Let’s Put the Sage Back on the Stage

When I first started teaching first year writing classes, I scheduled in 2-3 days before every essay due date so students could engage in “peer review.” I developed check lists, rubrics, and hints that helped them read their colleagues’ papers with an eye toward offering constructive, global feedback. The concept sounds good and, in many ways, should prepare students for their post-college working world where they will engage in team-work, collaborate, and develop ideas with other people. One of our goals, I would tell them, is to learn how to give (and take) constructive criticism with an eye toward improving our writing.

In theory, peer review also helps students recognize effective communication, providing models they can apply to their own writing. “Oh,” we want them to say while reading their neighbor’s essay, “that’s how you construct an argument effectively.” In many ways, peer review is predicated on the concept that students will willingly, intelligently, and capably take an active approach to their writing and education. As a teacher, I’m not the sage on the stage but a classroom manager offering guidance as the eager young minds tackle the difficult task before them.

I’m sure there is an alternative universe where such students exist, and I can put them in groups while they lead themselves into the intellectual promised land.

In practice, when we peer review we spend two days with, in many cases, the blind leading the blind. The best writers are appalled at their classmates’ lack of writing skills, the worst writers are embarrassed (or not as the case may be) at their illiteracy, and the vast majority of average writers in any class are simply confused because they all made an A in their high school English class but have absolutely no idea why. They can read an essay, tell me it makes no sense, but also be at a total loss how to improve the writing. “If I knew how to fix it,” a student once told me, “I wouldn’t be in this class.”

Don’t get me wrong. Any one who has spent time in the classroom has had those dedicated, active, autodidactic students who embrace learning. They read, they prepare, they engage the material beyond just the surface–these are the students we push toward graduate school and praise in front of our colleagues in the hallway. We yearn for a classroom full of such young scholars, and we develop pedagogical theories that reward such students, all the while dreaming everyone else in the classroom will follow in their wake. At our best, we want to teach students how to learn not just lecture them about what to learn.

Unfortunately, as Annie Murphy Paul writes in her Slate article “Bill Gates is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not,”  self-directed learning is an urban legend in education. Murphy Paul’s article focuses on the ed-tech movement, but we should feel pretty comfortable extending her argument to education in general.

Teachers and classrooms, she notes, aren’t simply encumbrances for most of us. We need the guidance of experts to show us both how and what we need to learn if we plan on mastering any subject. In essence, we need that sage on the stage a little more than we need the peer in our ear.

Certainly, I recognize that we can balance the approach and using peer to peer learning might be effective in some classes and with some skills, but I also think we have done ourselves a disservice when we forget that our students, especially at the collegiate level, enter our classrooms as relative novices whose thoughts and intellectual abilities are far less developed than we might think. If we accept that writing is a process of organizing and articulating our ideas and thoughts, then surely we must also recognize that the person most capable of helping a student is not the mass of hormonal and ideological confusion sitting next to him.

After all, if their peers can teach them everything they need to know about writing, what do they need us for?

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Scott Adams' Blog

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The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

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