Teaching and Learning

We felt their presence…

On watching a video showing three different groups of children engaging in a bridge-building activity for purposes undefined, we were encouraged to consider (among other things): is this teaching?

Whilst it would be quite possible and potentially fascinating to discuss this question for the rest of this entry, my focus was drawn to the palpable influence of a teacher upon the pupils’ activity – particularly in the case of the two groups of older students – despite the apparent absence of a teacher upon cursory viewing and looking beyond the contexts of the learning environment and the school uniform the children were wearing. The older students seemed to be motivated and engaged in the activity – working collaboratively, systematically and with a purpose. But what was the role of the teacher in all this?

It seemed to me that great deal of preparation, planning and input had gone into framing the activity we witnessed. The teacher had been hard at work behind the scenes: assessing the current level of understanding of each of the participating students; planning the resulting differentiated lesson outcomes; sourcing and providing resources; explaining the task clearly to allow for a high level of pupil autonomy; making sure the surrounding environment allowed the children to focus without distractions; offering feedback and pupil reflection on the activity afterwards and assessing the progress achieved. These examples offer just a snapshot of the work that needs to be put in by a teacher to allow opportunities for greater pupil autonomy.

For this, surely, has to be the purpose of education – to give children the chance to develop the capacity to make their own decisions and express their own views and opinions. The findings of the Cambridge Primary Review (2010) suggest that there appears to be a real difference in opinion amongst participants at the soundings between this more progressive goal of education and that of the need for adults to assume the responsibility for ‘dependent children’ in their care. But if we want youngsters to come out of the education system further down the line, ready to find their place in society, at some point in the process they need to be given some ownership of their own learning

I came across the following quote, quite by chance, as I was flicking through an educational philosophy book in a classroom: good teachers try to be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. Some further digging as to the origins of this quote led me to the work of Alison King who suggested that increasingly constructivist approaches to learning have led to a shift in emphasis the teacher’s role in the classroom from that of a “sage on the stage” – the keeper of the books who acts as a conduit of knowledge to passive listeners – to that of a “guide on the side” – who supports and facilitates learning. A more recent article by Erica McWilliam (here) argued that, if the “sage” and “guide” standpoints are viewed as being on opposite ends of a spectrum, a more suitable role of the 21st Century teacher should be that of a “meddler in the middle” – one who is positioned between, and borrows from, both strategies.

Modern teachers need to be creative and confident enough to employ a range of teaching strategies which may sometimes involve taking a step back and allowing pupils the space and time in which to apply and practise the knowledge and skills they have already acquired in an exploratory way, to have the structured freedom to be able to form their own ideas and choose their own way of doing things and learn from their achievements and mistakes in an environment that offers “low threat, high challenge” (McWilliam). Activities which challenge pupils to stretch themselves, which are exciting to partake in, which allow pupils a measure of control over their own learning and a chance to express themselves creatively offer many more opportunities for the learning to stick.

On the subject of getting learning to stick, I can recall just one activity in its entirety from my own primary school experience. We were asked by the teacher to replicate the configuration and movement of molecules in a solid, liquid and gas by respectively bunching up tightly into one small space, walking slowly around the room and running around and jumping over and off tables. This represented the entire content of the lesson. Today, with pupils having ever-increasing access to the internet, the temptation for teachers is to get pupils to look up the facts themselves. But I believe it is essential that teachers provide rich, enactive learning experiences described above and being experienced by the children we witnessed in the video stimulus.


Alexander, R., (2010) Children, their World, their Education, Routledge, p. 55

King, A., (1993) ‘From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side’, College Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 30-35

McWilliam, E. L., (2009) ‘Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler’, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(3), pp. 281-293.

McWilliam, E. L., (2012), ‘Personally Significant Learning’ blog post. Accessed via: http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/personally-significant-learning/


2 thoughts on “Teaching and Learning

  1. On reading this article, what particularly struck me was the powerful image of a teacher acting as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. For me, this draws on what effective teaching might look like. Furthermore, it goes some way to offering some sort of explanation for the types of learning and teaching observed from the videos shown in the last lecture.

