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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

Mrs. Davis's picture
Mrs. Davis
Ohio Middle School teacher of students who are identified as gifted

I agree that great teachers don't teach-all the time. There must be a measure of scaffolding and instruction so that the great teacher is able to get out of the way. Another way of describing a great teacher in addition to the title of "learning engineer" might be a "learning facilitator". To promote learning it is helpful for the student make personal connections to the topic at hand. This can be done perhaps through family, culture, or personal interests. Student choice and control are paramount. The proper use of technology, if available, is also a tool for this paradigm shift of giving the student ownership for their learning. According to Thornburg (2004), the proper use of technology will entail "doing different things" not just "doing things differently" (p. 3). This includes student collaboration, creation, and the giving and receiving of feedback via blogging or wikis, rather than merely spitting out information in the form of a Prezi or a PowerPoint.

Thornburg, D. (2004). Technology and education: Expectations, not options. (Executive Briefing No. 401). Retrieved from http://www.tcpdpodcast.org/briefings/expectations.pdf

Richard A. Watt's picture

iHi Ben:
I must be a fossil too, because I completely agree with HumanImprint's statement. Students must first learn the requisite content and a number of essential skills before they can be turned loose into the student-centered minefield of project-based learning.
In addition to content mastery, students must learn communication and presentation skills, organization and time management skills, research and inquiry skills, self-assessment and reflection skills, and group participation and leadership skills.
Student preparation to tackle rigorous project-based learning assignments will require Great Teachers to Teach first, and thereafter function as mentors to students as they move through the many phases of such projects.
I feel compelled to inform all the great teachers who proudly admit that they do not teach, that there a untold numbers of great teachers like HumanImprint and myself before I retired early, who actually do teach, and sometimes we do it effectively nearly every day. Imagine that.
As long as my official job title is teacher and my licensure is referred to as teacher certification, I am going to surmise that my employing district expects me to actually teach. When or if the school district changes my job title to project manager, I will stop teaching and immerse my students into a world where PBL experiences are made available in great supply and the students quickly forget the sound of my voice. What happens next is that I walk out of the schoolhouse for the last time nostalgically recalling times past, when students learned the old-fashioned way, by listening to teachers teach.
Best regards to all.

Charity Hume's picture
Charity Hume
Dean at Polytechnic School

I'm saddened when I hear Bertha describe a "low evaluation" for fostering student led learning. There seems to be a split between a teacher's understanding of what works in the classroom and the external mechanisms of evaluation, which have become disconnected from the actual process of teaching. The heart of teaching is not "a prescribed learning outcome." It is a transcendent, transforming gift of learning that great teachers ignite in individual lives, one at a time, with care, competence, and expertise. Despite the inability to measure this connection in official evaluations, despite a general misunderstanding of what teachers do, I have seen many teachers continue to do the right thing, that is, to teach each day, each student, as best he or she can, and know that is all that matters.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

" great teachers engineer learning experiences that maneuver the students into the driver's seat and then the teachers get out of the way." There is a name for this, the Montessori Method. However, you can take one more step towards authentic student centered education, remove yourself from feeling you must engineer anything, allow the content areas to flow from the students interests and life ambitions. One of my favorite schools to visit has a whiteboard wherein anyone can write a topic they want to learn about or teach about, when one of these ha multiple signatories the class begins, capable of stopping at any point in the year. Will they hit all the CCSS? Maybe, maybe not, but I guarantee the majority of students will love coming to school and learn more than they have in any 3 years previous combined. I've had the privilege to watch hundreds of kids learn 6 years of math in 6 months, including kids who were previously labeled ADD, ADHD, bipolar, schizophrenic, EBD, & autistic. The teachers gave up the mantel of omniscient and the kids learned more and enjoyed coming to school each day.

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


New ways of teaching and learning should be tried. A better job must be done with those who have trouble learning.

--Georgia, by Elmer D. Williams

They're still reading these dang essays today from behind The Lectern of Speaking because I told them to and they're still whining about it and then when they get to reading them the students seem to like being the center of attention after all.

Hap's up there going to town on his essay this morning and doing a real good job and then there's Tempest on the front row and Petal's sitting in the second row right behind Tempest and for some unknown reason Tempest turns around and engages Petal in conversation and Petal engages Tempest in conversation right back.

So these two are just going to town.

Hap's up there also going to town reading his essay.

I'm sitting at the desk in the front watching and listening to Hap ... then I'm looking at Tempest and Petal ... and then I'm watching and listening to Hap ... and then my attention once again turns to Tempest and Petal. For all the wrong reasons.

