The role of the Teacher

This is the basis of a talk I am going to give my colleagues.


I’m talking today about the role of the teacher.

I’ll send round the notes from this talk later, and if there are any questions I’m happy to take them at the end.

The role of the teacher.

I’ll explain what I mean by this by discussing the role of the teacher as either ‘the sage on the stage’ or ‘the guide on the side’. In short, the ‘sage on the stage’ represents the Traditional teacher who stands at the front of the classroom, tells the students the facts of their subject, and then tests them to see if they’ve learned what they’ve been told.

The ‘guide on the side’ represents the Progressive teacher who facilitates the learning of the students, this teacher is a reaction to and rejection of the Traditional teacher, and views the idea of the ‘sage on the stage’ as being one who masks the joy of learning, and reduces the learning process to mindless memorisation of facts and then the regurgitation of these for exams.

I think these two roles are distinct, and I think that it is important for teacher to give consideration to them both, and to choose which one they prioritise in their role.

My argument today is teacher-led instruction, or the teacher’s role as the ‘sage on the stage’ is the far better role for a teacher to take. The Traditional approach is far better than the Progressive one. I could be wrong, but I think I’m right.

I’ll use analysis by Daisy Christodoulou to support my argument.

Daisy Christodoulou is the head of research at the Ark Academies, and is the author of the 2013 book ‘7 Myths About Education’. I am swayed by Christodoulou’s arguments, and I will point out that I’m not the only one. Dylan Wiliam, doyen of Educationalists, was so convinced by them that he ended up writing the forward to later editions of the book.

One of the myths Christodoulou identifies is the idea that ‘teacher-led instruction is passive’. Here is a summary of her argument about why pejorative or negative attitudes to teacher-led instruction has become an accepted view in Education, why it is a myth, and why teacher-led instruction is the better way to teach if you want students to become independent thinkers.

Chrostodoulou identifies Jean-Jaques Rousseau, the 18th Century philosopher; John Dewey, the early 20th Century Education reformer; and Paoulo Freire, the late 20th Century Educator as antecedents of the ‘guide on the side’ approach to the teacher’s role.

For example, Dewey stated that:

Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students

It is undeniable that this philosophical base has influenced how we teach right now. Not least because in the recent past Ofsted have encouraged this. Christodoulou makes the argument that in the years preceding the publication of her book in 2013, Ofsted  praised lessons in which the teacher’s role was as ‘the guide on the side.’

For example, in an Ofsted publication highlighting lessons exemplified as good practice: this is a description of  Y3 R.E. lesson about Angels (so kids who are 7 or 8 years old):

The teacher focused the enquiry by explaining to the pupils that they were on a quest for angels and asking them what thoughts and questions came to their minds when they heard the word ‘angels’. They were then given a number of questions to discuss in groups including: ‘What might/do angels look like?’; ‘What is their job?’; ‘Are they real or imaginary?’; ‘Are they like fairies?’ ‘What would you do if you met an angel?’; ‘What difference could an angel make?’ The outcomes were shared and recorded.

Here we can see that the students take control of the learning, the lesson is based on them thinking for themselves about Angels. There is no mention of transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the students. The students discuss what they already know about Angels, and the teacher’s role is to focus these thoughts into a discussion between the students.

Chistodoulou identifies that the perfectly reasonable reason that educators want to teach like this is that

they argue, correctly, that the aim of schooling should be for pupils to be able to work, learn, and solve problems independently. . they then assume… that the best method for achieving such independence is always to learn independently.

So there’s a plausible line of argument that has a philosophical base and a contemporary professional impetus for teachers to be the ‘guide on the side’.

If we agree that the purpose of schools is to produce students who can think critically for themselves, what is the argument against the role of the teacher as ‘guide on the side’?

Christodoulou argues that, perhaps counter-intuitively, if you want students to become good independent learners, then lots of teacher instruction is needed. So, for me as a maths teacher, if I want my students to become good problem solvers, then rather than giving them lots of problems to solve in the lessons with them actively thinking for themselves, my lessons should have a large proportion of them sitting quietly and listening attentively to me.

Christodoulou gives 3 main reasons for this: historical, theoretical and empirical.

Historical. Learning is neither natural nor easy. Language acquisition in terms of our mother tongue is natural, but almost everything else is not. For example the alphabet is a highly complex and abstract invention of civilisation. It is certainly not inevitable that children will pick up the written word, indeed there needs to be lots of formal, explicit instruction and practise. It is true that much of what we teach at school has been discovered. For example, Newton came up with ideas about gravity through observations of apples falling from a tree, but that does not mean that students will come up with the same insights if you take them to an orchid in Autumn. Newton was a genius, as teachers we can pass on his what he gave to the world through explanations, this seems to be clearly a better way than expecting students to realise what he realised through clever activities.

Theoretical: in recent years, cognitive science has given us many answers to the question of how one learns. One clear message is that the working memory can only hold a very limited amount of information at one time, so when students are learning a new concept if there is only minimal guidance given, students will struggle to filter out what they should be concentrating on, and become lost and frustrated. The argument from cognitive science is that


when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.

see this paper by Kirschner et al

Empirical. Christodoulou references Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement, where the researcher John Hattie found direct teacher instruction to be the third most powerful factor in teaching. This was only surpassed by feedback and instructional quality, both of which not in conflict with the sage on the stage role. In short, research backs up the historical and theoretical arguments made in favour of teacher-led instruction.

I would like to point out that subsequent to Christodoulou’s book, and probably partly as a result of it, there has been a clear move in the last few years for Ofsted to move away from exclusively praising lessons with minimal teacher talk. Ofsted’s new Inspection Booklet written in 2014 states that

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style… inspectors should not expect to see periods of pupils working on their own, or in groups in all lessons, and should not make the assumption that this is always necessary, desirable or even effective, which would clearly depend on the quality and challenge of the work set. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly expected to sit and listen to teachers, which of itself is an ‘active’ method through which knowledge and understanding can be acquired effectively.

see this blog by David Didau

Based on this it seems clear to me that Ofsted are saying that teachers and schools are free to choose how to teach based on what works in terms of students learning.

I’ll finish by saying that I think there can be problems with the role of the teacher as the sage on the stage. For example, if there is no effort from the teacher to work out whether the students are learning what has been explained, or if the explanations given are overly complex. However, this does not make an argument for doing away with teacher-led instruction. It makes an argument for good and improved teacher-led instruction.

To summarise, I have used arguments from Daisy Christodoulou to exemplify the tension in the position of the teacher as either the guide on the side or the sage on the stage. They are in close physical proximity, however I am asserting there is a profound pedagogical chasm between them and that a teacher must decide which role they are to take. My position is clear: the sage on the stage is the far better choice.

Thank you

Has anyone got any questions?



Seven Myths about Education by Daisy Christodoulou (2013, Routledge)

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