    Throughout, I could identify links between some of the points you have made, with some prominent theoretical ideas within education. In particular, those favouring a social constructivist approach to learning. For example, where you have noted the benefits of ‘behind the scenes’ teaching – I feel this resonates strongly with the work of Vygotsky. Vygotsky theorised that all knowledge is socially constructed (Allen, 2014). By this he reasoned that children ground their knowledge about the world by continually exchanging ideas with each other to eventually arrive at some sort of shared understanding (Moore, 2000). I feel this approach reflects on where you have noted the older children’s ability to generate ideas, hypothesise and collaborate in problem solving as a group, without the need for a teacher instructing the lesson.

    However, have the same learning outcomes been achieved amongst the youngest children in the videos? Most likely they haven’t. The five year olds exploratory learning was naturally more egocentric, meaning that the students engaged less with each other. In one instance two of the girls stood back looking to the camera first for reassurance and then back to the other students playing, slightly confused and bedazzled by the whole experience. This links nicely with where you have mentioned that teachers need to be skilled in assessing the level of their learners. Furthermore, this supports the widely held belief that younger students need more structured and frequent guidance from their teacher to help them to develop and make progress in their learning. This is supported by literature which suggests that tasks which are too loosely guided may arouse panic or disorder, curbing children’s natural exploratory enthusiasm (Bruner., 1966, cited in Moore., 2000).

    This is not to say that younger children are not capable of thinking critically and engaging in effective team work. One example of this is my recent observation of ‘talking partners’ in the Year Two class in which my school based training is taking place. On introducing a new concept to the class, the teacher frequently invites students to turn to their talking partner and discuss and share their ideas in response to gentle guided questions. In many ways, I feel this reflects the “low threat, high challenge” learning environment that you have drawn on from the types of lecture videos. I feel strategies like this act as the groundwork for the later skills that children will develop that help them to become critical thinkers questioning the world around them and ‘ready to find their place in society’ as you have alluded to.


    Allen, M., (2014) Misconceptions in primary science. Open University Press.

    Moore, A., (2000) Teaching and Learning: Pedagogy, Curriculum and Culture. Routledge.


  2. The idea that a simple concept such as ‘talk partners’ can form the basis of a person’s growth into a ‘critical thinker’ is a very appealing one, and I am drawn to this notion as a starting point for my response here.

    Upon reading a blog entry by David Didau on ‘Why AfL might be wrong, and what to do about it’ I found a list, formed first by Dylan Wiliam in his book Embedded Formative Assessment, made up of various different methods used in the classroom to promote independent thinking and learning. Although absent of ‘talk partners’, I certainly think it belongs amongst the selection as one of the recommended ‘practical techniques for encouraging co-operative learning’. (Didau, 2014)

    Topping Wiliam’s list we see C3B4Me, an idea that I have witnessed in use in a year 5 classroom. The letter-number formation C3B4Me is a modern abbreviation for exactly what one hears when it is said aloud; “see three before me”, where the idea is that rather than using the teacher as the first port of call when stuck or confused, the child would be encouraged to use their own initiative to think of three alternative sources (a dictionary, a peer, a book etc.) that they could use for help, before heading straight to the more obvious aid of the teacher. I think this is an interesting strategy that both empowers the student to use their own creativity and motivation to assist their learning, while also retaining the power of the teacher as the final step in the equation; but only once the student has thought for themselves.

    So does it work? My experience of this method was during a literacy lesson, where students were writing a story with their targets centering the use of interesting sentence openers, complex sentences and powerful vocabulary to build up an exciting plot. Children would mainly use this system (C3B4Me) when they didn’t know where to go next in their story or couldn’t think of a way to improve something, as advised to do so previously by the teacher. The majority would head for their neighbour, who would read their work with a fresh pair of eyes and give their opinions and advice accordingly, just like I will do after writing this in order to help my understanding of what I have written. Seeking advice and critique is integral to any writer’s editing tool-belt, thus making the skill crucial to their academic and intellectual development. It was a pleasure to watch the children share each other’s work, not only because of the interaction between them, but also because of the way it made them think about the success criteria more closely by assessing their peer’s work and listening to critique of their own.

