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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.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (112)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Margarita Finkel's picture
Margarita Finkel
Social media for e-learning & technology

A personality does play an important role, agree with you Ben. Also, I think it's important to have empathy for students so it's build trust and more relaxing and engaging atmosphere in the classroom. I've checked with Quib.ly. Experts there have always interesting comments. I fallow Roberto Catanuto there, he always shares interesting ideas. If you like you can have a look here: http://quib.ly/qu/what-makes-a-good-teacher

Amanda Swanson's picture

I was really interested in reading this blog as soon as I read the title because I think this is true, that great teachers dont teach. I have heard this in many classes from many professors. I think we as teachers activate students knowledge and help guide them onto inquiry.
I think it is true that when your students are excited and engaged in the discovery in your classroom you are succeeding in your teaching profession.
Overall I agree that teachers instill and give students direction into their learning and they can take off with all the knowledge!

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Amanda:

Thank you for the comment. While teachers who "teach" abound, teachers who know how to help students learn independently are rare. I am encouraged that you will be one of the latter. Good luck in your career.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[/quote]I was really interested in reading this blog as soon as I read the title because I think this is true, that great teachers don't teach. I have heard this in many classes from many professors. I think we as teachers activate students knowledge and help guide them onto inquiry.I think it is true that when your students are excited and engaged in the discovery in your classroom you are succeeding in your teaching profession.Overall I agree that teachers instill and give students direction into their learning and they can take off with all the knowledge![/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Margarita:

True teachers, like yourself, are constantly learning. That attitude and the enthusiasm you bring to the learning that takes place in the classroom becomes embedded in the hearts and minds of the students. We have to keep learning, and we even learn from students we are supposed to be teaching. I will check out quibly so I can learn too. Thanks for your thoughts.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]A personality does play an important role, agree with you Ben. Also, I think it's important to have empathy for students so it's build trust and more relaxing and engaging atmosphere in the classroom. I've checked with Quib.ly. Experts there have always interesting comments. I fallow Roberto Catanuto there, he always shares interesting ideas. If you like you can have a look here: http://quib.ly/qu/what-makes-a-good-teacher[/quote]

Keisha Fitzhugh's picture

Amanda:

I completely agree with you. I know we talked alot about inquiry based learning in our science methods class and I feel it is a great way to get students to question their learning/material. I also agree that when students are discovering they are engaged in their learning and in turn makes you a better teacher.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Dear Edwinovich.

First of all, I thank you for taking the time first to read my blog, and secondly for expressing your opinion so passionately.

I am grateful for your many years of service to students and your obvious dedication to the profession of education. You and I have seen the changes in public education and have been dismayed by swings of the pendulum of pedagogical fads. I understand your anger directed towards educational charlatans that indeed have left the classroom for greener pastures (easier and more lucrative). I assure you that I am not one of them. I do not understand your reluctance to ignite and fan the flames of student initiative, curiosity and experiential learning when the research that supports constructivist practices is voluminous and incontrovertible.

This does not mean that there is no place for direct instruction from a master teacher like yourself. But long lasting learning happens after learning the content and student are able to manipulate, merge and engage in thoughtful analysis, critical thinking and creative thinking. These are things the teacher cannot give to the student--they must do it themselves.

If you are the thoughtful educator I think you are, then I am surprised that you might have succumbed to the pessimistic narrow-mindedness of teaching to test. Pressure to perform has always been a part of public education, but it has never stopped a dedicated teacher from exerting their best efforts and using the best strategies in behalf of their students. You most likely believe that that this is what you are doing.

Students drop out of school in droves because of the teacher-centered ideology you espouse; after all it worked for you, your parents and your grandparents. Charter schools, alternative schools and home schools are thriving on students unable to stomach the lock-step, "wait for me to tell you" rigidness of "sage on the stage mentality." Your vaunted teacher-centered instruction does so well that 80% of community college students must take remediation courses their first year.

