Guide From Inside


Dylan Barth, Associate Vice President of Learning, Online Learning Consortium

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How do you guide your students through the process of learning?

His name was Reinhart, though if I’m being completely honest, I don’t know if Reinhart was his first name or his last name. It’s just what everyone called him. Reinhart was a fishing guide who operated out of Ely, Minnesota, in the Boundary Waters that run adjacent to the Canadian border. I met Reinhart as a teenager on my first fishing trip to Ely. That year, we decided to all chip in and hire him. It turned out to be worth the extra money.

Reinhart taught us how to identify hot spots. He explained how walleye perch themselves off shallow points. He pointed to fallen pine trees near the shoreline that provided needed shade for walleye in the summer. He instructed us to backtroll at 10′ on cloudy days and 14′ on sunny days. He introduced us to the term “walleye chop.”

In short, Reinhart taught us how to fish.

To my memory, Reinhart had no special gift as a teacher. He simply did what a person whose living necessitates giving clients a good experience. He had a vested interest in our success. If our party loaded up a stringer of good eaters, or if someone caught and released a lunker, we would return to the cabin happy and brag to the resort owner. The resort owner, then, would recommend Reinhart to future customers. It’s just business.

But by guiding us from inside the boat, Reinhart revealed to us the finer points of fishing that made him so successful. We saw how he organized his Lund so that he could quickly re-bait or grab the net. We watched how he maneuvered around rocky snags and when he set the hook in earnest. He rolled live leeches on his worn jeans to dry them, making them easier to put on the hook. He could not have conveyed these small details by telling us back at the cabin. He also couldn’t have remembered to share every tool in his tackle box of experience.

In higher ed, we throw around the popular adage: “Don’t be the sage on the stage. Be a guide on the side.” I largely agree with this sentiment. It represents an important shift from a teacher-centered lecture model to a student-centered learning model. We should engage our students through active learning strategies and effective, authentic assessments. We should not just be conveyors of knowledge but builders of experience. I get this.

Yet that maxim has never connected with me. I suspect it’s because of my background in both the humanities and in education. Being a sage on the stage doesn’t make a lot of sense teaching contemporary American novels, and the evils of lengthy, uninterrupted lectures were driven into me during my pedagogical training as an undergrad, so it always seemed somewhat self-evident.

I think it’s more than that, though. Like Reinhart, we need to guide our students from inside the boat, not from the shoreline. When you’re a guide on the side, you can still be derisive about your students. You can facilitate but not participate. You can remove yourself from the experience. Students can miss out on the subtleties. So I say:

“Don’t guide from the side. Guide from inside.”

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