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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Great Teachers Don't Teach

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

In a conversation on LinkedIn, one person asked, "What are the characteristics of an effective teacher?" I read quite a few excellent remarks that describe what such a teacher does to be effective. I couldn't help thinking about some of my best teachers.

I had an amazing psychology professor in college. He was on fire every class period and his enthusiasm was contagious. But the things I remember most are the psychological experiments in which we participated. I remember every detail and the supporting theories because I experienced it.

My psychology professor was an effective teacher because he provided experiences that created long-term memories. In response to the LinkedIn comments, I penned the following:

"I appreciate all of the comments that have been made so far. Yet I feel there is one thing still missing. One characteristic of an effective teacher is that they don't teach. You say that is outrageous. How can an effective teacher teach without teaching?

My experience is that good teachers care about students. Good teachers know the content and know how to explain it. Good teachers expect and demand high levels of performance of students. Good teachers are great performers and storytellers that rivet their students' attention.

All of this is good but great teachers engineer learning experiences that maneuver the students into the driver's seat and then the teachers get out of the way. Students learn best by personally experiencing learning that is physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. John Dewey had it right in 1935 when he espoused his theories on experiential learning. Today we call this constructivism.

In The Classroom

Long past are the times when we teach content just in case a student might need it. A great teacher will devise a way to give the students an urgent reason to learn skills or knowledge and then let them show they have learned it by what they can do. This is called project-based learning.

A great teacher will keep the students wanting to come to school just to see what interesting things they will explore and discover each day. We call this inquiry.

The philosophy that supports such a great teacher is simple. Students learn best when they are in control of their learning. Students must do the heavy lifting of learning and nothing the teacher can say or do will change that. Real learning requires doing, not listening, or observing only. Yet what do we find in every public school and university? Teachers talking, talking and talking while students listen, daydream and doze. We call this lecture.

The word "teacher" implies the flow of knowledge and skills from one person to another. Whether it be a lecture, or a power point, it involves talking at the students. While that is commonly viewed as the quickest and easiest way to impart knowledge and skills, we all realize that it is not the most effective. Socrates had it right when he only answered a question with more questions and look what he produced -- some of the greatest minds that ever lived. We call this the Socratic method.

Yes, there are times when direct instruction is necessary, but only to be able to do something with that knowledge or skill, but a great teacher devises learning experiences that force all the students to be engaged much like being in the deep end of the swimming pool. Then the lesson on arm and leg strokes becomes relevant. To learn, the students must do something. We call this performance-based learning.

Taking Action

Returning to my original premise: great teachers do not teach. They stack the deck so that students have a reason to learn and in the process can't help but learn mainly by teaching themselves. This knowledge then becomes permanent and cherished rather than illusory and irrelevant.

In my book, Teaching Students To Dig Deeper: The Common Core in Action, I provide detailed ways to get students into the driver's seat and to get the teacher out of it. I also provide the teacher a reason to change the way they teach so they can in essence become let's say, "learning engineers" instead of "teachers."

How can you keep from teaching and promote true learning? Please share in the comment section below.


Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (115)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Andrew Vivian's picture
Andrew Vivian

Nailed it. Teachers, of course, need to talk to students to build relationships and help with understanding - just not the whole class at the same time. As you write, teaching is about designing learning experiences for young people, and the more personalised, the better. As you infer at the end, we just need to get out of the way a lot more. I hope a lot of people read this.

ktreacy's picture

Thank you for sharing this article! I just completed my first year teaching and after surviving the year and reflecting back there is so much I still need to learn. I really enjoyed reading your article and I agree 100%. The classroom should be a place where students are engaged and learning from each other rather than the teacher in the front of the room taking notes. I know as a student the days I remember in school were those where I was 100% engaged in the material and activity that I was bummed out when school was over. This is the experience I want for my students. I want the excitement and hunger of learning to be seen in all of them. One thing I definitely learned was that students learn best when they are able to make connections to their own world.

Yalanda's picture

This is such a wonderful article. I can remember sitting in class taking note after note from most of my teachers. I usually ended up in trouble because I would draw or doodle on notes. That was the only thing I could think to do to keep me awake. I would be lying if I said I didn't learn anything, but I was never engaged in the lessons. Consequently, I became an awesome note taker. I agree with you, teachers should use inquiry instruction instead of direct instruction. Teachers should be there to guide and monitor students, but only teach when an opportunity presents itself or by student requests. The students know their learning style better than the teacher. Most often with inquiry instruction, the student will tell the teacher how to teach him or her. If the teacher is well organized, he or she will be able to monitor his or her classroom as well as give and receive feedback to his or her students.

