Guide on the Side v Sage on the Stage

A recent tweet I made about my preference for sage on the stage (SOTS) teaching as opposed to guide on the side (GOTS) teaching provoked some interesting debate.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.54.14 am.png

A GOTS is a facilitator of learning. They do not teach children directly; rather, they let students lead their own learning and sit back and wait for a tap on the shoulder or an appropriate moment to suggest what to do next. This is often used in constructivist approaches such as project based learning where students work together on a project, often relying on the power of Google for information as the teacher works as some kind of feedback ATM whenever the students require. They may also tweak tasks whenever necessary to ensure students meet very vague generic skill outcomes.

A SOTS is a teacher in the traditional sense. They use their own knowledge to teach children concepts, ideas and key facts in a subject area. After teaching key concepts, students engage in carefully selected deliberate practise to strengthen their understanding. Crucially, students are not masters of their own fate; as the professional, the teacher leads them towards success. SOTS teachers understand that skills are built on knowledge; they cannot be taught directly and so their own knowledge is crucial.

GOTS is a widely accepted position. Most teachers will gladly profess that their role is not to pass on knowledge but to facilitate a natural curiosity and love of learning. Such a view has its roots in the romantic view of the child. In a romantic view, the child is a special being with unique and trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to run free and stave off corruption from the world. This is at the heart of constructivist pedagogy manifested in the GOTS approach.

Because a child is the master of their own learning, the role of teacher knowledge is played down by a GOTS. This is especially true in late primary school where GOTS is perhaps most widely used. Students now have access to a wealth of knowledge through the mighty power of Google and, therefore, do not need the limited capacities of a teacher. Being able to research something is no doubt an important skill, but it is a skill almost totally dependent on broad knowledge. It takes knowledge to gain knowledge – students who engage in research too early will not be able to filter out the true and false. To be able to use the knowledge at our finger tips, we first need a storehouse of knowledge on a particular subject. Students do not have this storehouse because, at 8, 9 or 10 years old, they are still relative novices in all academic fields.

Because students are novices, they need to be directly taught key concepts and skills by a teacher who is sensitive to how students learn concepts in a specific subject. We know that primary teachers regularly lack the required knowledge to teach core skills in maths and literacy. Playing the role of GOTS sidesteps this issue. I do not need knowledge because I do not impart knowledge. A SOTS totally disagrees with this position. To act as the SOTS, knowledge is crucial. Primary teachers do not need to be professors in the subjects they teach, but they do require the pedagogical content knowledge required to teach effectively. Here are some great examples of why pedagogical content knowledge is so crucial:

  1. A child spells trunk as TRUK. Why has the student spelled the word this way and what can the teacher do to help the child?
  2. A student expresses 1 1/2 as   Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 9.08.23 am.png. What concept does the student not understand and what teaching needs to occur?

This reveals an inconvenient truth for primary teachers: if you do not have the knowledge, then you cannot teach it. Perhaps this is why GOTS is so readily accepted. Perhaps teachers who feel like they lack the knowledge to teach a subject are more comfortable adopting a GOTS approach and letting Google do the hard yards. I, for one, am not one of them. Teacher education does not equip primary teachers with the knowledge they need, but that does not mean I am going to reject my crucial role as the SOTS. We should all be working towards acquiring the knowledge we need, not rejecting it entirely.


Readings used to create this post

Christodoulou (2014) Seven Myths about Education

Moats (2010) Speech to Print

MKT Measures Mathematics Released Items (2008)

Ashman (2017) Does it matter if primary teachers have good maths knowl





1 thought on “Guide on the Side v Sage on the Stage”

  1. Very interesting. As a scientist I can see the struggle non-scientists have in teaching some knotty concepts which demand a good understanding of fundamental knowledge. As a behaviour specialist I can see knowledge that is out of reach for me and known only to the child as the expert in themself. I work with children who struggle as a GOTS, relying on my mastery (knowledge) of solutions focused coaching, not my Depp knowledge of their life and times. I’m interested in your next title – we seem to treat knowledge as if it were one thing, but know-what knowledge is not the same as know-how. I can tell you how the periodic table is built so you can do it yourself but I can’t tell you how I ride a bike so you can go to ride your bike. But we ca invent the performance together. Looking forward to your next.


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