Why Read In Advance? Professors Don’t.

I don’t know who coined the phrase “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage” as a pedagogic principle, but when I ran the words through Google, I got 196,000 links. The adage is the cornerstone of the teaching style variously known as “cooperative,” “collaborative,” “interactive,” or “student-centered” learning—part of the educational philosophy of “constructivism,” which holds that teachers don’t teach things but rather, that students “construct” their own knowledge out of what they already know. The idea is that a teacher who lectures or otherwise imparts material from the front of the classroom creates an atmosphere in which the students are passive robots whose job is to “regurgitate” (the vomiting metaphor is ubiquitous in the scholarly literature) their lecture notes on the final exam. Far better for a teacher to be just a coach, gently nudging students along the path of learning on their own.
Cooperative learning is responsible for that now-ubiquitous classroom command, “Now let’s break up into small groups,” that even seventh-graders (as University of Wisconsin English lecturer Mike O’Connell noted in a biting 2007 critique of the guide-on-the-side philosophy in the Chronicle of Higher Education) quickly figure out is a cue to goof off, letting the smart kids in the group do all the work—or, conversely, letting them take the grade hit for substandard work performed by the lazy kids. Cooperative learning is also responsible for its advocates’ devil-may-care attitude toward actually imparting substantive knowledge in a classroom. As Bruce Saulnier, a professor of information systems management at Quinnipac University, put it in a scholarly article last year, “Content… is used as a vehicle for students to develop their learning skills and strategies.” He explained: “There is simply too much knowledge in the world today for students to learn everything they need to know.” One of the classroom teacher’s main jobs instead, wrote Saulnier, should be “modeling” the learning process by absorbing the material alongside their students. The idea behind modeling, is that, instead of directly instructing students in, say, how to solve a physics problem, teachers should “model” the process of solving the problem, which the students then can imitate.
Cooperative learning (along with modeling) is now a staple of elementary and secondary-school teaching. (Click onto this coop-learning website to see a cute Sage-on-the-Stage-Buster logo and a description of the approach as helping to “enhance student satisfaction with their learning experience,” “develop” their “social skills,” and “promote” their “self-esteem.” During the 1990s it began to work its way into college classrooms, helped along by a 1993 article in the journal College Teaching, written by California State University education professor Allison King and titled—guess what!—“From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.” Pushing for wholesale adoption of constructivist pedagogy at the post-secondary level, King wrote, ” In contrast to the transmittal model illustrated by the classroom lecture-note-taking scenario, the constructivist model places students at the center of the process–actively participating in thinking and discussing ideas while making meaning for themselves.”


Well, you might think, there’s always graduate school for finally getting to learn something substantive from a professor. Think again. In a panel discussion on changing grad-school course work at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting earlier this month, Kathleen Canning, a history professor at the University of Michigan, derided the traditional method of teaching graduate courses as “Pick your favorite books, hold forth, and wait for the graduate students to do the same.” Instead of assigning classic works of historiography or other time-tested material for discussion, Canning said that in one course she team-teaches with another professor, she and her colleague assign only books that neither of them has ever read. That way, Canning explained, the professors “enter the defamiliarization of the students and experience it with them.” Then came the m-word: I’m trying to model the kind of professional participatory skills and ethics they need,” Canning said.
Flabbergasted (what if the books turn out to be duds and her students end up wasting an entire semester?), I e-mailed Canning with some questions (among them: “What is ‘defamiliarization?'”) I know that if I were a grad student in history at Michigan hoping to gain some wisdom from a scholar who has spent a lifetime working in the field, I’d feel irritated at being asked instead to help my prof vicariously “experience” whatever I was going through.
Responding to my queries, Canning e-mailed that while she and her fellow Michigan professor admitttedly don’t read in advance the books they assign in their two-semester introductory course for history grad students (many of the books are outside the two profs’ academic specialties), they do “make certain that the books are reputable and significant in their field on the basis of book reviews or other sources of information (conference papers, previous books or articles by the same author, etc.).” She also insisted that her pedagogic approach—“trying to model how we encounter unfamiliar histories, methods, or concepts”—is less “stifling” than traditional ways of teaching because it makes “exploration of the readings…a joint undertaking” in which the student and the professor are more or less on equal footing—or at least equal in ignorance. “Of course, the professors are still the authorities and still have the responsibility of focusing the discussion on the crucial questions the readings raise, but the atmosphere in the classroom is definitely different when the professor is less of an expert or authority on the topic at hand and has to ‘think on her feet’ and show her own curiosity at work.”
Well, maybe, and I have no doubt that Canning (whose academic specialty is modern German history) is a hardworking and committed teacher—but whatever happened to the idea of professors’ passing on their actual knowledge to a next generation of scholars? If course content is irrelevant, even at the highest academic levels, and if profs are supposed to be no more than role models for assimilating good “learning skills and strategies,” won’t someone eventually decide that universities don’t need so many of them?

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

2 thoughts on “Why Read In Advance? Professors Don’t.

  1. While I am flattered that you would use my article in an attempt to demystify constructivists pedagogy, any attempt to simplify the learning process and therefore the ultimate goal of undergraduate higher education is at best an oversimplification. I wish you well, but we really do need to create a generation of active, lifelong learners if we have any hope of competing in the ever expanding global economy.

  2. Constructivist learning takes energy and initiative from students. It’s not the powerpoint “show” they can relax and be entertained by. Students must get involved. That means they can’t sit in the back row, texting, while the “expert” in front drones on. Some students want the lethargic classroom, and always will. Others discover that knowledge develops and remains with them when they have been more involved in the classroom. It all boils down to whether we want to see passive learners or active learners. Certainly, the status quo won’t be challenged as long as we’re all passive, listening to “experts.”

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