Three downsides of the idea of the guide on the side

So much is written these days about the role of the teacher being to “facilitate”, to be the “guide on the side”. This is justified on many grounds, not least that of the children knowing more than their teachers about educational technology. They are, after all, “digital natives”, or so we are told.

It seems to me that we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. The days when it was acceptable for a teacher to stand at the front of the class and bore the kids into submission are long gone. (I’m not saying that the practice itself is long gone – unfortunately, that is not the case – just that it is no longer an acceptable practice.) However, by stating that the only role for the teacher, or at least her most important role, is to act as the guide on the side, we are in danger of the following:

  • We ignore the fact that not all youngsters are digital natives in the sense of almost instinctively knowing how to use technology. There are far too many people citing as evidence the fact that their 6 month old son is using an ipod – self-taught. Twenty years ago my nephew was using the video recorder (we know that, because when it stopped working his parents took it to a repair shop, where they discovered a cheese roll inside it). That didn’t make him a video recording engineer. Not all youngsters know everything about technology, and what they do know is, from what I have seen, understood on a pretty superficial level. But most children are naturally curious, and will discover how to do things, one way or another, and not necessarily the most efficient way.
  • Even if the myth of the digital native turns out not to be a myth, the main role of a teacher is, surely, to teach. Anyone can stand in front of a group of people and talk, even if they have to take medication in order to steel their nerves. Anybody can act as the guide on the side as long as they have a reasonable amount of common-sense and have taken the trouble to find out what the activity and its purpose are. But teaching is a lot more than both of these extremes. It involves understanding what has not been said, asking probing questions, acting as a conductor of the orchestra that is the classroom and its inhabitants, ensuring that not only that everyone is making progress, but that each person is making the best progress they can. That takes teacher expertise, regardless of how good their technical expertise might be.
  • Perhaps even more insidiously, does not the relegation of the role of the teacher to guide on the side effectively turn them into deliverers of content rather than creators of learning experiences? Once you really believe that the role of the teacher is to be nothing more than a facilitator, you are not many steps away from fully scripted lessons. Even less than 100% scripted lessons are, one might argue, unacceptable. Take the old and now much-disparaged QCA Sample ICT Units. The idea of these was to enable non-ICT experts to deliver competent ICT lessons. As such, they were well-intentioned and, as a short-term measure, probably a good idea. The trouble is, though, once you have something like that in place it tends to take on a life of its own. My own experience of the Key Stage 3 Units of Work is that if you deviated from the prescribed lesson plan and methodology you had to be prepared to justify yourself. In fairness, I have been informed that this wasn’t uniformly the case everywhere in the country, but in a sense that isn’t even the point: once you have units of work, lesson plans and resources handed to you on a plate, you really don’t need to be an expert. In fact, you don’t even need to be a teacher. The resources are created by people who have never and may never set foot in your classroom; all you are required to do is deliver the “package”. I’m not saying the resources were not good – they were. I’m not saying they were not well-intentioned – they were. I’m not even saying they were not useful – they were, and still are. What I am saying is that we need to be careful and wary of any process which turns experts into mere mediators.

When it comes to promulgating the benefits of the “guide on the side” approach, people need to be careful: they may get what they wish for.