The transition from teacher-directed to more student-centred approaches to learning reflects a move away from education as the “filling of empty buckets” towards seeing students as constructers of their own knowledge under the guidance of their teachers. The former approach – the “sage on the stage” – was criticised because it framed learners as passive participants in the learning process. As the focus shifted towards learners, educators were encouraged to become “guides on the side” guiding and facilitating learning.

However, as Erica McWilliam (2009) argues “the difficulty with ‘guiding’ or ‘facilitating’ is that it can become an excuse for passivity on the part of the educator after tasks have been allocated”. So, we have two broad approaches, both criticised for their passive nature. Viewing these two approaches as opposites, it seems what we are missing is the middle.

Enter the agile adaptive academic – the meddler in the middle! As meddlers, educators are neither sages nor guides. Rather, they work alongside their students in constructing knowledge (Olinger, 2018). A meddler is a much more provocative role to play. It has messier connotations – it is about throwing off one’s sandals and jumping into the sandpit. It is being able to read the “room” – both physical and virtual – and positioning oneself accordingly. Should you be naughty or nice? Your choice, but once you understand the split between provocation and encouragement, your teaching space is enriched.

Raylene Olinger reminds us that we need to be agile in our professional learning as well. From an academic development perspective, we also need to avoid falling into either the sage on the stage or guide on the side roles for the same reasons as with our students. We need to be “meddler modellers” for our colleagues; working alongside them in collegial ways to build and develop their expertise and confidence, helping them become better meddlers as well.

Claude Debussy once said, “music is the space between the notes.” It is the in-between where the magic happens. As university educators, it is time we claimed this middle ground.

Professor Steven Warburton, Executive Principal Education Futures, Division of Education Futures, at University of New England @stevenwarburton

Associate Professor Mitchell Parkes, Director Academic Development, University of New England

University of New England, a member of CAULLT (Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching)


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