Brian Sherman's picture

I really enjoyed the article. I have 7 years experience teaching math, but I spend way too much time lecturing. My school will be switching to 90 minute block periods this year, so your post has really got me thinking about how to best use my time and get the students more engaged in the lessons. There is no way I can talk for 90 straight minutes.

M.Farias4's picture

This article is PERFECT! I am currently seeking a Masters of Science in Education, and I am learning that the true qualities of an effective teacher are far more than I appreciated. I have 7 years of experience in teaching math. Engagement of all students has always been something I struggled with, and student engagement is a key factor to increasing student success. I was the type of teacher who always needed control of the classroom therefore I tended to do a lot of lecture and not enough group or hands on activities. Now I strongly agree that I must allow my students to be actively involved in their learning while I simply let go and facilitate it. Studies show that learning is a process and in order for learning to occur, students must be actively engaged in the process. I have learned that it is imperative that I engage my students in their learning and allow them responsibility in making decisions in regards to their learning.

Thank you for writing and posting! I hope that it helps other teachers in reflecting on their current and future practices, as it has done to me.

Wil's picture

Thank you posting for such an interesting and informative article. I currently am seeking a Master's in Education and student teaching 9th grade Biology. I really appreciate how an article like this one lets me focus on what is essential to being an effective teacher. I still have problems with my lesson plans in that I still concentrate on lecturing to students rather than letting them be active learners. Even when doing group activities, I sometimes try to micro-manage and don't let students experience learning on their own. This article was a brilliant reminder that I need to let go and trust students to use their own inquisitive nature to learn. Also, I am encourage that student engagement also was emphasized. Students won't learn if they aren't interested in the material and that also requires that teachers get to know their students. This was a great piece that will help my self reflect on my current and future teaching practices. Overall, this was an impressive article that truly underscores the qualities of a great teacher!

Gary Butterworth, M. A.'s picture
Gary Butterworth, M. A.
Educator, Trainer, Speaker, Author, Performer

Wonderfully insightful article, Prof. Johnson! Indeed, students learn best when they are in control of their learning. In my own classroom instruction, I have found that students get the most from my teaching when they are involved in the sort of "dialogic" engagement that Paulo Friere popularized. Prof. Johnson's reference to Dewey and experiential learning resonates as well. I appreciate the refresher offered here on the way in which students learn best (by doing and reflecting) and the way they learn least (by listening and watching). My current interest is in the teaching of history in particular. With a background in performance studies, I am developing a method in which students become storytellers and embody the historical figures for whom they are studying. (They adopt the style of the old time "Chautauqua" presentations in a big-top tent.) In addition to the performance itself, student scholar/performers engage their audience of classmates in Q&A--in character. Many thanks, again, Prof. Johnson for the article; it will serve as a fine reinforcer for my own engagement with teaching. Would enjoy hearing from others who may have thoughts on alternative ways of teaching history. Keep up the good conversation!

Tempe Laver's picture

Just as I suspected. More constructivist twaddle. You are very wrong - students learn best by direct instruction and from the teacher. Good evidence confirms this yet there are still so many educators that cling to this nonsense. The trouble is that it is so damaging to the future of our kids. If you want to be an effective teacher know your subject, preferably have a good text books, work out ways to discipline your students, and stop with the "busy" work and set about passing on that content.

John Brigham's picture
John Brigham
I think that organic chemistry should be taught first.

The original article implies that the role of the teacher is unimportant. But it has consistently been shown that the quality of the teacher is the most important single factor. And, faced with a complex mix of learning styles, the single most effective teaching technique is lecture. It is great to see some controversy about this article. Education is a messy business. But we all already knew that!

The Teaching Engineer's picture

I agree with the results but I feel that the "how" described in the article is a bit (benevolently) manipulative. A great teacher does not need to "maneuver the students" or "stack the deck".

Rather, s/he just needs to love the subject, see the world through those eyes, and love showing what s/he sees to the students. In a word, a great teacher ... inspires.

John Brigham's picture
John Brigham
I think that organic chemistry should be taught first.

The original article implies that the role of the teacher is unimportant. But it has consistently been shown that the quality of the teacher is the most important single factor. And, faced with a complex mix of learning styles, the single most effective teaching technique is lecture. It is great to see some controversy about this article. Education is a messy business. But we all already knew that!


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