‘Sage on the stage’ or ‘Guide on the side’

‘Sage on the stage’ or ‘Guide on the side’

When you are applying for teaching posts, or undertaking a programme of teacher training, you should demonstrate in your application and interview that you are familiar not only with different theories of learning, such as constructivism, but also that you understand the implications of them for teaching. In order to impart knowledge and promote understanding, you need to show that you can plan sessions which help students to use, test and evaluate knowledge and to build their own frameworks for further learning.

The ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘guide on the side’? These two characterisations of teachers have been around for many years. In further education teachers traditionally aligned themselves with one of these types and disparaged those who were at the other end of the spectrum. However, good teachers do not live exclusively at one end or the other; they can, as necessity requires, be either or both and most of the time will occupy the ground in between the two.

The notion of the ‘sage on the stage’ is associated with what is sometimes called ‘teacher-centred’ education or ‘traditional’ education. In this view of learning the teacher is the expert who owns all the knowledge and transmits it to the students. This kind of teaching has been derided as nothing more than ‘chalk and talk’, or, in its more modern equivalent, ‘click and talk’ which features a long run of overcrowded presentation slides that the teacher reads out. At its worst this view of teaching is little more than what I would refer to as the ‘empty buckets’ approach, the teachers’ job being to fill the students with knowledge which is tested later to see if it has been retained. Those who cannot retain the knowledge are considered to be ‘leaky buckets’ who need further teaching or support, or are deemed less intelligent.

The ‘sage on the stage’ also has implications that the teacher is a performer who likes to strut on the ‘stage’ of the classroom, entertaining and enthralling their audience. Whilst it is desirable that teachers are able to use their personalities and communication skills to engage and motivate their students, those who treat teaching as an opportunity to perform are less likely to have planned effective sessions which use a variety of teaching and learning methods.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘guide on the side’ takes a less central role and is more concerned to facilitate learning and to guide students in their learning and discovery. This approach is often referred to as ‘student-centred’ learning and teachers will spend more time working with individuals and small groups to support and facilitate learning than they do on whole-class teaching. This approach tends to regard didactic teaching as less effective, even authoritarian.

The constructivist theory of learning holds that learning does not come in packages that can be delivered by the teacher to students who simply receive and store them. Constructivism suggests that students have to actively construct understanding from the information the teacher, and other sources, provides. It is not possible, in this view, for the student to have the same knowledge as the teacher has simply by telling them about it. This would likely produce what A. N. Whitehead referred to as ‘inert’ knowledge which is simply stored rather than being used or tested in different ways.

Active learning methods emphasise learner involvement; learning by doing and thinking and connecting ideas. You should plan to use a variety of teaching and learning approaches, for example, discussion, case-studies, problem-based learning and higher-level questioning in order to engage and challenge students. However, you should not be frightened of using a didactic, teacher-centred approach when necessary. Teachers are, or should be, experts in their field and may have done extensive research; they know more about the subject than their students do. A teacher’s ‘toolkit’ should include the ability to teach and instruct whole classes in ways that engage and motivate them.


Pete Scales, now retired, was a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Derby and also delivered PGC HE programmes to teaching colleagues. His book An Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Supporting Fellowship’ was published by Open University Press in 2017. Prior to this he taught in further education for over twenty years and ran teacher education programmes. His book Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector (Open University Press) is now in its second edition. He still maintains his lifelong learning website at www.peter-scales.org.uk

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