Lessons from the world of sports: #4 The rule of expert guidance

Here is the fourth part of this mini-series, in which I consider lessons we might learn from sports and sports personalities which we can apply to educational ICT. Today I’d like to consider the role of the sports coach, and to start with I’ll quote from a conversation that has never taken place, and probably will never take place.

Interviewer to coach: So what was your role in helping X gain 3 Olympic gold medals?

Coach: Well, the way I look at it is is that kids today are what I call sporting natives. My daughter started to crawl as soon as she was a few weeks old, she didn’t need to be taught. Kids in school spend all their time sitting at a desk, but outside school they walk and run everywhere all the time. Kids know how to be active, so my role was to be a guide on the side, asking them appropriate questions and so on, and letting them decide what they wanted to learn and how to learn it.

Sage on the stage or Guide on the side? Photo by Sarina Brady http://www.flickr.com/photos/sbeez/Well, I don’t want to labour the point, except to ask a  question: if it is generally acknowledged that people need expert help and guidance when it comes to something as natural as running, say, why would we think they would not need expert help and guidance in any other area of education – including ICT?

In my opinion, the role of the teacher is to do whatever is necessary to help the student learn. Sometimes that will involve being the ‘guide on the side’, but sometimes it will involve being the ‘sage on the stage’. The teacher’s expertise lies in being able to decide which is the more appropriate approach in a particular circumstance. I think favouring one stance almost exclusively over the other is bound to be wrong in terms of securing the best learning and achievement.

I also think that this dichotomy is  a matter of degree rather than absolutes. It would be appalling if a teacher in ‘sage on the stage’ mode simply stood up and lectured to the class. That would be an example of the old definition of teaching: a process by which the notes of the teacher are transferred to the notebooks of the student without passing through the head of either party.

On the other hand, a teacher in ‘guide on the side’ mode whose repertoire consists of little more than the question, “Well, what do you think you should do” is appalling too. I once attended a course, in Visual Basic for Applications, where the “teacher” imparted almost no expert knowledge at all, and I’ve attended courses where I’ve been lectured at for several hours. Neither extreme is ideal, and when it comes to something like ICT there needs to be a mixture of a whole range of approaches on the ‘sage-guide’ spectrum: instruction, plus providing  opportunities for experimentation, discussion with other students, consulting expert sources such the internet and manuals, and asking the teacher  – changing from one minute to the next, and from student to student, if necessary.

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