The ‘Sage on the Stage’ method of teaching uses direct instruction to transmit knowledge. In other words, a teacher shares his or her knowledge with the class by delivering lectures, or, in the online world, by delivering content. The learners are expected to passively absorb the information and regurgitate it at another time, usually by answering multiple choice questions.
In contrast, the ‘Guide on the Side’ facilitates discussion, collaboration, and interaction. Learners are expected to interact with the materials and each other, adding new information to prior learning to build new knowledge. A couple of years ago I was at an instructional design conference where the facilitator gave a 2 hour lecture on learning theories. At the end of the lecture, many of the participants were still in the dark about the relevance of learning theories to their work developing and designing course ware.
How would I explain the importance of learning theories to course development? Well, I’d get the audience to participate by asking questions, as in this example:
You’re going to teach someone to type. What would you do: (A) have the learners discuss the best way to tackle the problem (B) Show them a similar activity and then ask them to apply it to typing (C) Put them in front of a keyboard and give them practice activities.
A is constructivist, B is cognitivist, and C is behaviorist.
In this case, “C” seems like the right approach, doesn’t it? We learn to type through practice and repetition. Behaviorist approaches to learning look for a change in behaviour; in this case, from unskilled to expert. Think of other areas where a behaviorist approach to learning makes sense. Here’s one of mine: Skilled trades, i.e. welder. All welders must learn similar skills, methods, and procedures. Learning strategies based on behaviorism focus on promoting retention of basic facts, skills or procedures. Most IDs wouldn’t use a behaviorist strategy if they were trying to promote higher order thinking.
How about if you were teaching an advanced programming class? It’s not so much about repetition as it is about processing new information - in the light of prior learning - to create new learning. So if I know how to write a program in Java, I can build on that knowledge to create a program in a new language. My program may have different routines than yours, but we each achieve similar results. Cognitivist learning strategies are best used where you want your learners to reason, problem-solve, or process information.
In graduate school, we talked…a lot. We debated, discussed, and argued all the time. We learned from those discussions. Constructivist theories promote just this sort of collaboration and debate, because of the belief that all knowledge is constructed, collaborative, and social. It’s not independent; it’s created through our own interpretations and experiences. Constructivist theories also promote higher level thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration, but the focus is on group work and the construction of shared meanings.
This all sounds pretty straight-forward, doesn’t it? But here’s the catch: You first have to have the foundation before you can build on it. After you’ve learned the basics of your trade or profession, you can use that knowledge to build new knowledge. For adults, we do seem to learn best in a collaborative environment. We certainly like to be involved in our learning, and most of us see little value in passively waiting for the ‘Sage’ to share their knowledge with us.