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Great Teachers Don't Teach

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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

njones's picture

Mr. Johnson,
I am a senior entering into a teacher education program in my college and I was given the task to find blogs that support constructivism. In response to your blog that great teachers don't teach, I agree with you. When teachers are facilitating the learning and students are sitting in desks soaking the knowledge in, I feel that a mundane way of teaching and students are just soaking everything in because great teachers don't teach! Constructivism is about letting student build their own knowledge from the world around them. This helps students feel like they are in control of their own learning. If a teacher is just sitting there "teaching" it seems like repetition not articulation. Allowing students the opportunity to construct their own knowledge goes beyond the regular teaching method. I think some teachers may feel they are doing a disservice to their students if they aren't the main source of learning. Before entering into this course this summer, I assumed that I was responsible for students learning, I mean, I am the teacher, that's my job! Our class has been given the opportunity to facilitate their own learning and I've learned so much! I feel this is possible because the professor provides students with an abundance of knowledge, not so much to where it's overwhelming, but enough to make the students want to learn more. When we are given all this knowledge, we have no choice but to learn by teaching ourselves and because we also have assignments to go along with it! I thank you for writing your blog, I really enjoyed reading it!

XavierFain's picture

As education major in my university I believe this blog is one the best I have seen that talks about teachers. This blog is for teachers that love teaching and want their students to strive for greatest. In order to become a good teacher I feel like this is the perfect way to describe a good and effective teacher. You have to have most of these qualities in order to see progress in your class. One of my professors Dr. Hughes is a great example of a effective teacher. She knows how to get her students involve in what needs to be learned.

Zakiya.Provost's picture

Hi, I am an early childhood education major and in one of my classes we are looking at blogs. I have to say I completely agree with you. When I think back to the classes that are mainly lecture I have trouble remembering verses classes that I worked on projects and was able to be in control of my learning experience. I am not a student that is easily able to just listen and pick up information I need to interact and ask questions so lecture classes are harder for me. I like how you mentioned Socrates method of teaching not that I like about it when I was younger I hated when my teacher answered a question with a question but the more I thought about it the better I was able to come to my own understanding which was able to help me in the long run. As a future educator I will use this method when needed.

Alexis Luetge's picture

I am a pre-serviced teacher at Prairie View A&M University. I believe teaching and promote true learning comes from within the teacher. Getting to know your students is highly important and integrating their interests into a lesson will have them more engaged in the classroom. Students, especially young children, loose interest if you as the teacher just stand in the front and read from the text. Involving the students with hands on activities, games, or even discussions will help them stay more focused in class. Having students do real life projects and activities are more meaningful and makes you, as the teacher, more effective.

MPena's picture

I really enjoyed reading this posting!

It's hard for a control freak like me to let go of my step-by-step lesson plans and allow my students to take the reigns a little more in my classroom. I'm going into my 3rd year of teaching this coming year and I must say that at first I was completely hesitant to 'allow my students to do the teaching' so to speak, but now I realize the importance of it and how much it empowers them as learners!

Thanks for sharing!

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

I just discovered your fine article. What a powerful redefinition of what it means to be a great teacher.

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

When I was a student, I could never understand the math teacher. I usually couldn't understand the science teacher, but I could never understand the math teacher. As a teacher, I liked to lecture, but had the humility to realize that many kids were not following me. But I like to think that the lecture, although they could not understand it, gave them encouragement to then work hard and aggressively on the exercises.
I agree with the article. Maybe I was a lousy teacher.

Lindz28's picture

As a kindergarten teacher, I really appreciated this article. I am also currently taking classes towards my masters in education. The school that I teach at has many students who need their physical and emotional needs met besides their academic needs as well. In this day and age, teachers need to do more than just meet a child's academic needs. If I care deeply about my students, they will learn better because they trust me. We can't take the affective domain out of teaching. This article was a breath of fresh air. Any teacher who cares about their students will be a more effective teacher than one whose heart isn't in it

Angie Mac's picture

In my experiences with allowing students be in charge of their learning, they are more successful. Students will remember those lessons in which they are an active participant. As teachers, we need to remember how we felt sitting for hours listening to a teacher or instructor talk compared to those projects that we were engaged in actively in completing.

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