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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 (117)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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
zep
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
Facilitator

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.

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

Hi Jane, I am a technology teacher as well and am intrigued by your lesson. Can you send me more information? My email is kjarrett@ncs-nj.org 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.

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