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

Katie's picture

I agree that the first step for recovery is to admit that we have a problem. Teachers are still respected for their knowledge and wisdom in many communities but that respect is being compromised because we are not allowed to respectfully and professionally tell the truth. We are expected to support the district rhetoric with half-truths- "We are not teaching to the test. We have aligned our curricula with the objectives of the test." So the parents in our community are surprised to hear about the conditions under which we work when one of us finally has the courage- or has gotten to the point where speaking out won't make the working conditions worse.

I am speaking out but am worried about the ramifications of joining this conversation. I agree with the idea that we have to be part of the solution and not just have gripe sessions. However, we can only create solutions once the problems are accurately identified.

Richard A. Watt's picture

Katie: Congratulations for having the courage to acknowledge and speak the truth. I would enjoy discussing these issues further but not by taking up more space on this blog.
Please contact me directly via email to email at Charactercounts@optimum.net and I will reply.
Thanks for understanding.........Rich

Linda's picture

Why do we try to make the words "teach" and "teacher" derogatory?

I take issue with the way you have used the words teach and teacher in "Great Teachers Don't Teach". You imply that teachers are those who impart knowledge by lecturing or "direct instruction." As a teacher, lecture is only one of many tools that I use to impart knowledge. Providing students with creative, interesting, differentiated, and well facilitated learning opportunities is as much teaching as lecturing.

Teachers are wonderful, disciplined, educated, hard working, caring professionals who make a difference in the world. We can and should acknowledge that not all teachers need to teach in the same way! There are teachers who are incredible lecturers (whose students learn despite the direct instruction), others who are incredible facilitators, some are wizard at the student lead classroom and there are those who inspire students beyond what the student believes he/she can do. All are teachers. And is that a bad thing?

Linda's picture

Re. Change Agent...

You sound a bit defensive...
Like everything in life, there are those administrators who understand little and who do become the enemy. I have heard such wonderful directives from school administration as, "100% of our students should be in the top 10%" and I know administrators who assess teachers' abilities based on student and parent criticism and not analysis of student outcomes. The administration in one school where I worked for a very short time did not believe in student consequences for bad behavior (for example, a student slugged a substitute teacher without consequence). In Texas our politicians seem to think that schools do not need financial support, just rigorous testing. This tends to make them look like the enemy, too. Often, as a teacher I feel like everyone perceives me as the enemy. I'm that stupid old biddy who requires students to learn, work, analyze and think critically.

OK -- now how can we as education professionals overcome all the labeling and unfortunate situations?

Jennifer Kelly's picture
Jennifer Kelly
Parent of three lower school boys in Denver and author of a parenting blog

I recently interviewed two educators in Colorado Springs who are really promoting the concept of Personalized Learning and how it gets teachers to rethink their roles as a "sage on stage." I posted part of that interview on Fresh Ink, a Colorado Springs Gazette blog. They are finding so much success that other states are sending their education leaders to Colorado to learn from them. http://www.csfreshink.com/profiles/blogs/personalized-learning-dudes-kee...

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

Why do we try to make the words "teach" and "teacher" derogatory?


No intent, real or implied, was made to denigrate the word "teacher" or the marvelous work that "teachers" do.

The whole point of my post is that it is not about the teacher or what or how they teach. It is about the learner and what and how they learn.

Words have power and if we change the title of "teacher" to something that focuses on what results we want, then that might help shift the overwhelmingly popular practices of teacher and textbook directed instruction; while the students passively listen--to helping the students take an active role; protagonist, inquiry, discovery, exploration--learning, in their education.

In essence, what I am asking is how can we quit being so defensive about old and outdated practices (any one still doing Radial Keratotomy?) and consider all the amazing things we know about how the brain remembers, and align that with how we should help students learn (ever heard of Lasik?)?

I would much rather talk about how teachers can be better teachers using some of the following: Professional Learning Communities, Project-based learning, Inquiry, Collaborative Learning, Japanese Lesson Study, Quality Circles, Working on the Work, Critical Conversations, Data Decision-making, Mastery Learning, Baldridge, ISO 6000, TAP, Ford PAS, Accelerated Learning, Breaking Ranks Framework, Working Systemically....

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


Awesome job on the article, and they are headed in the right direction. I especially enjoyed the prezi presentation.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

Can you imagine if this post was titled, "Great Teachers Teach." There would have been no comments. We would have just sat there and mushed our lips, nodded our heads, while we agreed.


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

Dixie Diarist:

I enjoyed your story that you posted earlier. Interestingly different perspective... refreshing.

Your comment here is very perceptive. Thanks!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas
[quote]Can you imagine if this post was titled, "Great Teachers Teach." There would have been no comments. We would have just sat there and mushed our lips, nodded our heads, while we agreed.www.actionjacksonart.com[/quote]

Linda's picture

Please give the citations of the studies that demonstrate that most teachers are recalcitrant in using new, research based, instructional techniques. My concern is not that we use outdated techniques (I know very few teachers who do), but that we tarnish with broad strokes the work that is actually done in a classroom based solely on anecdotal evidence.

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