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The Sage on the Stage


United States Department of Energy. (1964). Richard Feynman Lecture. Retrieved from

Dr. Richard Feynman during the Special Lecture: the Motion of Planets Around the Sun

‘The Sage on the Stage’ is a well-worn trope describing the old-style lecturer delivering content from the podium, a revered actor deeming to bestow their knowledge upon grateful audience-students. It represents, we are told, everything that is the worst about education. Why, then, if this model is so terrible, do we still buy into it? We claim not to, and yet, we do, nonetheless. We pay a fortune to attend a symposium and listen to a lecture. We invite guest speakers to launches. Could it be that we value the physical human presence? Perhaps, too, we value the presence and shared knowledge of specific individuals – experts, experienced teachers, leaders – ‘sages’  in their fields – and in order to hear them effectively, to allow us all to hear, we put them upon the stage. We do so because we want to hear their voices.

So here’s the irony in so much online education: while decrying the ‘sage on the stage’, we actually perpetuate a hollowed-out form of that model, using recorded media to present the student with a static image of that performance – they can watch it as often as they like, but it never changes, it never responds.

More importantly, sage on the stage vs guide on the side is a false dichotomy, set up to dismiss the ‘old’ approach and prioritize the ‘new’; the educational theorist needs you to believe that they’re creating new knowledge, offering something different.  I wrote about this at length in the post [Twenty] First Century Pedagogy.

The flipside of the sage on the stage is the community of practice. Wenger (2015) has defined this concept but it is far from new, drawing on some very old models of community learning – the atelier, the workshop, the garden of Epicurus, the school of Athens….

We need to be cautious to critique accepted common practice, and ensure that we aren’t letting the technology drive the pedagogy. Often, modes of practice are accepted uncritically, as properties inherent in the techology; similarly, values – ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘inclusiveness’ or ‘democracy’ are applied without interrogation. Unmoderated, public platforms like Twitter have created the impression that the web ought to be a free-for-all; attempts at moderation are decried as silencing ‘free speech’, even when debates are around technical issues. In the past, good forums have been tightly moderated: threads must be topic-specific, off-topic discussions are relegated to a chat session, and obstreperous personalities are quickly placed under control. However, that model of management has given way to a laissez-faire policy, driven, I think, by the democratization of the internet – anyone, not just the educated,  can have access – that fails to consider that democratic rights come with responsibilities.

Wenger-Trayner mention the absence of leaders as one of the ‘myths’ in communities of practice; this is true of online communities of practice, too, and it’s a myth that needs to be addressed if online spaces are to thrive.


Wenger, E. (2015). Introduction to communities of practice. A brief overview of the concept and its use.

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