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How much should educators show off? The question of mastery

Image from Nathan Russell (Flickr)

Image from Nathan Russell (Flickr)

For me, a doctor’s appointment is usually focused on, well, me. I write down a list of symptoms or issues to discuss with the physician and once we have “covered” everything, we say our goodbyes and continue on with our respective days. Recently, though, I had an appointment with a specialist that completely shifted my focus. The specialist informed me that a resident would sit in during our appointment as part of her training. As the older physician went through the exam, he asked the resident questions such as “What do we call this?” and “What does this do?” There were several questions to which she did not know or recall the correct responses, and the older physician calmly explained the answers in detail, with examples. I left the appointment truly appreciating the breadth and depth of the experienced physician’s knowledge, confident in the quality of the medical care that I had received.

As I found myself telling and retelling the story of my appointment with the superstar doctor, I began to wonder just why this particular appointment had such an impact on me. Though the specialist provided some relief for my medical problem through joint manipulation, I left the office far from cured and would need several follow-up treatments and eventually surgery. I realized that it was not the treatment at that particular appointment that had left the impression, but rather the demonstration of his mastery of medicine. The explicit demonstration of his knowledge fostered a sort of innate confidence in his abilities.

Flaunt it?

This realization brought to mind a conversation that I had recently had with a colleague on the concept of mastery in teaching. Merriam Webster defines mastery as the “possession or display of great skill or technique,” and it is, by definition, a foundation of fruitful instruction. Indeed, some of the highest praise that students have given me over the years on evaluations relates to my knowledge in the subject matter of a particular course. My colleague had very similar experiences: Even when not directly related to a class or topic, students responded very positively when they witnessed the depth and breadth of his knowledge. Just as the physician’s mastery of his subject matter had instilled confidence in me, evidence of an instructor’s expertise can enhance the perceived value of his or her course. Considering the cost of higher education, it is not surprising that students may wish to see the full scope of an instructor’s skills and gain confidence in their investment (I’ll skip the tie-in here with health care costs).

The conversation with my colleague would have been brief had we not broached a subject that serves as one of the fundamental truths of our profession: Mastery of a subject matter is not synonymous with effective instruction. In fact, just about everyone I know has an anecdote about a professor that was a “brilliant scholar” but a “terrible teacher.” Mastery of one’s subject matter is a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful instruction, and though students may like to be wowed, they need to actually learn the material as well.


Displays of mastery are often at odds with learner agency (i.e. actively taking part in the learning process). In my courses I am entrusted with creating the optimal conditions for students to develop a certain skill. Especially in introductory courses, I strive to meet students where they are at in their development, providing a balance of both support and information in order to give learners the appropriate degree of agency in their learning. Fogel (1993) provided an eloquent metaphor for this balancing act in his example of a mother who, upon seeing that her infant child is almost ready to sit up on her own, chooses between two options: to either (1) proactively sit the child up or to (2) outstretch her arms as a prop for the child to pull herself up. “The infant cannot sit up on her own so, in the first case, the mother makes this the focal point of her own action. In the second case, the mother instead integrates the infant’s behavior with her own mature capacity for bodily action. She collaboratively engages the infant in sitting-up action, instilling some sense of successful agency in her.” (Lantolf, p. 29, Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition).

A mother who outstretches her arms creates a sense of agency in the infant, just like the experienced physician had asked thoughtful, leading questions in order to give the resident more agency in her instructional process. Fomenting learner agency in this way is widely accepted as a best practice in education and is one of the main objectives of pedagogical techniques such as task-based learning and many “flipped” classroom models.

“Guide on the side” or benchwarmer?

The issue with the act of promoting agency, however, is that it is not always immediately impressive. There is nothing especially laudable about the mother’s act of helping her child up; the movements required are in fact quite unremarkable for a healthy adult woman. Indeed, the great majority of classroom activities that I guide students through do not regularly showcase the extent of my abilities and knowledge, especially in introductory classes. A familiar comparison and refrain used in teacher training encourages educators to be the “guide on the side,” (the facilitator) and cautions against embodying the persona of the “sage on the stage” (the showoff).

However, this image of a professor as the soft-spoken sherpa that diligently leads learners up the proverbial mountain of a survey course represents an expectancy violation for many students, contrasting sharply with the societally enmeshed idea of the intellectual before the podium, bestowing his or her knowledge upon wide-eyed undergraduates. Though many institutions have implemented the agency-promoting technique of “flipping” (students watching videotaped lectures outside of class and completing application problems with their professor), reports of persistent negative feedback on student course evaluations even at elite universities such as Harvard highlight the struggle between these two approaches to teaching. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted this tension by quoting the course evaluation of a Mississippi State aeronautics engineering student who had disdainfully commented “If I am paying for a class and a professor to teach me, then I do not want to teach myself for homework and have homework for class.” Even though a formidable amount of research supports heightened learner agency for greatly improved learning and retention, many students still seem to dislike their “guide on the side.”

My solution, for now

I myself understand the importance of engendering learner agency and the research supporting it, and I strive to promote active learning in my own courses. There remains, however, a part of me that sympathizes with the engineering student quoted above. It is what drove me to tell and retell the story of the wise physician whose knowledge was placed on display. I believed in his abilities to treat me because – even though only briefly – I witnessed his mastery of his subject matter.

So I arrive at the crux of the situation: my desire for students to trust in my guidance as I trusted in that of the physician, but to also actively learn, like the resident whom he was teaching. (She was noticeably less awed than I was, which was understandable since she was at an advanced stage of training and the gap between her knowledge and that of her mentor was much less expansive.) Educators perform this dance between mastery and agency on a daily basis, at times with the need for some fancy footwork.

Recently I have modified a few aspects of my introductory courses to “show off” in ways that are still inclusive. Once or twice a week I will use the first few minutes of class to share a scholarly article, news report, or research study that I am currently reading and explain how it relates to the field. Occasionally, a few interested students stay after class to further discuss these topics and to inquire about research at our university. I have also replaced some of the stock video lectures from the textbook publisher with my own, recorded with the Educreations app. A few months ago, a colleague who was observing my class encouraged me to allow a few more tangential discussions when they allowed me to share more information in areas that I had studied or researched extensively, and I took his advice.

These efforts have been well received by students, and they seem to be more open to accepting my role as their guide. I am, however, admittedly far from perfecting the balancing act between agency and mastery, and I will continue in my efforts to become a sagely sherpa.

How do you address mastery and agency in your classroom? Are you a “sage on the stage” or a “guide on the side”? Let us know in the comments!

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© HigherEdgy, 2014. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to  http://www.higheredgy.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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