    I think there are certain aspects of teaching that highly benefit from independence, where teachers take a back seat to the children’s own creativity and motivation, however my question is this: is it a productive strategy to use throughout the entirety of one’s education?

    To revert back to Ben’s original post, which focuses primarily on the video of three different age groups of children completing the same task without adult involvement, I would agree that the older children seem to respond to the task more effectively than the younger children, but we do not exactly know what the children were instructed to do in the first place. Although they all seem to be taking part in the same activity, due to lack of communication from both the source and the children, we do not know if the youngest of the children were simply asked to make a road with the resources, with which they could then play, or if the eldest were more specifically asked to use the resources to construct a highly effective route in the form of a balanced bridge, leading across a river (represented by a blue blanket) over which vehicles and pedestrians can travel in order to get from one side to the other with minimal damage. I am, of course, differentiating the task into two vastly different ones according to what I consider to be plausible (and I would think others would assume acceptable) initial concepts for the youngest and oldest groups respectively, but who is to say that the question wasn’t posed the other way around and that the concept was lost on the youngest and ill-targeted at the oldest, forcing them both to think independently, translating it into their own skill set. Or were they actually instructed to do anything? In a situation where no adults could be involved, translations can be lost, as Didau implies:

    ‘Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. Without sufficient instruction from an expert, students will get good at doing tasks badly. And who, in their right mind wants that?’ Didau (2013)

    So does the age of the student affect the success of independent learning? When we looked at the video of Jamie, and how she was learning independently from a (controlled) group of sensory materials, we could see each as a key ingredient in her recipe of life skills: she was learning through all sensory avenues, from vision to touch.

    Doctor Maria Montessori developed a philosophy and an entire education approach that centres on the theory that a child’s most effective learning period is between 0 and 6 years. The general ethos of Montessori schools is that of freedom to choose, from the activity in which they partake, to the children with whom they interact, to the pace at which they learn. The teacher is very much the facilitator, and the pupil’s independence is the key to their own education. As someone who has not had the opportunity to observe this kind of teaching environment, it is hard to comprehend how successful a system such as this can be due to its out-of-the-ordinary approach to education, but this is simply because it is ‘different’. Minority schemes such as this are viewed as controversial to some because it’s not what society deems acceptable or ‘normal’ practice. But what do the statistics say?

    In 2005, Christopher Lopata, Nancy V. Wallace and Kristin V. Finn did a study of 543 students who had attended either a Montessori school or a mainstream school. The hypothesis was based on the theory that to receive a Montessori education was to achieve above those who hadn’t, however the results did not support this: ‘Although the Montessori approach is unique and may have benefits for both teachers and students that extend beyond academics, the potential advantages should be demonstrated empirically before assumed as a positive outcome.’ (Lopata, Wallace, Finn; 2005, p9)

    To conclude, the Montessori approach demonstrates an extreme version of classroom independence, however it is a system that has been developed over more than one hundred years and is popular practice all over the world. Despite this, it seems to be an ‘acquired taste’ and is perhaps only suitable for certain children up to a certain age. With Ofsted promoting more independent learning in mainstream classrooms and for teachers to be less vocal during lessons, are we actually heading for a more ‘Montessorian’ approach? Should we be paying more attention to alternative education systems and let children facilitate more of their own learning?

    Didau, D., (2014) ‘Why AfL might be wrong, and what to do about it’ blog post
    Sited 26/09/20

    Didau, D., (2013) ‘Independence vs. Independent Learning’ blog post
    Sited 26/09/2014

    Lopata, C., Wallace, N., Finn, K., (2005) Comparison of Academic Achievement Between Montessori and Traditional Education Programs; Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Vol 20, No. 1 [online] p9 Accessed: 28.09.2014
    Available from: http://www.pearweb.org/teaching/pdfs/Schools/Cambridge%20Montessori%20Elementary-Middle%20School/Articles/Montessori%20article.PDF


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