooling.
I admire and appreciate the drive to give students more agency in their educations: It would be amazing to see more schools where students choose what goals they want to pursue, what questions they want to ask, and how they want to find the answers. However, the Acton Academy model (as described in this inevitably simplified sentence) sounds like a misstep to me, not because of the agency given to the students, but because of the low expectations and limits set for the adults.
Even if a child was being unschooled, completely divorced from a schedule or a school building, I would still want that child to be able to interact with educated, knowledgeable adults and turn to them for answers and advice whenever they wanted to. The idea that adults would monitor a classroom full of students and not be “allowed to answer questions” stymies me, and it feels completely artificial. Humans are social creatures, and since the very development of speech we have passed knowledge from generation to generation by talking to each other, telling stories, and sharing accumulated wisdom. I can understand the idea that an adult may withhold an immediate, direct answer in order to encourage students to explore deeper—teachers do that all the time—but to forbid adults to provide any answers at all? It defies our very history.
One of the primary reasons I became a teacher is because I am a subject-matter expert. Dintersmith strongly emphasizes that students should be taught real-world skills and approaches in school — and we need to remember that asking subject-matter experts for help and information is absolutely a real-world skill. (I hear there’s even an entire industry called “consulting” based on it.) I never pretend to know all the answers to my students questions in the classroom; I regularly turn them toward other sources to find what they want to know. However, if a student asks me about medieval Ireland, 19th-century Korea, Chinuk Wawa (Chinook Jargon), or any other of the many, many topics that I have specifically pursued in my education and become particularly knowledgeable about, I’m never going to pretend that I can’t help them out and provide them with insights. In fact, I believe that when teachers display enthusiastic expertise in the classroom, they can even inspire students to reach for the same sort of in-depth knowledge of a subject.
Let’s take Chinuk Wawa as what I hope will be an illuminating example: The language is not an essential part of the curricula for any of my courses, but if it came up in class I would love to take a few minutes to discuss it further. Let’s consider two different courses of action I could take—a “guide” approach and a “sage” approach—if the topic came up in the classroom:
- I could ask the students to get out their phones and laptops to research Chinuk Wawa on the internet for a few minutes. Then they could discuss what they learned in pairs or small groups and then share with me.
- I could use my own expertise to talk to the students about Chinuk Wawa for a few minutes.
In scenario #1, a lot of my students would very quickly find some basic explanatory information about Chinook Jargon, likely from Wikipedia. (They would be unlikely to find any information indicating that the word “jargon” can be problematic and misleading in describing the language.) A few students might dig a little deeper and find more interesting details, and a few might even connect the information with prior knowledge they have. Most, however, would not.
In scenario #2, I could quickly and efficiently explain to my students both the definition and importance of Chinuk Wawa to Northwest Coast History. I could connect that information immediately to whatever we’re learning in class, and to prior knowledge the students may have (the most common Chinuk Wawa words used in Alaska, for example, or the words in the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian languages that originally came from English or French by way of Chinuk Wawa). That information can be quite difficult to find with a quick internet search.
Clearly, this scenario is a specific one, and there are others where I wouldn’t have the same level of expertise to give students immediate insights. However, I do believe that “sage on the stage” approaches are valid and valuable in a variety of circumstances. Experts and sages make a difference.
Guiding Students Through the Internet
This example raises another extremely important issue with education in the 21st century—the role of the internet in student learning. Dintersmith writes:
The role of teachers changes in PEAK environments. They don’t try to outdo the Internet in delivering content.
Here, Dintersmith really seems to believe that the Internet holds all the answers that students need in their learning, but I couldn’t disagree more. Not only is there a great deal of knowledge that is either difficult or impossible to find on the internet, but in many cases teachers can also serve as far better “content delivery systems” than the internet. As human beings, teachers are more intelligent, more flexible, more responsive, and more capable of meeting students’ needs. We think constantly about what will help our students most, and content creators on the internet can’t replicate that process.
I hope I don’t sound arrogant in saying this, but I regularly “outdo” the internet on a day-to-day basis in my classroom. I can communicate information to my students more efficiently, and I can often be just as funny as the more humorous historians out there. I understand my students, their cultural context, their prior knowledge, and their individual needs far better than someone who creates YouTube videos thousands of miles away or wrote an article on a website years ago. It’s not that online videos and articles aren’t extremely useful; I use them in the classroom constantly. It’s just that those videos and articles often fail to meet students’ needs or communicate information effectively in isolation.
Frequently, the websites and videos students find when doing research are either too dry or too overwhelming to engage them, and a good teacher can explain information in ways that are both more captivating and more precise. As a daily consumer of YouTube videos, I constantly find videos that can easily lead young people into misinformation, misinterpretation, and most dangerously, hateful ideologies.
Teachers shouldn’t ban or ignore the internet because of these dangers; instead, we need to challenge the internet, advise students in their use of it, and call “Bullshit!” loudly whenever we need to (which can be pretty frequently). If teachers aren’t knowledgeable about what they’re teaching and don’t have any more perspective on any given piece of internet research than the students who found it, then those teachers will likely fail their students in guiding them to think critically about their use of technology and sources of information.
The Sage on the Side and the Guide on the Inside?
In the case of internet use, I think teachers really need to serve as “sages on the side.” It is important to ask students to develop research skills and turn to the internet for answers in many situations—which is, of course, a real-world skill—but educators need to be knowledgeable and wise enough to guide students away from the online pitfalls of misinformation and ideology that are all too easy for young people to fall into. It took me a long time to develop the level of critical mistrust of the internet that I have today, and even now there are still occasions where I’ll get engrossed in an attractive myth presented online before realizing there’s something fishy about it.
There’s also another important element to consider when bandying about this sage vs. guide dichotomy: To what extent are you as an educator participating with your students, working among them, rather than standing in front of them or off to the side? This article by Mark Nichols effectively criticizes the sage vs. guide terminology, and one of the commenters suggests the phrase “guide from the inside” as an alternative that emphasizes educators’ participation with their students. I don’t think I’ve been very successful in this goal so far in my career, but I would also aspire to show my students how I am a lifelong learner exploring right alongside them. I might be a teacher, but I’m also still a student.
In the end, the best path we can all follow as educators is to actively question how we interact with our students and what methods will serve them best in any given situation. The “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” ideas may be clichés, but I think they’re still useful concepts to help us consider how we act in the classroom and how we can choose the appropriate approach in different circumstances. I plan to keep striving to be the best sage I can be and the best guide I can be—whether I’m on the stage, off to the side, or deep in the trenches with my students.