My Journey from Sage to Guide

I’ve just completed the first draft of the chapter about my narrative pedagogy for my new book. I started by gathering student evaluations and course outlines for 16 times I taught my undergraduate Narrative and Management course between 1991 and 2017. (There might have been more in the early years, but that’s all I found.)

I discovering that in the early years my student evaluations were mediocre but they have continuously improved and are now consistently at the top of the scale. I’m delighted about this outcome, but why did it happen? Looking at the course outlines and reflecting on my experience, I realize that I changed my teaching style from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.”

When I began the course I started by lecturing about a variety of organizational and literary conceptual frameworks, and led Harvard Business School (HBS) style case discussions about several then-contemporary movies and novels. This style of teaching is a somewhat Socratic version of “sage on the stage,” with student participation enforced by the naming-and-shaming of cold calling, and topped off with a “big reveal” at the end of the class.

Gradually, I began doing quite a few things differently. I replaced HBS style discussions with student discussion groups and presentations. I give students discussion questions a week before class, randomly assign students to groups, each group discussing one question, and then have a member of each group present the answer the group has come up with. I make my comments after the group has presented and the class as a whole has discussed the question. This approach is facilitated by using a flat classroom with round tables, so students can easily move to and work in their discussion groups.

A course about narrative needs a storytelling component. I got rid of the midterm and replaced it with two storytelling assignments, each involving a short paper and 2-minute oral presentation. The first assignment is a personal narrative (“story of my life”) and the second a job narrative (“story of my work”). To lead by example, I did presentations about my life and my work (the latter a consulting gig, rather than my teaching at U. of T).

Taking advantage of changed technology and recognizing student preferences, I dispensed with literary texts and use only film, most contemporary but a few classics. I encourage students to respect intellectual property rights and rent online. I can’t say they all do.

The course also takes advantage of the wealth of moving-image narrative now available on YouTube. (I began the course not only pre-YouTube but pre-Internet.) We often begin class by discussing either political or commercial advertising or other organizational storytelling. Ads generally are 30 to 60 seconds, organizational storytelling a maximum of 5 minutes. We all watch the material in class once or twice and then begin our discussion.

Where appropriate, I bring in relevant “show and tell” materials. As part of our class on The Social Network I show an actual early-Nineties vintage hard-copy Facebook from a Harvard undergraduate residence, a precursor of the website Mark Zuckerberg invented. As part of the class on the film The Insider, a docudrama about Jeffrey Wigand, the scientist who exposed the chemistry of making cigarettes addictive in the mid-Nineties, I bring in recent full-page confessional ads the tobacco firms have been forced by the courts to publish as the ultimate long-delayed part of the 1998 Tobacco Settlement Agreement.

I now teach a course in which lots of interesting learning events are happening in every class, and which students evidently enjoy. I have changed my role from sage to guide. And I’ve also demonstrated the wisdom of Confucius’s maxim “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” We have less passive hearing, more active doing, and ultimately deeper understanding.



  1. Useful observations, Prof. Borins! You were the best professor I had at University of Toronto, and your approach to teaching (it had already transitioned to “guide on the side” by then) sparked my love for the field of public management. Thank you.

  2. May I suggest you also examine the pedagogical aims? Left unstated here, it’s unclear to me precisely what those were and are. The “Sage” typically aims for students’ mastery (whatever that means) of defined teaching points. “Learn what I teach.” The “Facilitator” (much over-used label) or guide generally points to more constructivist outcomes, things less likely to be assessed through multi-guess scantron sheets. “Students will be able to analyze and discuss key aspects of…”. Foundation-level courses with 200+ students typically don’t have the time to do a lot of “guiding” if students are to master key elements that allow them to continue studies in that field. (Still, we should find time to do at least some student-led exploration.)

    • Hmmm. My response seems to suggest that Sandford “didn’t examine” the pedagogical aims. What I meant to suggest was that we readers would learn more if we were walked through a discussion of pedagogical aims…

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