How do you change from being a sage-on-stage to a guide-on-the side?

Are you keen on making sure you treat adult learners… well, like adults? Are you good at it in face-to-face workshops but somehow you find this more challenging online and it shows in your participation rates?

You’re not alone. I’ve seen some of the most humble, kind and warm people struggle with this. I have observed how people who use great participatory approaches in face-to-face workshops suddenly turn into know-it-all experts online, even if they really don’t intend to. The magic is gone. Participants disengage. The facilitator is unhappy because “online facilitation isn’t for them”.

The ‘sage-on-stage’ versus ‘guide-on-the-side’ is a useful concept to look at what is going on there. A ‘sage on stage’ is an instructor who lectures almost exclusively, who has the philosophy that s/he has knowledge to ‘give’ learners who would benefit from this.  On the other hand, a ‘guide on the side’ is a facilitator who helps learners discover knowledge and steer them in ways that would help them.

A ‘sage-on-stage’ approach is fine for compliance training – there is no need for dialogue anyway. There are right and wrong answers, so ‘instruction’ is quite appropriate. However, the majority of our training (and I’m talking across sectors now) require critical thinking, integration of the learners’ experiences, and problem-solving. There are often no right and wrong answers and the information isn’t static. Knowledge depends on context. This is where applying adult learning principles is essential and the ‘guide-on-the-side’ approach is a critical part of this.

How do we do this?

Watch your online tone

Unless your programme is made up of webinars only, it is likely that most of the communication is written.  Why is it that so many online facilitators write with a formal and ‘teachery’ voice? Unlike face-to-face workshops, tone really is an issue in many online courses. Yet, it’s one of the main reasons why people feel alienated and hence disengage.

Here’s a trick that has helped a lot of online facilitators avoid the ‘teachery’ tone that seems to find a way to sneak into our online support messages, despite our best efforts.

Imagine one of your participants in your eWorkshop is your boss, or a colleague. Now read your message again. Is this how you would support them? Is this the tone you would use? I’m sure it wouldn’t be formal and it would certainly not be ‘teachery’. I find this a very helpful ‘hat’ – much more helpful than the typical ‘trainers’ hat.

Write the way you would talk in such situations – “talk through your keyboard” and “write for the ear”. Get rid of jargon and write clear short sentences that are friendly and warm.

Listen to and care for your learners

In online workshops where most of the interactions happen in forums, ‘listening’ means ‘reading’. You read people’s contributions and ideas, their experiences and stories. You also read between the lines. You might join the conversation – or decide to step back. Teams might be in the middle of solving one of the problem tasks, so perhaps you don’t want to interrupt. You keep ‘listening’ in though – and step in when teams ‘wallow in the shallows’. You might want to add something in the plenary forum while teams are working – a few tips, a few observations, or a motivational message.

Good e-facilitators have a very visible helping hand and have a high ‘presence’. The on-the-side in ‘guide-on-the-side’ doesn’t mean hands-off – that’s a very common mis-conception. You need to genuinely care for your learners and that needs to be obvious in everything you do.

This also means that you reach out to the people who are suddenly silent – with a personal message asking if all is well and how you can help. A teachery message, a reminder, or anything else that takes us back to our school days is inappropriate in an adult learning environment. If you wouldn’t sent that message to your boss or your colleague, then don’t send it.

Listening to and caring for your group of learners should be evident in the way you provide feedback. There is a technique called ‘weaving’ that does exactly that. If you provide a ‘model answer’, you’re clearly back into the ‘sage-on-stage’ mode. That doesn’t mean you can’t use your carefully drafted answer – it’s a matter of how you weave this into people’s contributions. You’re an expert in the subject after all and participants want to hear you. However, your guiding role means that you adjust how you present that expertise. Use your boss again if you’re not sure: in situations where you’re the expert and you have to explain something to your boss, how do you do this?

Let’s also not confuse listening with tracking. People need to feel safe and the sector’s obsession with data and hundreds of tools to find out exactly what your learners are doing when is creating an environment in which no-one wants to learn.

The words you use matter

‘Sage-on-stage’ words include teaching, instructor, tutor, student, assignment, assessment, grades, and more. If you’re still using these terms in an adult learning environment, it might be time to re-think. Words continuously remind us what we all care about and what we believe in. This past blog post might help with the necessary mind shift: 5 words to avoid in e-learning for professional development.

Content isn’t king

A lot of online courses are ‘sage-on-stage’ by design. Learners typically work through a set content package first and are then invited to comment, ask questions and reflect. That’s a challenging environment if you’re a ‘guide-on-the-side’ facilitator.

Make sure your online course or workshop is designed to support a ‘guide-on-the side’ approach. This means that we design authentic activities first and in-build plenty of learner support around these.

Unless you’re designing compliance training, content should never be at the centre of your design. Content has a support role. Content needs to be fed ‘just-in-time’ into the learning process to support the learners when they solve the problems and reflect on these.

Let’s always remember that knowledge is created, not communicated. The ‘guide-on-the-side’ facilitator helps with this creation process.

How can we develop e-learning that respects adult learning principles?
Knowledge is created, not communicated


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