A familiar face at Green Valley School and Steinbach city hall is putting education fads in the crosshairs with the release of a new book.
A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning is a collection of op-eds published by media outlets across Canada over the past decade by Michael Zwaagstra, a Grunthal high school teacher and four-term city councillor who also pens "Think Again," a weekly opinion column for The Carillon.
The book’s 10 chapters tackle an array of topics, from standardized testing to grading and reporting to the politics of education.
It expands and updates several issues Zwaagstra first addressed in What’s Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them, a 2010 volume he co-authored with two education professors, Rodney Clifton and John Long.
Sifting through past writings, Zwaagstra found instances where his views had evolved with further research. Others remained relevant long after the circumstances that provoked the column had changed.
The title was deliberately chosen to poke at a well-worn education maxim that Zwaagstra, 43, first encountered in university: teachers should be a "guide on the side," not a "sage on the stage."
"They’re still recycling that line," he observed. "This is my way of pushing back against that."
Issues of authority and expertise in the classroom are central to Zwaagstra’s thinking on contemporary K-12 education. He believes teachers should be unabashed about sharing their expert knowledge with students, and reject teaching models that stress collaborative learning alongside students or frame ignorance as "authentic."
"There’s no other profession which would ever think this way," he said.
Canada’s education community seems especially prone to the uncritical embrace of new ideas—or new reformulations of old ideas, Zwaagstra said.
"It’s frustrating, and what happens is the fad gets introduced, it fails, dies out for a bit, and then gets renamed and it’s the new big thing. These cycles just never end."
He traces this bandwagon tendency in education theory back to the idea that the process of learning is more important than the content learned.
It’s an approach spread by 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and institutionalized by prestigious training grounds like Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in New York.
"This is a longstanding divide," Zwaagstra said. "When you have a philosophy that de-emphasizes knowledge and de-emphasizes structure and puts it all on this other progressive approach, it’s very open to all these sorts of different fads."
His advice to educators navigating current trends is to keep pace with new research, consult a variety of sources, and check to see if an idea has been successfully implemented.
His frank and wide-ranging views on education have earned him critics, but Zwaagstra stressed he isn’t opposed to innovation per se. Teachers can and should employ a variety of different techniques in the classroom, but they should flow from the "default setting" of content knowledge.
"Content knowledge is important if we want kids to be able to read; if we want them to be able to be critical thinkers; and if we want to reduce the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged homes," Zwaagstra said.
"Within that sort of framework there’s a whole lot of room for flexibility and doing creative things."
He cited the skill of critical thinking as an example.
"Critical thinking is not an abstract transferrable skill; it’s heavily dependent on content knowledge. You cannot think critically about something you know nothing about—ever. You need to have knowledge about it first."
Zwaagstra enjoys having one foot in the classroom and one in education theory circles. He will mark 20 years at Green Valley School next year, and continues to carry out research for think-tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
But he aimed A Sage on the Stage at a popular audience, and hopes it will be read by any parent, teacher, or politician interested in discussions about education policy and school systems in a Canadian context.
A Sage on the Stage is available on Amazon.ca, and will arrive at Hull’s Family Bookstore in Steinbach later this month. A book launch at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg is being planned for this fall.