The Everyday Metaphors of Teaching: ‘Guide on the Side’

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In my last post, building on Maxwell’s (2015) work, I outlined the inevitability of metaphor in our discourse as teachers and how understanding this in our profession can help us shed light on what our metaphors exaggerate but also hide. I posed two questions:

With what metaphors in mind are we to teach?

What evidence are we to base our metaphors for teaching on?

In this post I will outline a problematic metaphor to lay the groundwork for proposing a new metaphor for teachers working in disadvantaged contexts or working with pupils in poverty.

A bad metaphor: ‘Guides on the Side’

The metaphor that came to mind most prominently, when thinking about my past two years of teaching was as a teachers I must think of myself as a ‘Guide on the Side’. A clear memory I have that illustrates this was from my PGCE year. When receiving feedback for a science lesson observation from my tutor, he suggested that I consider myself to be more of a ‘guide’, ‘stewarding’ children towards the learning, rather than a ‘chalk and talk’ teacher. In the lesson he said that there was too much modelling and I focussed too much on the input and instruction, rather than the activity. ‘I need to stand back,’ I thought, ‘not intervene after input; let children figure out as much by themselves as they can’ – these were the ideas that stuck with me and I wrote them in my reflection notes after the lesson.

Increasingly, I believe this metaphor, which I began to let guide my professional judgment, to be deeply flawed. As a teacher, particularly in the primary phase, is it really wise to let young minds ‘discover’ the knowledge they need? Will that ever even happen? Most children, particularly those who are from disadvantaged contexts or need extra support, don’t get much from lessons like this at all. This is due to a range of reasons that can’t be discussed here. However, if I am right, letting our professional discourse be shaped by a metaphor that merely guides some pupils towards learning, while others perennially struggle, then it is a troubling way to think about our craft.

This is echoed from research summarised by Rosenshine (2012) about principles of instruction. He makes two evidence based claims about teaching that are hidden by the metaphor of ‘guide on the side’. They are:

  1. Teachers should allow for more time to give clear and detailed instructions and explanations to their students.
  2. Teachers must guide students closely when they begin to practice.

The use of the word ‘guide’ here has a very different meanings to the one in the metaphor in question. What guide implies here, according to Rosenshine, is that teachers help their students and closely monitor the first steps of practice once new information has been received, ensuring that misconceptions don’t occur early on in the development of new knowledge. This is very different to the ‘guide on the side’ metaphor. For me, the inference from the ‘guide on the side’ metaphor is that we let pupils figure it out by themselves and do everything we can to not intervene. Rosenshine (2012) and other scholars (mentioned below) think this is a very bad idea, particularly in the first few minutes of providing instruction.

In summary, the ‘guide on the side’ metaphor is inadequate for describing the actions and judgments of teachers and in my view could hinder the learning of students. By just letting pupils ‘discover’ or ‘investigate’ new learning, as shown by some of the research mentioned here, is not good teaching. Therefore to use it in our professional discourse would be dangerous and potentially damaging in the development of young teachers’ (including my own) professional reasoning.

Note: I am appreciative of the fact that I have not spent much time analysing this metaphor here and in fact the metaphor itself is part of a much wider school of thought in education. In subsequent posts I will attempt to unravel this problematic set of ideas in a range of ways.


The core research that I’ve built on in this post (including Rosenshine’s summary) is referenced below:

Evertson, C.M., Anderson, C.W., Anderson, L.M., Brophy, J.E., (1980) “Relationships between Classroom Behaviours and Student Outcomes in Junior High Mathematics and English Classes,” American Educational Research Journal, 17:1

Rosenshine, B. (2012) “Principles of Instruction: Research – Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know.” American Educator, Spring 2012, pp. 12-39

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R.E. (2006) “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem Based, Experiential and Inquiry Based Teaching.” Educational Psychologist, 41(2), pp.75-86

Maxwell, B. (2015) ‘Teacher as Professional’ as Metaphor; What it Highlights and What it Hides’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(1), pp. 86-104.


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