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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

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey

Hi Jane, I am a technology teacher as well and am intrigued by your lesson. Can you send me more information? My email is and I am @kjarrett on Twitter. Thanks in advance!

Miss Becky's picture
Miss Becky
Special Education Teacher

Well said! As a teacher of students with special needs, I have said many times that sometimes all a student needs to be successful is for someone to believe in them. Kids need to know they are important and cared about. When they are given the opportunity to choose what they learn about, they feel relevant and included. They feel as though they matter. This is important for all kids, especially those who may not feel cared about at home. Great article!

Ms. Derriere Williams's picture

I am a pre-service teacher who will be student teaching the fall. I agree that students learn best when they are in control of their own learning. Talking to the students and having class discussion is the way I have always learned best. There are times when a classmate is able explain the concept better than the teacher. If the lesson is interactive it sticks more and can be remembered easily. I feel that performance based learning is the way most students will retain information because they are forced to do something with the information the teacher has given them.

Brandi Smith's picture

I am a pre-service student about to student teach in August. I agreed with my teacher creating long-term memories, which made it easier for me to remember what we did in class. I am the type of person that has to make some kind of connection in order to remember something. The reason I chose this blog is because in high school this was my favorite teacher's classroom quote, therefore she taught us differently. We learned by first recognizing if we had any life experiences that would help us connect to the topic at hand. We did a lot of group and hands on activities and she would just come around and help us keep our thoughts flowing. As a future teacher I vow to allow my students to have some input in all topics because I feel that when students do more hands-on or have more input it sticks to their minds longer.

Meagan Heintschel's picture

Hi I am a pre-service teacher that is getting ready to student teach. I read your blog and love everything that you say about how great teachers don't teach. As a pre-service teacher learning about constructivism it is very helpful to read this blog and see the connection that you have created between constructivism and your views of a great teacher. After doing several observation hours and my many years in school I completely agree with you when you say "Students learn best by personally experiencing learning that is physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual". Every student learns is a different way but I strongly believed that the best way for students to learn is by experience and prior knowledge. Thank you for all of your knowledge on what a great teacher is and helping me make that connection to constructivism. I look forward to purchasing and reading your book to learn more about how I can become a great teacher!

Sa'sha Little's picture

I have recently been accepted to the teaching program at Prairie View A&M University and I strongly agree with the title of your blog; "Great Teachers don't Teach". I believe that an educator should facilitate the learning to their students. I agree with John Dewey, on his theories on experiential learning, which is called constructivism in today's education systems. I enjoyed reading about the professor who showed all the characteristic of how to use the theory of constructivism and I plan on mastering the theory myself.

Jazmyne_w's picture

I just got into the teacher program at my university, and I must say that I agree with your view of what a great teacher does. As a student I agree that power points and lectures are not the most effective ways of learning. Students should have a teacher that interact personal experiences with the lessons, so that they would have a better understanding.

DanielleWilson's picture

This is truly an amazing piece on constructivism. I am a Senior Education major with a concentration in EC-6 who is very close to student teaching who is trying to understand different methods of constructivism. I agree with the statement that teacher have to get out of the way and let students engage themselves into whatever the topic is at hand. While in elementary school I was diagnosed with ADD & ADHD and it challenged my teachers to think outside of the box to engage me. Instead of just teaching me material, she used my hyperactivity to her advantage to teach a lesson. She was teaching addition while playing on my needs to want to move around a lot by having students use manipulatives to add to a basket which symbolized a math problem. For example the problem could be 4+4 and each team had three baskets: The first basket had 4 manipulative's inside while the second one had 4 manipulative's, and the third basket represented your answer. My team and I had to solve it and race to the finish line with 8 manipulative's to place in the final basket before another team. Instead of helping each group solve each problem she just walked around and facilitated the classroom. So yes, constructivism plays a huge role in the classroom. So all teachers have a choice to make either just spit knowledge or engage your students and let take the driver's seat of their education.

Kresenda Foreman's picture

As a college student I totally agree with this post, the professors in the education program at the university I attend actually practice every last one of these skills while teaching us how to be awesome learning engineers. In our department of education our professors do not believe in "lectures", being able to be the driver in the classrooms most of the time really makes the learning more effective and stick to us. Putting together lessons on what we've learned with our own spins it keeps us involved and interested in the lesson we are learning. The things that we are practicing in the classroom learning from our professors are molding us into the learning engineers we are here to become.

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