It would have been okay if Tempest had turned around to tell Petal to go find a fire extinguisher because her Georgia History textbook was on fire. But that just wasn't the case as far as I could tell. Tempest just wanted to talk to Petal during Hap's fine reading of his essay so she starts talking to Petal. Petal was polite enough to talk right back to Tempest. Isn't that such a great moment for Tempest and Petal in the development of what Principle Lurlene would call a student's "social piece."

I went nuts. And when I go nuts, particular to a social situation like this, several unsociable things happen in real quick succession. Here they are ...

I yell real loud what the heck are you doing while Hap's reading his essay

Then I sit up real high in my chair and say ... time out ... real loud and frantically and then do the time-out sign with my hands as if the referee isn't paying attention to me and it's near the end of the Super Bowl and I think we have a chance to win

I watch everybody perk up real super-fast and shut up

I remind, real loud, Tempest and Petal, that a fellow student is nervously doing his best to read his essay in front of a group of people and the teacher lives for these classroom moments very much

I look at Hap and say I'm sorry on behalf of these two atomic Butts County heads, Tempest and Petal

Tempest says she's not an atomic Butts County head

I make the atomic Butts County heads apologize to Hap

The atomic Butts County heads apologize to Hap

Then I say to Hap that he all of a sudden has the atomic power to boot anybody out of class he feels is not paying attention to the reading of his essay ... especially Tempest and Petal

Hap smiles and asks if I am totally kidding

I give Hap my satisfied smile

Hap asks again if I am totally kidding

Then I put my feet up on the desk, lightly grasped The Teaching Stick, and deeply enjoyed the rest of the reading of Hap's fine essay.


zep's picture
Education Specialist

"I believe it is the right of every student to fail, if they want to", but will we give every student the right to opt out of taking a course rather than fail? Let's all rethink the notion of mandatory courses and failing students. How much more could you teach to those who choose your course if those who really don't want to be there were given a safe space to inhabit other than your classroom? I'm willing to bet that the achievement w/in your classroom would skyrocket.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

[quote]I agree that it can't be "all fun all the time" Why not? What would happen to the drop-out rate if it really was fun all the time? Unless you believe kids are stupid you have no reason to believe that kids won't want to learn math, reading, writing, or any other relatively universally needed skills & content. They don't need engagement, they need their voice heard, and not in the CCSS box or any other box, but in the boundless edges of their hopes & dreams.

Nini White's picture
Nini White
Founder-Developer of Kids' Own Wisdom.

Teachers who understand and deliver what is proposed in Ben Johnson's article: THANK YOU!!! For nearly all of my elementary, middle and upper school years I was considered a bright and enthusiastic child, but my grades rarely - if ever - reflected those qualities. I actually graduated from public high school with a D- average. (Most people who know me now express extreme surprise, even disbelief, to learn that about my past.) The low self-esteem that accompanied my GPA took a long time to neutralize and overcome. A major influence on overcoming my shabby self image was just following my own curiosity about art history, about landscape design, about horticulture, about educational theories and practices, about geography, about game design, about curriculum design, and much more. With the majority of these studies I had mentors or friendly experts upon whom I could call. I sometimes wonder how much more I could have accomplished in life if I'd had teachers who brought Mr. Johnson's and Socrates' approach to my classrooms .... a lot, to be sure. And yet out of the surviving spark of my particular flame of intelligence came inspiration to create KIDS' OWN WISDOM ... Resources for putting students in the driver's seat of their own social-emotional development. KIDS' OWN WISDOM respects and expects much from young children, and teachers who follow the instructions (by NOT teaching) enjoy the greatest results. The key to teachers' success does not imply passivity on their part - far from it. The key is exactly as Mr. Johnson describes: "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."

zep's picture
Education Specialist

[quote] A major influence on overcoming my shabby self image was just following my own curiosity about art history, about landscape design, about horticulture, about educational theories and practices, about geography, about game design, about curriculum design, and much more." "The key is exactly as Mr. Johnson describes: "They stack the deck" There is a subtle but substantial distinction between these 2. Stacking the deck implies the teacher retaining control, albeit behind the scenes, of what is intended to be learned. Your experience of educating yourself left you in charge from start to finish. If you asked a group of kids, the vast majority would choose your path. There may be a place for teachers enacting Foucault's Panopticon but the vast majority would love an educational setting where they take the lead including when they've learned enough about a topic to fulfill their needs or curiosity, all without the implicit watchful eye of the teacher.

Michele's picture
High School English teacher, graduate student

This debate is beneficial to me as I, a veteran teacher, sort out what to keep from the "old" and what to adopt from the "new."

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