'Sage on the stage' as a phrase has become a popular target in criticisms and debates about teaching and learning. It has come to represent the teacher-centred, didactic lectures and classroom instruction that is often contrasted against new methods of teaching and learning such as the flipped classroom and MOOCS, brought by developments in ICT. The wave of criticism has built up to a point where it almost seems criminal to be a sage on the stage.
While critics are quick to point out the flaws of lectures and didactic teaching, there seems to be a general ignorance in its effectiveness in schooling a significant number of students in the last century. A lecture is essentially a one-way communication where one person gives a talk to many persons - an audience. One only needs to think of speeches in politics; of the lectures given on pulpits across churches worldwide; of the absolute one-way communication through radio and television, to see that a sage on the stage, is indeed effective and powerful.
The negativity surrounding lectures and didactic teaching stems from two errors. The first is reducing teaching to a method; and the second, that listening is passive. I will highlight how the first error has the danger of amplifying the problem and that the second error conceals a bias. Finally, I hope to return the focus back to what matters most - who is it that teaches.
The First Error
It is likely that critics of sage on the stage are unaware that in the process of attacking lectures, they are doing so on the premise that it is method that determines the quality of teaching. The examples given earlier are sufficient to disprove any assertion that lectures are useless and ineffective. At the same time, the examples also point out that good teaching lie beyond methods. A most recent example are TED talks. The format is the same but some talks are wildly popular while others hardly make a dent. A TED talk is in essence a 20 minute lecture yet some of its talks have become modern classics.
That good teaching cannot be reduced to methods isn't a new premise. It was highlighted long before by Parker J. Palmer who wrote Courage to Teach. he entire book was based on a simple premise:
good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.
Space does not permit me to expound on that premise but Palmer does a better job in his book anyway.
By calling for the removal of lectures and didactic classroom instruction to be replaced with new collaborative practices and technology, proponents or 'change agents' are changing the external and ignoring the internal. At best, the problem with education remains. Worst, it becomes amplified. And I fear its the latter critics are heading towards.
I have called technology nothing more than a tool and it is true to large extent. In other words, technology doesn't turn bad teachers into good ones. Technology like tools are neutral mechanisms that cannot replace active agency. Nonetheless, I was optimistic that technology would make bad pedagogy explicit - a tool in the hands of a bad carpenter produces more poor carpentry - and create opportunities for reflection and change for good.
However, I've come to question my optimism after reading Lowell Monke's article, The Human Touch. He tears down the computers-are-just-tools argument by taking an ecological perspective on technology. If education is to be seen as a system, like how the natural environment is an ecosystem, introducing a new component into the system is like disrupting the ecosystem with the introduction of new species. It isn't passive and the system is reconstituted for better or worse. By clinging on to the computers-are-just-tools argument, Monke points out that it blinds us to the opportunity costs which he elaborates:
Its [computers] growing dominance is witnessed in the language that abounds in education: talk of empowerment, student control of learning, standards, assessment tools, and productivity. Almost gone from the conversation are those inner concerns - wisdom, truth, character, imagination, creativity and meaning - that once formed the core value of education. Outcomes have replaced insights as the yardstick of learning...
The danger with criticisms against lectures and didactic teaching as methods is that it takes away the attention from what is truly essential in good teaching. Instead of discussing and looking in depth at what makes good teachers, we are drawn deeper into discussion and silly debates over what Palmer calls as 'tips, tricks, and techniques', to which I add a fourth 'technology'. he added danger of technology is that it enables bad teachers to cover up bad teaching with novelty. Accessibility and collaboration become catch phrases to hide away a weak and shallow identity.
The Second Error
A common error amongst many is that listening, like reading, is a passive activity. It seems like so because both activities require almost no physical act on the person reading or listening. Fortunately, we are aware that reading isn't passive, that there are different levels of reading and to read deeply requires training, discipline and practice. However, that is not the case with listening despite the fact that we often suffer the consequences of not listening properly and experience the frustration of not being heard and understood clearly.
Perhaps the reason is that listening is an intangible act. Unlike words on pages that can be highlighted, reread and annotated; spoken words exist for the moment and then disappear forever. This makes listening more challenging in comparison to reading.
