The return of the sage

re: 25 years of Ed Tech by Weller

    The sage is dead. We live in a world where modern science is advanced by many, we no longer see individual scientists rise to the fame of Einstein or Darwin. Thus the shift in the role of the educator from “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side” seems natural. It might work in some or even most fields, yet it feels wrong when it comes to teaching personality psychology. The main reason is that psychology is not an exact science. There are behaviours, but they are open to interpretation. There are categories, but they are fuzzy. The only way to understand theory is to apply it in social interactions, make many mistakes, analyze your mistakes and repeat this process until you start making so few mistakes that you become a sage. Most people don’t like to make mistakes. Most people don’t like to admit they made a mistake. It is easier to accept constructive criticism if it comes from someone significantly above you in a hierarchy of competency, rather than below or at the same level. It takes a sage to make other sages. Constructivism in psychology, without the presence of a sage, often makes things worse because learners construct their own interpretations of an already fuzzy science. Consider a seemingly simple task of determining whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert. There is an extensive theory that can be used to teach someone to relatively easily detect extreme cases, but no theory can help differentiate an inborn introvert displaying a learned preference for extroverted behaviours from an inborn extrovert displaying a learned preference for introverted behaviours. There is no blood test for it. There is no 100% (or even 75%) accurate psychological test for it. It takes a sage to see that difference because they’ve seen this pattern in thousands of variations and developed a very nuanced wisdom that cannot be shared and absorbed through language only. It can only be acquired through practice. Sages make mistakes too, therefore worshiping them on the stage no longer makes sense, but they can still play an important role on the side. Replacing them with a guide is a disservice to learners.


4 thoughts on “The return of the sage

  1. I too was taken by the comment “Sage on the stage/Guide on the side”. I can see both sides and how each can be relevant, given the audience and material being presented. I’ve worked in Engineering education for close to 15 years and I have seen my fair share or good/bad sages and guides. In fact the best educators in this field, are the ones I would suggest start off on the lectern at the start, but step aside and provide the material and direction one would need to construct their own path to discovery. Perhaps this is something for the applied sciences that can work well? All the talk of Sages, got me thinking about Dumbledore and Harry Potter’s relationship; was he more the sage or simply the guide, allowing him to learn as progressed through his own education?

  2. Thank you for these thoughts, Denys. It sounds like a number of topics in this early reading are speaking to you, but I think you are honing in on the chapter on constructivism. Can you tell us more about this statement: “Constructivism in psychology, without the presence of a sage, often makes things worse because learners construct their own interpretations of an already fuzzy science” ? Specifically, I would like to see you unpack this a little bit more, and I have the following questions to help guide this process:
    – In your opinion, is this statement always true?
    – Is it equally true for grade 3 as it is for grade 12 as it is for someone in the MA degree?
    – Is the qualifier “without a presence of a sage” the most important part of the sentence here?

  3. I also wrestle with the sage vs. guide concepts. Personally, I think the terms are too loaded and that makes them difficult for me to stomach. If we replace “sage” with “someone who has experience and authority within a subject area” does it still sound like a bad thing? I think placing anyone on a pedestal is a dangerous idea (never meet your heroes), but could we find a balance between setting authorities up as idols and keeping them on the side as an aid for when we feel we aren’t able to figure things out for ourselves?

    What do you think? Should we be attempting to find a balance between sage and guide, or is that even necessary?

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