I’ve just finished reading the paper From Sage to Guide to Meddler by Erica McWilliam. Here’s the gist: there’s a third option in the typical Sage on the Stage vs Guide on the Side dichotomy — the Meddler in the Middle!
Don’t Save Students from Struggle
Here a juicy quote from Dr. McWilliam:
The Meddler-in-the Middle does not rush to save students from the struggle that higher order thinking involves, by giving them either the answer or the template for finding it.
This reminds me of Dan Meyer’s calls to be less helpful. Students need to experience productive struggle. And they need to experience it early.
The Grey of Unresolvedness
[Meddlers-in-the Middle] allow their students to experience the risks and confusion of authentic learning by allowing their students to stay in the grey of unresolvedness, supporting any and all attempts on the part of their students to experiment with possibilities in ways that put their ignorance to work.
So much worth pulling out! “The grey of unresolvedness”! Some students have never had the pleasure of sitting in their own confusion for a bit. They may hate the feeling when it does happen later in their schooling. I’ve written about how I didn’t have to deal with complexity until college – and by then I had no idea what to do with it.
High Achievers May Not Be The Best Learners
Moreover, [meddlers-in-the-middle] do not presume that the highest achievers in the class are the best learners. Indeed, they anticipate that many of the students who are on the margins of the school culture may have more to offer in terms of creative effort.
At the peak of my “high achiever” phase, I was definitely a terrible learner. I didn’t take any risks because I didn’t want to do something wrong and break my streak of straight As. I could not learn because of my focus on grades and scores.
Paying attention to the value of students “on the margins of school culture” resonates deeply with me. Five or so former students pop immediately to mind. They truly did have so much to offer, despite never being top performers on any test. Let them explore ambiguity and complexity and they’d outshine the straight A students. They were fearless about learning.
Meddlers From Fiction
Hat tip to Brian Housand for introducing me to the term “Meddler in the Middle” which led me to discover this paper. Together we made a list of fictional teachers and mentors who stand out as Meddlers.
- Mr. Miyagi
- Mary Poppins
- Ms. Frizzle
- Willy Wonka
- John Keating (from Dead Poets Society)
All of these mentors confound and frustrate their students to some degree. They don’t make it easy. You’ll note that there is a common expression that their students make:
At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Glinda straight up explains productive struggle to The Scarecrow:
Glinda : You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.
Dorothy : I have?
The Scarecrow : Then why didn’t you tell her before?
Glinda : Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
Now, quit reading this and dig into Erica’s actual paper! There’s so much great stuff about the relative unimportance of technology, the need for all students to become confident with creativity, and three ways to approach a study of Macbeth.
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