I invite you to read three books: "Why Students Don't Like School", by Dr. Daniel Willingham a cognitive scientist, "Results Now " by Dr. Michael Schmoker, an my book, "Teaching Students to Dig Deeper: The Common Core in Action"

Like you I am doing everything in my power to help students learn. I, and many other teacher supporters, think it is time to work smarter as educators instead of doing the same thing that isn't working that well and isn't enjoyable for students. We are on the same team and there is no need to denigrate or demean my efforts.

Most importantly, you are doing what it takes to broaden your understanding of a more holistic way of helping students learn by spending time on the most progressive, project-based, and non-teacher centered website; Edutopia.org. You should read what the Founder of Edutopia, George Lucas, has to say about his experience with teacher-centered learning, and why he wanted to start Edutopia.

I wish you the best and sincerely hope that this summer will allow you to rest and recuperate so that you can continue to inspire your students.

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]With respect, the author reads like yet another classroom fleeing educrat/ consultant who wants to turn the classroom into a Dave & Buster's arcade, relegate master teachers to mere facilitator status (guide on the side rather than sage on the stage - gag), and disregards the VERY REAL pressure of test score components in current teacher evaluations.Such an approach also runs counter to the educational theory (also flawed) of - buzzword alert: Differentiation! Are there some students who benefit from what Mr Johnson is advocating? Probably. Are there some (many?) students who absolutely thrive in a traditional teacher-centered classroom approach? Yes! Establish rapport, establish credibility, and teach. There is NOTHING wrong with utilizing lecture/discussion methodology - if implemented properly and competently.Are the nations that are beating us academically (although it MUST be pointed out that those societies make NO attempt to educate EVERYBODY, unlike the US) featuring this overly student centered approach? For the most part, they are not. And what Mr Johnson is describing here is possible ONLY AFTER SOME TYPE OF NON STUDENT CENTERED CONTENT TRANSFER HAS TAKEN PLACE!!!Also: I'm willing to speculate that when Mr Johnson presents this theory of methodology (for which I suspect he's well compensated), he utilizes speaker centered, lecture style techniques to "impart" it.[/quote]

Edwinivich - Rich U's picture
Edwinivich - Rich U
Veteran Public High School Teacher Who Didn't Flee The Classroom

Thank you Mr Johnson for your thoughtful response, and thank you Edutopia for not shutting traditional viewpoints out of this important and necessary debate.

This is a huge issue that has not been properly framed. How do we engage and motivate students without overindulging (providing kids with constant and immediate brain candy) and constantly "entertaining?" At some point in the educational process, there come moments where teachers must - EEK- teach, and info must be transmitted/demonstrated - where competent master teachers MUST BE THE SAGE ON THE STAGE! Pretending otherwise does a disservice and is disingenuous.

If you do what what so many perhaps well intentioned reformers seem to be advocating (Seriously? Good teachers don't teach? I see somebody modified that tweet) in a hyper progressive way, you run the risk of creating students who are largely incapable of content and skill acquisition - some of which is not necessarily fun or "engaging." Call me a fossil (I'm sure some will), but you can't effectively think critically about something BEFORE YOU'VE LEARNED IT. And the process of learning must sometimes be teacher-directed. Rigor can be both painful and good. Fun for the sake of fun is counter-educational.

You and others argue that some students will drop out if there's too much (or any?) rigor and lecture. So let's completely overhaul education to accommodate (coddle) those kids (many of whom will still leave school)? I call: "Reckless!" Students drop out for many reasons, despite your side's eagerness to attribute it to "boring" teachers who unapologetically utilize lecture/discussion as an instructional technique.

Besides, I'm NOT reluctant to utilize methods which will genuinely - rather than cosmetically - bring about student initiative and curiosity, or what so many in the most recent phase of the ed reform movement vaguely label "engagement." The evidence is not, as you say, "incontrovertible." And it indicates little regarding how traditional learners are impacted by the overhaul your side is advocating - and treating as an educational absolute truth.

