Teacher vs. Guide?

Teacher vs. Guide?

 A common question we are asked is why we call the adult in the room a guide instead of a teacher. It’s an important question, and the answer cuts to the core of our learning design here at Acton Academy Northwest Indy. Let’s investigate.

At the outset, let me establish that this choice of words isn’t just semantics or a cute difference in terminology. It is specifically chosen to reflect that the role and function of a guide is fundamentally different than a teacher.

Let’s first consider a teacher. In traditional educational paradigms, the experience centers and revolves around the teacher. The teacher’s role is to be the expert, disseminating information and providing assignments for students to prove that they have understood and remembered what they’ve been taught. They are also the lead authority who manages the behavior of the students, wielding punishments and rewards according to how the student has upheld the behaviors and standards defined by the teacher.

The guide in our studios, on the other hand, is very different. Never the expert, a guide’s role isn’t to provide information but to empower the children to have ownership over their own learning and agency over their education. The guide’s role is to present meaningful and interesting challenges, connect the learners with the resources they’ll need on their journey, and then mostly to step back and allow the children the opportunity to pursue understanding and growth at their own pace. They offer choices and allow our young heroes to learn from experience as they encounter the consequences of their decisions, both good and bad.

This may all sound very foreign and may in fact challenge preconceived notions that children need someone to tell them what to do and how to do it in order to grow – that they aren’t capable of handling freedom and autonomy without completely shirking all responsibility, or worse, devolving into a Lord of the Flies existence of chaos and disorder. Let me respectfully challenge that notion by telling you a story about a day that I filled in for our guide in our elementary studio last year.

A typical day at Acton Indy starts off with Morning Launch. This consists of a Socratic discussion, where the guide lays out a scenario that places the children into the shoes of someone facing a difficult decision with no clear right or wrong answer and then facilitates a discussion among the learners. The goal is to spur critical thinking and respectful dialogue as they assess challenging questions in the context of a group.

It turned out that one of the learners had prepared the launch for this morning. Yes…you read that right. She was 11 and had prepared the content of the discussion and facilitated it among her peers without even a word of introduction from me to set things up. In fact, I sat in the back of the room while she led a remarkable reflection on gratitude, complete with robust conversation, children raising hands and taking turns speaking, and thoughtful points being made. It was a magical thing to behold.

At the conclusion of discussion, the studio called out in unison, “1, 2, 3, Break!” and seamlessly shifted into core skills time. Without so much as a word from me, they each found their way to whatever activity they were working on and settled into a focused cycle of self-paced math, reading, or writing activities. At a few points some of the learners got up and worked collaboratively on challenging activities. On the whole, it was remarkably silent and focused. As for me, I remained in the back of the room, merely observing and thinking to myself how much more children are capable of than what they are usually given credit for.

After an hour of core skills, the studio timekeeper (a role that was held by a 10-year-old that day) called out “Break Time!”, at which point the learners stopped what they were doing and burst into what I can best describe as “robust play.” A spirited game of indoor basketball emerged. A few of them were rolling on the floor. Others gathered in a different room to choreograph a dance routine. A few found their way to our Lego table and began building what I best understood as vehicles capable of destroying anything they encountered. Exactly 10 minutes later, the timekeeper called out “Break’s over!”, and the learners quickly settled back into a second cycle of core skills.

I continued with my passive observation in the back of the studio, not saying a word through any of this. 

The rest of the day went similarly. They released themselves for lunch, free time, and journaling. I was poised for my big moment after journaling to facilitate a circle discussion with the learners to share their journals and vote on their favorite. Just as I was about to open the discussion, though, a 7-year-old sat down at the white board, called the others to attention, began calling on her peers to share, and recorded how many votes each participant received. Humbled, I quietly moved myself (once again) to the rear of the studio to continue observing.

(As an aside, this young hero’s fluidity in assuming the leadership role for the journal activity caused me to ask our guide later that day if she had been pre-designated as the journal discussion leader. “No…she just does that,” was the reply I got.)

They went on to coordinate the next steps of their quest work and concluded the day with studio maintenance, announcements, and character callouts, all of which required literally nothing of me. They left the studio picked up, chairs pushed in, tables wiped down, and trash out to the dumpster, none of which required a single syllable of direction from me. It turned out that my big moment for the day was unlocking the door first thing in the morning.

Now to be clear, not every day is quite this independent. Usually, the guide will lead Morning Launch. Similarly, the guide will usually introduce a quest activity, share a concept for Writer’s Workshop, or lead a Socratic discussion during Civilization. Often this involves the guide sharing a world-class example and then facilitating discussion among the learners. The larger picture, however, of empowering children to have ownership of everything that happens throughout the day is very much consistent.

Perhaps by now the picture is coming into focus. Our goal at Acton Academy NW Indy is not for our learners to do what the adults want or to devise clever incentive systems to make them behave. Our goal is much bigger than that. It’s for the children to have agency – to have ownership of their learning and to not require coercion from an adult to perform; to have the freedom to make choices, and to make responsible ones because they know that what they do matters to themselves and those around them.

And so to bring us back to our original question about why we call the adult a guide and not a teacher, the reason is really quite simple; it’s simply that the word “teacher” doesn’t fit. Teachers manage a classroom of students. A guide is there to support heroes on their journey to change the world.

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