As design leaders and mentors, we want to help UX students & junior designers the best we can. When is it time to be a sage, and when is it time to be a guide?
“Sage on the stage” or “guide on the side”? — AI-generated image via Midjourney
Are you familiar with the term “sage on the stage?”
Long story short, the education space often uses this term to describe a scenario that is considered outdated or inefficient today. In this case, the sage would represent an authority figure who is capable of transmitting knowledge to their students. This person would hold the ultimate truth and have the final word. Traditional techniques and methods such as lectures and teacher grading are standard in the “sage on the stage” educational model. Sounds familiar?
As the concept and meaning of learning evolved, so did teaching. Nowadays, we know that learning is much more than knowledge transmission, so we need to adapt how we teach based on that. Today’s educator is much more of a “guide on the side”, especially in adult education, as we assume the adult learner has autonomy and ownership of their own learning.
We know how important it is to stimulate critical thinking and allow students to learn independently. But does that mean an end to the sage in all forms and shapes? And how does that apply to UX education?
How does this work in UX education?
The inspiration to write about this topic came from this research article, which challenges the evolution of these two concepts and the predominance of the “guide” figure. It made me reflect on how this topic translates to the UX education space.
First, let’s pause to acknowledge that everyone is different and education shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.
Regarding theory vs practice, and guide vs sage, I always thought the balance was necessary, yet it seems we’re missing it in UX.
Mentors, coaches and industry professionals have the perfect profile to take the “guide on the side” role.
However, without a solid theoretical foundation, we often become the “sage on the stage”, sometimes without even realizing it. It makes sense, right? If a curriculum isn’t good enough, if there’s no one else delivering some sort of theoretical foundation, industry mentors end up feeling tasked to do it.
Unfortunately, this often means that our subjective opinions, experiences and own flawed practices become the “authority” for someone else who’s learning UX for the first time. Since newcomers haven’t learned the foundations and have nothing to base their own reflections and opinions on, this is the type of outcome that we often witness:
“I did this because my mentor said so” vs “I did this because… (being able to explain their thought process)…”
It feels great to believe someone else has all the answers for us.
In the UX world…
Experience is overvalued, and theory is undervalued.
(This is obvious when you look at some of the job descriptions too!)
And this isn’t just about junior designers, senior designers too!
You can’t just stop learning.
Just because you’ve been doing something for years, it doesn’t mean yours is the only way to do it. Just because you’ve been doing something for ages doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways to do the same thing.
Understanding the theory involves studying what others have done, understanding the disciplines that support many of the foundations in UX, and then, yes, forming your own opinion.
This is something I see less and less in our field.
Theory? What’s that? “Just trust me, I have been doing this for ten years, I know what I’m talking about!” — says the person who is unable to deliver a single research-driven feature in their current role; yet has a single opinion about everything, including how students’ projects should look like.
Do UX teachers or instructors exist?
We know they are out there, but where? Who are they? Or what do we expect them to be?
More and more, we expect industry professionals to teach. Based on the current research I’m conducting for my Education Master Degree, this was one of the top themes that emerged when interviewing students that have attended a mentor-led bootcamp. In fact, this was the main thing they’d expect from a mentor or teacher in the field: to actually work in UX.
Makes sense, right?
But where does the “teacher” fit in? Because working in the field doesn’t mean you’re able to teach or educate.
We end up undervaluing all that’s involved in the actual art and science of teaching. Then all our hopes to avoid a “sage on the stage” in this scenario are a bit lost, and we forget that teachers AND industry professionals can work together to provide better UX education.
In my humble opinion, we might need both — a “sage on the stage” that provides us with a theoretical foundation and also a “guide on the side”, who guides us through our own active learning process and encourages us to think and reflect on our own.
What we often forget is that they don’t need to be the same person.
Perhaps we just need to normalize that 1) some people can be fully dedicated to the UX education or research space without actively working in the industry (anymore); and 2) some people may work actively in the field for years and be great at what they do, without necessarily being good teachers (or feeling the pressure to become mentors or educators).