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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

Linda's picture

Dear Robin,
Why aren't teachers insulted by the implication that "teaching" is somehow bad and that it is limited to the action of standing at the front of a room full of students and talking non-stop through a class period? Why aren't teachers insulted at being told that they willingly do not do their best for their students? Is there any solid, peer reviewed, research that shows that students do or do not learn through any specific instructional technique? What are the citations? These should be legitimate questions in the pursuit of best practices in education.

Apparently I have not articulated my point of view clearly. I teach a student lead physics (and occasionally chemistry) class based in the 5 Es and constructivist principles. My students are creative and often obtain a better grasp of (science) theory than their contemporaries. I refuse to teach every class period and every topic identically, even class to class. Never, in my years of teaching have the dynamics of any 2 class periods been the same. I write individual lesson plans for some students and for each class as a whole. I give presentations about the benefits of and means of implementing the student lead classroom at local conferences. And, the high school where I teach is divided into learning communities which I actively support.

The teachers that I know work far beyond a 40 hour work week, spend their own money on things that the school (or parents) cannot or will not provide, reflect endlessly on their lesson plans and unit plans, attend multiple out of class functions to support their students, and give unceasingly of their time. They are surrogate parents to students who need guidance, friends to students who need assistance, and pathfinders for students who learn differently. They take professional development classes every year to find new and better ways to teach and keep up with one or more professional societies to be on the forefront of education. Does that really sound like a profession that is unwilling to use the latest, researched information to the best of its ability?

This being said, using the word "teach" as something that is negative and derogatory irritates me no end. Teaching is not limited to "direct instruction." To say so is sophomoric in the extreme and demonstrates an unfortunate grasp of the English language. Further, ALL TEACHERS that I know use a variety of techniques for instruction. Yearly we have it beat into our heads that we are "sages on the stage" and lecturing with PowerPoint or giving book assignments because we do not care or are too lazy to teach. This is ludicrous. In the 13+ years that I have taught, I have met only 1 teacher who felt that teaching was assigning reading out of a textbook then giving a quiz. That is 1 teacher in a group of many - hundreds, in fact.

We are told unpleasant "facts" about how unsatisfactory teachers are without citation or reference. Almost every year some "professional" who is teaching in-service classes to teachers tells the story of the school - sometimes in California, but I have heard of it being in any number of states - where teachers are told that the above average students are below average and the below average students are above average. These teachers apparently could not recognize or did not care enough about their classes to know the students because the mislabeled above average students do poorly and the mislabeled below average students do well, "living up to the teacher's expectations". Interestingly, NO ONE has been able to site a reference to this story. However, the old chestnut is trotted out year after year and presented as a truth about teachers, without any apparent basis in fact. In that same vein, I would like someone to site evidence that most teachers choose to be "sages on the stage" and are not concerned with doing EVERYTHING that they can do ethically to help students learn and become creative, critically and analytically thinking human beings. I welcome solid, peer reviewed, research that shows any single type of instruction is not effective or that any type of instruction is effective. Do we really want to base our profession on anecdotes and not solid research? Even worse, do we want to base our profession on someone creating a problem (not based in research) and selling us their method that we should use to fix it?

I am proud to be a teacher. I am proud to teach. Why would any teacher not feel this way?

Now, I will once again try to get off my soap box...... it is so difficult to step down!

Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who only know what to think. -- Neil deGrasse Tyson

MaryAnne Longo's picture

Ben, this article should be required reading for all teachers regardless of their teaching status. It defines the difference between teaching and learning so very well. We cannot lose sight of this child centered philosophy. It is not the facts that are important but to know the method to reaching the facts on their own. It is a process of participation not just listening.... Teachers need to fight for the time to allow their students to participate. There is such a drive to increase the curriculum so students can be exposed to more materials but in essence if the cannot participate in their learning then nothing will change in the outcome of their performance. They should be excited about learning and able to make choices and discover the wonder in actually "getting and understanding for themselves". Again, thanks for one of the best articles written in my 42 years of teaching all levels of students from elementary to college. MaryAnne

Laura Brown's picture
Laura Brown
5th grade science teacher from NJ

I think that this is an excellent write up. I know from my experience in the classroom students learn and remember so much more when they take over the discussion and I just guide them. Students don't want to be dictated to they want to be a part of the conversation.

Mrs. Oliver's picture
Mrs. Oliver
Sixth grade math/science teachr from Forrest City, Arkansas

I loved your article and it had a lot of information that I can used to improve my teaching skills. I will also share this article.

Susan Leieritz's picture

There is one school here in Denver Public Schools that does a fantastic job of project-based learning with a teacher-as-facilitator model, and it is the Highly Gifted and Talented magnet elementary school. My genuine frustration is that their model is not exported to every single school in the district. The argument is that the students at this school are better prepared for such a model, but the truth is that there are students even at the HGT school who are behind in reading or math. I am certain that at-risk students in low-income neighborhood schools would benefit from project-based, real-world learning. Filling in the blanks on meaningless worksheets is handicapping the very students that this exercise is meant to "help". The question is, how do we get administrators to buy into the idea that PBL is best for ALL students and not just for those who have already demonstrated a capacity for higher-level thinking?

Whitney Mathis Smith's picture
Whitney Mathis Smith
Fifth Grade Social Studies/Science Teacher

I totally agree with this post!! I love to view teaching in this way and believe that student centered learning is much more effective.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Susan, if your time permits I would encourage a short stint to Jefferson County Open School (In CO) wherein projects are one of limitless choices students can make in their learning and their reaching for their goals, or you may check out an account of that school and its longitudinal impact on grads, Lives of Passion, School of Hope by Rick Posner, best of luck on your journey!

Jane Allison's picture
Jane Allison
Computer Technology Teacher

I'm a believer in this, but I'm having some trouble implementing it with my 1st graders. I teach computer technology, and I want the kids to work in pairs to do self-directed inquiry to figure out an animation program. I made very short videos they can use to see how the program works. I let the kids choose their own partners and told them they can help each other and ask other groups for help. I got them set up with one computer to watch the videos and the other for their animation work. This all went fine for most of my classes until today. I had one class where at least three groups just fought with each other the whole time, then cried and I came home feeling like a terrible teacher. Suggestions?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

Hi Jane-
I think this might be a case of "too much, too fast." I see it a lot when teachers try to move to a mover facilitative mode of teaching. You might want to rethink the length of time they were expected to work, the way the groups were formed, and/or the messiness of the task they needed to complete. You know them better than I, of course, but usually when the wheels come off it's because the task or the social aspect was just a bit too complex.

I'd be happy to talk more about it if you'd like. My email is lthomas at antioch dot edu

Jane Allison's picture
Jane Allison
Computer Technology Teacher

I'm happy to report that my other classes so far have really taken to the activity and loved it. I think you're right...the wheels came off in my difficult class yesterday because there were about 4 kids who had trouble finding a partner and then, by default, paired with each other. They didn't get along at all. I think for next week (I only see them once a week) I will have each of them join an already functional group to form groups of three. If they can't get along with the new group, perhaps they are kids who would rather work alone.

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