Some other responses to your well-presented comments:

Isn't it possible that the reason 80% of jr college students need remediation is because of the very methodology ("progressive," student-centered, sampler platter differentiated, often fun rather than rigorous) that YOU espouse?

I've read Schmoker's books. I don't consider him to be an advocate of the progressive approach. Maybe I misread him.

I will continue to "denigrate" those who over simplistically try to overhaul what can and does work, and who say test scores don't matter while using those same test scores to undermine teachers who do not instruct cherry picked charter school students.

A total "all in" commitment to pure progressive methodology could just as easily result in even worse educational outcomes. I can meet you at some pedogogical middle ground and concede that there should be a sensible balance. I CAN get there. Can you? Can Mr Lucas?

aotearoa's picture
aotearoa
Kiwi teaching grade 8 science in Doha, Qatar

I am from NZ and teach grade 8 science overseas. I used to teach in a "traditional" way but in the last 15 years it has evolved into a more hands off style. Every year for the last 15 years, I have been accused of not teaching by both students and parents. My teaching style is non-traditional yet my students learn - feedback from students in high school attest to this. I am the "sage on the stage" sometimes but prefer to have the students learn at their own pace rather than the more traditional "stand + deliver" to the entire class at once.

To me, learning in the 21st century is not just having students regurgitate what we have gone over in class or read in the textbook. Learning changed when technology became so readily accessible. For me, learning today is about gaining the skills to find the information you want to know and problem solve. In order to gain those skills, students have to do it which is why I more often than not, prefer to facilitate learning rather than deliver it.

I feel I do my best teaching when students ask clarifying questions - I simply say "if you don't understand ..... OR If you cannot answer this question.... then come over here and we will go over it". The students who need the help are expected to move to one area of the room to get the help they need - the rest of the class carries on with their own learning.

Every year I do my own end of year survey - this is different to the one the school has me do. It is more about my style of teaching. Some students loved it when I "flipped" the class at one point this year while others really disliked it. Some said "tell me what to learn", some want all class discussions. The one thing that comes through loud and clear every year - no one method or tool suits every student. I think we as teachers need to remember this.

Margarita Finkel's picture
Margarita Finkel
Social media for e-learning & technology

Thank you Ben for this interesting conversation.
Regards,
Margarita

HumanImprint's picture
HumanImprint
High School Social Science Teacher

"Call me a fossil (I'm sure some will), but you can't effectively think critically about something BEFORE YOU'VE LEARNED IT. And the process of learning must sometimes be teacher-directed."

Fossils leave the best impressions. I am a young teacher of 8 years, but what I do know and observe is that there is a fine line between lazy pedagogy and student centered learning. I also disagree with the title that good teachers do not teach. I consider myself to be a very good teacher, one that breaks information down and curates information that students can use to further the discussion.
I LECTURE! ALOT!
With that being said, my students are made a part of the conversation and for that, they walk away realizing that, "Hey, lectures are not all that bad after all." I get it all the time.

I have seen project based teachers try to implement this strategy and only end up frustrating the students because there are too many doors and little direction. To make project based learning meaningful and appropriate for every single kid in the class, the projects need to be approached as independent study, with different rubrics to grade the material AND content. I can not assess a student who makes an iMovie the same as one who makes a poster-board presentation.
I also think it is a bit of a utopia that you speak of in saying that every kid will WANT to be empowered with their education. I agree with Edwinivich when he/she said that content knowledge takes precedent, and is it so bad that we teach a kid how to sit and listen? I am not anti-project, but I do know that I have TOO much information to get through in a school year to even dream about making a majority of my lessons project based. I can just hear the complaints now from parents and kids alike, that projects did not help them on the test that they paid 90.00 for, because I wanted them to figure it out on their own. The logistics of providing 1:1 instruction in a classroom of 32+ is daunting!
I would love to hear your specific suggestions on how I can tackle the problem of not having 31 teacher's assistants in the room. And please, don't tell me to go read a book and figure it out on my own. Sometimes it is better if someone JUST TELL ME!

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