What is interesting though is that with reading, we can see the wisdom in training young minds to comprehend and understand, but the same isn't applied towards listening. The ignorance of listening as a skill has led to a criticism that focuses heavily on the lecturer instead of the audience. As a result, the lecturer is often caricatured as the authoritarian dictator ruling over the powerless audience.
No doubt there are numerous studies that show the ineffectiveness of lectures but it is a mistake to throw aside lectures and blame the lecturer for the results. If people do not remember nor understand Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, do we then throw away the books and blame Thomas for being a poor writer? (Summa Theologica was unfinished by the way) good number of students have probably fallen asleep or drifted in attention when reading books but why is there no similar call for books to be transformed to tweets or for students to write their own books?
Ironically, critics of sage on the stage are as guilty of being teacher-centric as it places the responsibility of learning entirely in the hands of the teacher. Hardly, in the same critique will you find a similar emphasis for students to listen and learn. It's about reaching down but never about reaching up. Eventually, education becomes engulfed by consumerism - it's about what I want, when I want, where I want. This is a far cry from education that was about truths that had to be learnt.
To learn is to reach for a level higher than what you are currently in and that requires effort. While a lecturer should make every effort to organise and present, the audience should likewise make every effort to listen, make notes and review after the lecture has been given. Listening is a skill that like reading, requires training, practice and discipline. A generation unable to read anything more than a tweet, much less read deeply, is cause for serious concern. A generation unable to listen beyond a minute, much less listen attentively, is cause for similar concern.
Fool on the Stage
Although the criticisms have been erroneous, the animosity towards lectures isn't unfounded. Everyone needs only to reflect on experience to see that bad lectures abound. That bad lectures are in abundance isn't a recent phenomenon. Rather, it's technology today that has removed the veil that concealed bad lecturers. That veil is content - facts and knowledge necessary to gain understanding and apply.
The difference between good and bad teachers isn't found in methodology but in identity. Good teachers are those who have experienced the change brought by truth applied and have the passion to pass it on. Bad teachers could possibly be well schooled in the facts and knowledge of the subject but not change on bit in the heart and mind - sophomores. Yet, bad teachers were tolerable due to the utility of providing facts and knowledge. With information so accessible today, that is no longer necessary and the distinction between good and bad teachers becomes more evident. Students have become more sensitive to the authenticity of the teacher or as Palmer puts:
Bad teachers distance themselves from the subject they are teaching - and in the process, from their students. Good teachers join self and subject and student in the fabric of life.
The Feynman lectures is one of the best exemplification of who good teachers are. In this first lecture, I am particularly amazed how Feynman takes a seemingly dry fact - gravity - and weaves a story to show how our understanding and perspective of the world has become shaped to be what it is presently. The stage can be redesigned, the hall refurbished and seating positions rearranged but if fools continue to ead, no change has been made. Conversely, wise teachers will teach well no matter the stage; and that is because they have an authentic value to pass on.
Professional discussion and examination ought to move away from methods - tips, tricks, techniques and technology - and look at truths and value. Perhaps the question we ought to ask each other is whether we would want to learn what we are teaching. Sadly, in the absence of value, we've reached for the priciest item - grades. Combined with a fear of failure, it becomes a wonderful recipe for motivation. The end result is a generation well schooled but empty in the heart and mind.
I hope to have shown that no matter which side of the sage on the stage debate wins, it is a pyrrhic victory as long as we continue to ignore the heart (literally) of the matter. As teachers, we ought to question ourselves and examine who is it that steps into the class or lecture hall - a sage or a fool? The late Howard Hendricks puts forth a simple law that serves as a litmus test at the same time: If you stop growing today, you stop teaching tomorrow. Have you grown today?
Good and bad teaching is a perennial problem. At the root is the heart and none summarises this whole debate better than Jesus:
Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.
or no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6:39-45 (ESV)
I hope readers will not brush this aside as religious dogmatism or proselytism. Whether or not one is of the faith; or views him a man or God; the issues raised and its implications still apply to teachers today. Are we sage or fool, blind or seeing, good tree or bad tree? In the end, it's not the stage but the sage that is the gauge of teaching and learning.