Erica McWilliam: The 21st Century Teacher: From Sage to Guide to Meddler

Erica McWilliam visited the University of Canberra this week (13 May) as part of the ACE on the Road program. The topic for her talk was The 21st Century Teacher: From Sage to Guide to Meddler. This post was written live at the talk.
67 Photo source
This is Erica’s Eduspaces profile and this is her blog page.
Stephen Parker welcomed Erica Mcwilliam to the University of Canberra.
Erica opened her presentation with the observation that “the great calling is to be a teacher who introduces young people to the pleasure of the rigour of the work”. She identified teaching as a moral and intellectual project. Erica made a passionate argument for low threat-high challenge and high expectation-high support classrooms.
She asked her audience what we will do in the 21sy century for our pupils? Many of the easy advances in education have been made.
Erica developed her theme with a discussion of assessment and the emergence of international standardised tests. She noted an initiative by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft to develop these tests (Barry McGaw will lead this project and it will be based at the University of Melbourne). An example of a test for fourteen year olds required complex, multifaceted, transdisciplinary skills. She noted that such tasks require precise skills, address specific (as well as general) cultural issues and appropriateness. Erica mused on the kind of school conditions are required for this task to be availalable to all children so that they are able to feel part of this kind of enquiry. This is activity beyond download and print out! It is a substantial move towards synthesis.
Teachers’ Roles
In the next part of her talk Erica discussed teachers’ roles and changes in professional behaviour.
In the classroom there are important moments for instruction. Erica argued strongly that some knowledge requires instruction and the presence of the sage (a teacher with a claim to expertise and energy). She talked in detail of the pleasure of the rigour of this approach and exemplified her discussion with approaches to the teaching of maths and spelling. She argued strongly for ‘in the bones’ development of basic skills through the energy of teachers and the creation of teachable moments that transform children’s understanding. Erica noted the persistence of rules used by sages and gave the example of ‘when two vowels go walking’. For Erica the best kind of sage teaching had a profound technical component and embodied a respect for scholarship through hard work.
The  teacher as a guide on the side was discussed next. Erica noted the move in teacher education and practice to a model of the teacher as a whisperer and counsellor. This change in role led to a move from teaching as theatre to teaching as therapeutics. Erica suggests that this change led to a loss of structure and technique. The teacher becomes a counsellor rather than teacher and there was an overemphasis on psychological second guessing. Erica argued strongly for teachers avoiding being a psychotherapist and urged the building of a learning culture in classrooms that is more than weedling the soul out of children. She discussed at length the passivity of classrooms that has emerged in many of the well-meaning guide on the side classrooms.
Erica argued strongly against classrooms that are worksheet rich and challenge poor. She argued strongly too against the role of teacher as a person who kept children happy as the main outcome of teaching. She made a telling point about the classroom becoming a place where attention deficit was a logistical outcome of lesson planning. Many classrooms did not support ‘stickability‘ nor can the children there tolerate discomfort. Erica made it clear that in her view creativity is hard work if children are to stay and work in the ‘grey of undecidability‘.  (Erica noted here Carol Dweck‘s work on motivation). Teacher librarians are seeing the dilemmas of children guided by worksheets with no pedagogical input.
In her discussion of the teacher as meddler in the middle, Erica identified three sets of 21st Century Skills:

  • academic functional
  • aesthetic digital
  • dynamic interactive

She suggested that intellectual clout was needed in this work to become  ‘usefully ignorant’ as the meddler in the middle. We must be pedadgogical experts but not knowledge experts. The 21st century classroom will need to be:

  • Seriously playful
  • Epistemologically agile
  • Low threat high challenge

Erica explored the skill set of the meddler and her fascination with design, disassembly and rediscovery. She illustrated her point with the story of her as a young child cutting up a tennis ball to find the bounce in(side) the ball.
The meddler’s classrom is:

  • Respect rich
  • Structure rich
  • Conversation rich
  • Information rich
  • Challenge rich

This envoronment is more than going digital.  Erica concluded her talk with an example of work in Singapore with 16 year old pupils using mind mapping tools to explore ideas. She invited the audience to consider the kinds of assessment procedures required to support wide and deep learning. The kind of work produced as a folio of such work will be:

  • Deep, wide and  transdisciplinary
  • Move from known to unknown
  • Unfolding as a series of responses to wondering
  • A tightly edited document of a learning journey that exhibits distilled sufficiency
  • Demonstrating growing complexity of thought and skills of editorship
  • Amenable to evaluation

The child is able to discuss this portfolio and the teach as meddler is a co-learner. This approach has clear pedagogical intention and significant affordances. The classroom is in design mode: what is the idea good for; what does it do and fail to do; does it have a future; how could it be improved; what is the value add? The design classroom is characterised by:

  • Knowledge more than facts
  • Deeply understand what is being built upon
  • Immersion
  • Social processes
  • Going past the labels to the activities

In the design mode disassassembly creates space for thinking. It welcomes error, strategy, instructive complication, and interesting ideas. Meddlers accept and create space for co-designing and are clear about looking for ideas and when error is welcomed. The classroom celebrates wonder, imagination, and step outside held views.
Erica’s concluding point was that creative workforces have literacies and numeracies as their bedroock. They facilitate discovery, autonomy and co-working.
This post is an attemplt to note points during Erica’s discussion. A large audience listened to Erica for ninety minutes. I hope they, like me, were fascinated by the critical wisdom she brought to 21st century educators concerned about equity and keen to develop a craft knowledge that will support creative learning through energy, passion and hard work.
This is a link to her PowerPoint presentation.


  1. Excellent piece with a real insight into what many practitioners are attempting to make happen with Instructional Intelligence and other facilitator based modes of delivery. In my teaching I try to create an interactive environment where all feel comfortable and encouraged to contribute. I think we all want safety, accountability, thinking space and high levels of interaction within our class rooms. Bit disappointed I missed Erica’s presentation.

  2. Hi Keith,
    Thanks for your extensive notes on this talk and for introducing me to a new (to me) “voice.” I was particularly taken by the thought on “teachers avoiding being a psychotherapist,” a phenomenon I’ve been calling, in more frustrated moments, “guru-itis.” 🙂 Lots of concepts to unpack here– this’ll keep me busy for a while!

  3. Thankyou for making the summary of Erica’s presentation available to us. I am a pre-service teacher in my 2nd year at the University of Tasmania. During my studies there are many articles we read and many opinions of how we should teach. Erica’s ideas have put things into perspective for me. In particular, the guide on the side has never sat well with me as I too function better when there is emphasis on structure and technique. I too feel that a passive classroom would not prepare our children to function successfully in today’s society as society is most certainly not passive. Obtaining the rich culture of the meddler’s classroom while providing warmth and safety for children to take risks is what I aspire to achieve as a teacher.
    Thankyou again, as I feel like I have been put back on track again after reading this.
    Tanya Gavralas

  4. The teacher as meddler concept is I believe a grand extension and upgrade of Charlie Perkins worry re mediocracy. Using basic concepts of treadle wheel, the rewinding of knowledge rather than tinkering or travelling. When we meddle we ought as teachers always be ethical and legal about the concepts we wish by permission to “Peddle”. Is not bread our version of the morals God given.
    Mrs Linette Pilkington Bone Masters of education ballet psychology.

  5. […] Yes, there’s still a need for instructors, especially when one gets stuck or discouraged. But like everything else on the earth, the teaching profession needs to adapt to changes in the environment. Less sage on the stage. More meddler in the middle, as Erica McWilliam puts it. […]

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