It’s always a bit of a shock when I hear something that contradicts a pet belief of mine.

Most of these “pets” are unwanted; unwelcome.  For example, I’ve been in therapy for almost twenty years because of the one that says, I’m REALLY not good enough for this. (“This” being anything.) I don’t want to feel like a fraud, an imposter, a failure, but I do, and apparently I cherish this belief so much that all these years later I still roll my eyes when my therapist recommends “Affirmations.”

Here’s another unwelcome but persistent belief: I am an old-style college professor, and my dependence upon lectures and top-down, instructor-led learning will make me obsolete if not downright dangerous, and sometime soon.

In 2009-2010 I took 28 credits of online post-graduate coursework in Adult and Post-Secondary Education, with an aim towards getting a Ph.D. I kept a 4.0 average that whole year.  I learned how to spell “Gramsci.”  And I read many, many journal articles written between 1995 and 2005 that told me in great detail that the adult learner was a Self-Directed Learner (SDL) who, no fooling, did not want to be told what and how to learn.  The experts were Quite Serious about this.

The “Sage on the Stage” — that is, the old-style lecturer who loved the sound of her own voice and thought that everyone ought to be Utterly Grateful for the Knowledge she was bestowing on the Unlettered — needed to be retired, replaced with the “Guide on the Side” — [n.b I wish I were making these phrases up.  To those of you who know my writing style, these probably sound like the Kinds of Things I Make Up and Capitalize, to drive home my hyperbolic points. However, these are actual phrases used in pedagogical and andragogical literature and research.  I cite “From Sages to Guides: A Professional Development Study” by  Lauren Cifuentes, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY, April 8-12, 1996.]

The Guide on the Side is a facilitator.  Her job is to promote student-centered learning experiences, encourage discussion, and develop problem-based learning activities which the students lead and perform. This is active learning, and I came to understand that what I did (and do) is passive learning, where I treat the students like so many baby birds whose beaks are wide open and eyes wide shut and whom I never expect to question the Knowledge I am apportioning.  I was taught that just as I already knew a great deal about myself, my learning style, and what I needed to know, so did my students, and they were no more pleased to be ordered about in an authoritarian manner than I would be.

Handed this weapon with which I could cudgel myself, I have spent the last three or four years painstakingly rebuilding my syllabus and activities.  Each time I looked at the course objectives and compared them to my list of assignments and classroom  plans, I had fresh evidence that I was too utterly dependent on lecture, on structure, on reading texts, on open-book essay exams.  I was a Sage on the Stage, all right: I know, after all, what Browning meant and they didn’t and apparently the only Learning Activity I could devise to help them reach the objective “Read Critically and use warrants to support and/or illustrate analysis of a text” was to make them read the text and then ask them questions about it, wait for them to form halting responses, and then pounce all over them with “better” answers which three or four of them would nod at, one or two would write down, and the rest would shrug off.

I decided that I am a really lousy professor.

I wanted to change that, and I started in Philosophy 101.  I found “thought experiments” in a book called “What If?” which are designed to get the students thinking, challenging, presenting their own responses rather than waiting for mine.  I think they’re great.  The students possibly think they don’t suck.

In my British Literature class I am using a technique I have tried before in small lit courses — I get each student to “present” a poet or poem, in a seminar style.  I came in early two days this past week, to pull the tables and chairs around into something sort of resembling a roundtable, conference setup.  I posted myself at the edge of one of the tables and they slowly, slowly, gathered around.  After an agonizing thirty-second pause before somebody volunteered to go first, six students in turn told their classmates about a poet we hadn’t yet covered in class, and were able to give their understanding of what they read; to direct the lesson; to share what was important to them.  It’s a fairly basic application of authentic, student-directed learning, and if the theorists are right, my students have been starving for it.  Finally, the Sage was going to shut up, step off the stage, and let them lead.

An hour into the second session of this seminar project, I asked them point-blank how it was working. One of them said, “You have no idea how happy and relieved we are when you start talking again.”

That’s possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

Gerald O. Grow has explained that SDL is not a true-false condition.[1]  Learners are on a continuum; some fairly well along the road to fully self-directed learning, others only dipping their toes.  Just being an adult, just being in college, does not mean that they’re ready.  We finished up the seminar session with a really nice, student-led discussion in which they made their learning preferences very clear, the way the theorists all told me they were going to. They told me that online classes make them feel insecure because they miss the wisdom of the expert, right there and available.  They pointed out that if they knew what they needed to know, they wouldn’t be paying anybody any money and they’d just be reading books. They debated the merits of an adult SDL program any earlier than at least junior or senior year and maybe even not until graduate programs. And then we put the chairs back the way they belonged.


Once upon a time the desks were too massive to be moved.  I’m glad we don’t have those.  I’m glad my tables have wheels.

[1] Grow, Gerald O. “Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed.” Adult Education Quarterly. 41:3 (1991) 125-149.