Curriculum Opinion

Neither Guide on the Side nor Sage on the Stage

By Deborah Meier — February 28, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I don’t want to argue about the word “constructivism” because words can, I agree, be slippery. But I urge you not to parody that viewpoint. There are few—if any—schools (in the public sector at least) where teachers are just “guides on the side.” Never were! I’ve seen hapless teachers. But not purposely. I also think that you have misread Dewey’s “The Way Out of Educational Confusion”. Or should I say “differently read”? (joke) I think he meant it in the same way as Ted Sizer did in describing a mindless Honor’s English course vs. a rigorous Shop class! In reality, few children in our science classes are learning the principles of science. The name of the course is not what interests either of us.

Neither guide on the side nor sage on the stage—let that be our bridging motto.

Two visual images have been most helpful to me. One comes from my colleague Ted Chittenden (retired researcher at ETS—the testing people) and the other from David Hawkins (the late physicist at the U of Colorado). I wish I had the technical skill to represent their diagrams visually right here.

Chittenden’s: Picture two axes crossing. One pointing east and the other north. Imagine the one pointing east is called “teacher initiative” and the one pointing north is “student initiative”. That produces four quadrants. In the high teacher/low student quadrant, he placed what we think of as traditional classrooms—with the teacher pouring forth knowledge to a fairly passive audience. In the low teacher/high student quadrant, he placed the much ballyhooed—and rarely practiced—“free school” Summerhill’ian model. In the low teacher and student quadrant, he put what once was called “mastery learning”, also “individualized instruction”, otherwise also known as “scripted learning”. Neither teacher nor student were in a position to take much initiative. Naturally, my favorite quadrant was the one in the far opposite corner in which both student and teacher were major actors, engaged in a balancing act that needed to be carefully constructed and structured, teacher by teacher and class by class (with help).

David Hawkins’: Imagine a triangle. In one corner is the teacher, in another the student, and in the third was X, the object/course being studied. The relationship between teacher and student was formed in the process of “uncovering” the meaning or nature of X—the object of study. It was, I immediately recognized, a diagram that my parents had described as Talmudic study! It worked best if the X was of genuine interest to the teacher—something he felt was revealing, useful, and particularly so for the students he was teaching. But also for himself. While they were not equals in terms of knowledge or wisdom, the best lessons were those in which they were equally interested in hearing about the X and from each other. The course of study was an open road depending on how they heard each other. They might, over the course of time, discover that they agreed about baseball or Mozart—or disagreed. But the burning question was how they understood the X before them. (Keep in mind, I like this best in the context of a community of teachers and learners.)

If you read Eleanor Duckworth’s “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”—which we used as our text when we started Mission Hill—you’ll get the flavor of how this affected the relationships between the Mission Hill staff—who were after all, also of very different levels of knowledge, experience, and expertise.

These two diagrams changed my way of thinking about the difference between teaching and learning—the latter being my burning passion. It also, oddly enough, changed forever my way of thinking about politics. “Campaigning” on behalf of certain ideas and policies is a process of trying to connect with an audience—finding the bridges between their experiences and yours. In the process you hope to “convert” them to your politics, but lo and behold, they also make you reexamine your own. But it’s hard work.

The constraints you describe seem unnecessary. Worse. In fact, it is precisely the degree to which we have always had a traditional curriculum in real-life that explains our fascination with Oprah Winfrey and Marilyn Monroe. In large part, our differences are now, and always have been, over the “what is” happening in the world of schooling not “what should.”

I believe we’ve rarely encountered in our classrooms—above all those in which the least advantaged sit—teachers who exude the authenticity, curiosity, and authority that makes Oprah so fascinating to them. And surely you can’t blame Progressive Education for the age-old fascination with fame and beauty.

More seriously: The measure of my success as a teacher is not in what I taught them, but “what they picked up on their own” afterwards that wasn’t accessible or valued before. If teachers doubt the possibility of influencing the “afterwards”, Diane, I don’t know how they can stick to it. Of course, you need to be careful of what you wish for.

What the young teacher from KIPP told me last week rings in my ears—how his practices changed when he discovered what happened to his KIPP 8th graders when they went to high school. I may have my quarrels with KIPP, but I have no quarrels with his priorities. I’m intrigued, as he is, by the way schools impact on our way of thinking, writing, speaking, tackling novel dilemmas, treating others, responding to truth claims (like the ones our mutual friend Mayor Bloomberg likes to make about NYC’s schools).

Finally, getting into the mind of the foundation leaders is beyond me. Small schools are still high on my agenda, although I worry more about the trade-offs necessitated by our rush to mandate smallness. Possibly they just see it as easier to do than changing what really goes on in that Triangle that Hawkins described. I’m fearful that the “curriculum reformers” are making a similar mistake.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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