The Tale of the Three Teachers

This is a tale of people, teachers by trade, who were gathered at a round table. They were sharing stories of three educators that we could all learn from. That’s not quite true.

Because it was September 2021, and in Australia nobody was gathering anywhere as most people were in lockdown. The story sharing took place virtually, and from what we could see - most of the desks were rectangular, but the principle was the same.

We held a roundtable discussion, hosted by our own Greg O’Connor. He was joined by 4 pillars of Catholic Education in Australia. During the discussion they talked about three types of educators. Let’s call them the three wise teachers and get to know them a little better. Our panel referenced the work of Erica McWilliams - Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler.

The Sage on the Stage

When most of us went to school the format was pretty much the same, the teacher stood at the front of the classroom. They talked and we listened. The teacher was the sage on the stage.

This method of teaching assumes that students’ brains are like empty buckets, and the teacher just has to pour in the information - job done!

The students have a very passive role, the educating is being done to them, rather than with them.

However, this is not realistic, we live in flexible times. We need to be able to think for ourselves, produce and interpret knowledge rather than just reproduce it. The buckets contain information, not knowledge and the difference is very important.

The Guide on the Side

When students have the opportunity to take the information and reconstruct it in personally meaningful ways, they are far more likely to remember it. They will also have the agility of thinking needed to take this learning and apply it to different situations. This is real knowledge. Students are thinking for themselves, and are at the centre of the learning process.

In this scenario the teacher is the guide who is there to support and guide the students as they learn.

The teacher still needs to provide the information, but they do this in a different way, making the students interact with the learning and do something with it. This is active learning in action.

Change is never easy, to move to this way of teaching is a big shift. The teacher is no longer the one doing most of the talking, they become a facilitator, asking questions and drawing ideas out of the class.

How can we promote active learning?

  1. Coming up with examples  - Students think of a new example of the idea.
  2. Think - pair- share - Students are given some time to think about a question, and then share their ideas with their partner. This can be done virtually too, in a shared presentation where each person contributes their ideas.
  3. Scenarios - the class is asked to think about other scenarios where they could use the information. 
  4. Concept mapping - students draw out their ideas in a graphic form. This can be done online using a simple Google doc with heaps of shapes, bubbles and arrows to choose from. Or why not ask students to record a quick video or voice note to explain their ideas?
  5. Flow charts - once a teacher has taught the class a process, a flow chart is a great way for students to show that they understand the steps needed. 
  6. What happens next?  - once presented with a scenario the class is asked to guess what happens next. Write it down or share it verbally, this ensures the class needs to think on its feet. 
  7. Data debate - arguments are presented to the class and then students pair up to argue for and against. 
  8. Take time for tables - once a topic is finished students design or draw a table to show their understanding. This can be done with little text, so for those who don’t enjoy writing it can be a comfortable way to show knowledge in action.
  9. Possible problems - the class has to think of real world situations regarding a concept. Then swap problems with a classmate to think of a solution and discuss. 
  10. Pair summarising - Give the class a few minutes to summarise the learning, then they share this with a partner who checks for errors or gaps in knowledge.

The Meddler in the Middle

Erica McWilliams says “The Meddler-in-the Middle does not rush to save students from the struggle that higher order thinking involves, by giving them either the answer or the template for finding it” - so we’re asking teachers to be less helpful?

Kind of, it means that sitting with confusion for a short time gives the opportunity to be creative and inventive. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Think of how satisfied you are with yourself when you figure something out, you have that eureka moment. We’re suggesting kids could use a bit of that too.

A meddler in the middle acknowledges that the class doesn’t have the answer and then takes the confusion and uses it.

This can be a great leveller for a class too, and can bring in learners from the margins of the class. Some students shine through ambiguity.

As Erica Williams says “If teachers can understand the value of being “usefully ignorant” about learning options and possibilities, at the same time as they are expert in their disciplinary field and their pedagogical practice, who are active and inventive in the classroom, who challenge and support, who do not make things too easy, and who are not the only source of authority, who use processes of discovery, critique, argument and counter-argument effectively, who enjoy learning themselves and who do not rush to rescue their students from complexity—such teachers will contribute immeasurably to the creative capacity of their students now and in the future.”

Sages, Guides and Meddlers are part of the educational mix, found in every school across the globe. The question is, which one do you want to be?

If you would like to listen to the full roundtable discussion - you can listen on demand whenever you like. Just click on the link to check it out.