creative thinking about learning and teaching
February 1999 Vol 1, No 1In this IssueAbout InventioEditorial Board
The Professional Teacher
Peter J. Denning

Copyright 1998-99 by Peter J. Denning (pjd@gmu.eduThe right to make additional exact copies, including this notice, for personal and classroom use, is hereby granted. All other forms of distribution and copying require permission of the author.


It was in 1964, I think, when I first saw the now-famous New Yorker cartoon of a classroom of the future. The picture shows a tape recorder on each student’s desk and a tape player on the teacher’s table. The machines whir quietly -- and no one is in the room. Thus did the cartoonist skewer the stereotype of the classroom as a venue for transmitting information from teacher’s brain to student’s notebook. Today, with TV classrooms a stereotype for distance education, the cartoonist might render the scene as a virtual classroom populated with a camcorder and VCRs. In five years, the same cartoonist might add a new machine, a tester that certifies when a student machine has learned its lessons from the teacher machine. As in the original, the machines whir, and no one is present.

These images depict the modern teacher’s anxiety: Will computers and networks eventually automate the tasks that now dominate teacher time and student time in school -- lecturing, distributing assignments and homework, note-taking, testing, and record-keeping? Why would anyone even think that computers might be as effective as real teachers? David Noble has used the term "digital diploma mill" to describe a possible future in which most teaching is done by machine and few teachers are actually employed. He is not alone in this concern. Many faculty find the scenarios plausible and worry that their personal futures will be as barren as this picture. Although Noble focuses almost exclusively on how such a future might leave faculty without jobs and without intellectual property rights to their courses, you don’t have to be a professor to appreciate that something is profoundly unsatisfactory with this scene. It seems to be the logical conclusion of current trends, and yet it makes no sense. What is wrong with this picture?

In this essay I will propose that two popular stereotypes of teachers, the sage and the guide, are incapable of realizing the expectations of students, parents, employers, politicians -- and teachers. These metaphors obscure the fundamental social responsibility of a teacher as an expert professional in a domain. Students look to their teachers to show them the ways of a community and offer them entries into that community. They look to their teachers not only as expert sources, coaches, and guides, but as authorities and allies who can help them enter the social networks of their domains.

According to the sage metaphor, the teacher is an information provider who lectures to a room full of students and occasionally tests them to see how much information each has received. This metaphor is often stereotyped as "the sage on the stage" or "the talking head." This view has rightfully come under criticism. It seems to imply that most everything a teacher does can be automated, given sufficient computing power and networking bandwidth. The early critics of this view proposed an alternative: the guide. According to the guide metaphor, the teacher is both a facilitator offering suggestions to students and also a coach offering practices. This teacher seeks to create an environment in which students discover the key knowledge for themselves without having to submit to a teacher’s authority. This metaphor is often stereotyped as "the guide at your side," "the navigator," or "the coach."

These stereotypes raise more questions than they answer. Why do students care so much about great teachers? Why does a student aspiring to be a musician, or a software designer, or a physician seek apprenticeship with a great violinist, software builder, or doctor? Why do students compete fiercely for places in MIT, Stanford, or Harvard, where a Bachelor’s degree will cost them $150,000, when they can get the same courses taught by equally capable teachers in their state university for $20,000? Why do so many students prefer courses that include strong elements of in-person participation to those that are completely on-line? And why aren’t more students flocking to the growing cadre of on-line universities or vendors offering the recorded lectures of the world’s greatest teachers? Neither stereotype explains these phenomena. The teacher as professional expert in a domain does.

Next Section: Teacher as Information Conveyor