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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
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Comments (114)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ponder's picture
Ponder is a higher order literacy tool for inquiry-based learning

BIngo! This is exactly right. I bet most readers' memories of their favorite teachers involve active, engaged classrooms where the students are in the spotlight. Whether it's an off-topic digression of a discussion that suddenly students realize is essential to understanding the main point of a reading or a project where students are trying to find an evasive solution to some problem, the teacher played the role of facilitator. S/he wasn't doing the thinking for the students.

At Parlor, we believe we are building a product that helps put students in the driver's seat by allowing their reflections on readings to guide discussions and empowering them to contribute new content to the class curriculum. We hope this will engage students more deeply and provide an opportunity for all those great teachers to facilitate learning in the way you've described.

Great post! Thanks!

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

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.

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!

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