Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

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
Related Tags:

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

Richard A. Watt's picture

Ben: In a perfect world, I share your philosophy with respect to constructivism and experiential learning. However, notwithstanding my investment of many years as a certified professional educator and administrator, I left teaching in part due to administrators like yourself, who have drank so much NCLB, RTTT, and Common Core Kool-Aid, that you actually believe that 100% of students will submit to the regimens essential for 100% of students to get anywhere close to meeting current education policy achievement goals of 100%. Please forgive me, but that is plain nuts! You have sufficient experience in the profession to know that some students demand to be left behind, refuse to accept behavioral or academic expectations, and there is nothing that you, I, or the National Teacher of the Year can do, despite our best efforts, to change that.
Federal education policy continues to have a disastrous impact on delivery of quality education by the states. Given that admitting to failed policies is politically unacceptable to politicians and policy-makers, they continue wasting scarce taxpayer resources funding a succession of unsuccessful fix du jours. This approach is analogous to an auto mechanic replacing parts of an engine that will not start, one after another, with the expectation that eventually the engine will start. Certainly, not an intelligent or cost effective approach to problem solving.
The time has come for all intelligent professional educators to remove the rose-colored glasses and demand that the Federal Branch of our government cease experimenting with education policy.
Abolishing the U.S. Department of Education would free up 77 billion dollars in 2014. For perspective, 77 billion dollars would provide approximately $3,500.00 in tuition aid to each of the nearly 22 million students expected to enter college next year.

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

I don't disagree with you. Especially at the high school level, there is too much water under the bridge for some students and they will refuse to cooperate. I have even said out loud that I believe it is the right of every student to fail, if they want to. Students have failed my classes be cause they chose to.

I agree with you. There is too much federal muddling in education. Also-- yes-- abolish the department of Education. Because of them, education is at the mercy of politicians concerned about political power not student learning.

I have taught all the grades, and all the core subjects. I have observed all the grades in many schools. It is not about getting every single student to a certain minimum level. It is about engaging more of them early and letting them make the choice. By the fourth grade, students have already decide if they like school or not. Much of that decision depends on how much success they have had, or better put, how much an observant teacher has fed that success. Students have to do something with knowledge, but listening is not doing. Observing is not doing. Filling a worksheet is not doing. Multiple choice questions are not doing. No wonder students don't like school! They hardly do anything.

Constructivism is not a strategy, or technique of teaching. It is the belief that students learn better, longer and more fully when they are in control, when they have to figure things out on their own, and when they make their own mistakes. We certainly can't just let the students loose, especially the students that have come up through the teacher-directed, socialization and control public education system we currently have. They would know what to do. What we can do, and what I have been preaching... yes preaching, is we can create isolated constructivist learning activities that allow students to do something with what they have learned, and push it further into long term memory, gain deeper understanding and make connections with what they already know. This is harder than just creating a worksheet or powerpoint because it requires teachers to be creative, put themselves in the student's shoes, and design from scratch their learning activities that stack the deck and make it hard for the students not to learn. And it take time...something teachers are lacking.

When students get to college, even the ones with straight 'A's, college professors lament the students' inability to think independently. In my next post, an executive from the computer industry lamented that many of the programmers wishing to join Rackspace knew a programming language, but did not know how to learn a new language because the one they "know", is now out of date. That is what constructivism is all about-- that and getting more students engaged doing things.

Sorry you are not in education any longer. You certainly have not lost the passion. Thanks for your "reality" check.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


I work with a program that is trying to change that. It is called Mix-It-Up Correlated Math and Science out of Texas State University. Dr. West saw the same thing you see-- math teachers spend all of their time on process and a miniscule amount on application, evaluation, or synthesis. Science teachers use math to interpret what is going on in the science-- but science has what math usually lacks--real applications...not fabricated story problems about odd shaped yards and trains. Dr. Wests theory is that if math and science teachers collaborate their efforts, then students will be the beneficiaries of greater comprehension in science, and more hands-on real math.

I hope that answers your question.
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Some of my most positive experiences throughout my educational career were with teachers that implemented this type of teaching strategy. One subject area that I saw some teachers completely neglect this ideology was in mathematics. To any math teacher or someone who has had a positive experience with this in a math classroom what do you think worked well or didn't work well for this type of student engagement in the lesson/class?[/quote]

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

First of all, let's not get bogged down in semantics and labels where we have to re-evaluate time honored job titles. Sometimes I believe there is a dearth of new ground to cover so individuals in our profession start looking at traditional conventions and attack them for lack of something better to do, like what pop culture hucksters like Sir Ken, Pink, and Godin prattle on about (for handsome sums of money, I might add) during their frequent TV and radio appearances.

Teacher, guide, sage, sensei, master, facilitator, mentor, leader, Central Scrutinizer, Grand Poobah... whatever ... you can distill the conversation down to a few brief descriptions and there's no need to kill more trees publishing more books that say essentially the same thing again and again in slightly different ways.

A GREAT, not just good, teacher, is an artist who sees information. learning objectives, and the students comprising the palette and the classroom as the canvas. The brushes are the tools used for learning. The teacher manipulates the elements into his/her vision. The finished canvas is a synthesis of all the preceding elements. The follow up assessment is the formal critique of the work.

There, and I've just saved everyone $26.95. Take that money and buy some pizza and soda for you and your kids instead.

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


On the first day of school I asked my students how they learn the best and what they're good at. It was a question more for me, I said, but would eventually be good for you, too. You know, once we get to work.

A few of them huffed and dropped their heads on their desks. That's the power of the phrase ... get to work.

I had a yellow legal pad out and a pen ready to write. One of the nicest things you can do for someone is to shut up and listen to them ... and even write down what they say while they're watching you.

They were watching. I got the impression no one had ever asked them those questions.

Lazlo said he loves vampires. Nesbit said he's good at sleeping late. Brainerd said he wanted me to quit talking so fast.

I made the time-out sign with my hands and said ... Oh-kay. Why don't we start all over again.


Today was one of those days that leave me, and them, staring at nothing, exhausted. Today I feel that most of my students in my classes will not to college and will end up living with their parents for the rest of their lives. Some parents will probably be okay with that and some won't. Some of my kids will be okay with that, too.

They have been inattentive, uninterested. Grabbing and any answer, no matter how odd or way, way off. Some have shut down. Some have slept through what I thought were riveting lectures on riveting topics.

One student in particular, who rose above the waves of the usual slosh of disinterest, despite my cajoling to take school and life and relationships a bit more seriously, has me feeling that he will somehow graduate from this school and after the graduation ceremony he will be treated to a nice lunch at a nice restaurant and then go directly home to be placed under the stairs.

For some it won't be what college they go to, it'll be what federal prison. For others, they'll just disappear into civilization and they will find friends and find work and be okay. I don't know if they'll be happy, but they'll probably be okay.

We'll try again tomorrow.


I got it. Now I know why Mr. Warbird across the hall screams louder, yells louder, pounds the white board louder, and pounds his lectern louder. Now I know why he calls them some pretty good names. He also likes to karate kick his door closed. It's loud as when he does it.

I got it. He don't care. He's teaching and guiding and instructing from the gut.

A couple of weeks ago in the faculty meeting Mr. Warbird announced to everybody that his wife, a big muckity-muck with a big accounting firm, is being transferred to New York city. Like, this coming weekend. But, Mr. Warbird screamed, he was going to hang on and leave at the end of the school year!

We screamed and yelled. Right. Sure. Stay until the end of the year.

I caught him in the parking lot later. Right. Sure. Stay until the end of the year.

He said he'd catch a plane one weekend and she'd catch a plane the next weekend and so forth and so on. He admitted they had already bought a house outside the city.

I asked him where.

Outside the city.

Mr. Warbird said he didn't want to seem like a snob. A house in Westchester County.

I told Mr. Warbird he couldn't snob me. I'm too much of a hick to tell.

So now he really yells and screams and pounds things and calls them creative names. He can side kick an innocent classroom door shut like Chuck Norris. I wish I could teach like I don't care if I get fired. Most days, though, I think that's the best way to do it. At least for a quick second or two.


Tater2425's picture

LStefanick has a really good point "One subject area that I saw some teachers completely neglect this ideology was in mathematics." Math has always been one of the hardest subjects for me personally to teach. Growing up Math was by far hands down my favorite subject. I feel that has hindered my ability to teach it the way it needs to be taught. In my classroom I am always using some type of manipulative but I sometimes feel that it is still lacking. I have tried to incorporate games and different activities into our daily Math centers to help enhance the concept I am trying to teach. Like I said this is an area that I am always working on improving.

As for the article....
WOW!!! It is so very true for every age. Even as a student myself I learn much better when I am given the opportunity to jump right in and take a part in my own learning. I have always felt drained when I walk out of a three hour class. My teacher might have been lucky to have my undivided attention for the first ten minutes of class but after that I was biding my time for the next two hours and fifty minutes till I could walk out the door and go home. It is sad but true a lot of teachers still just stand in front of a podium and lecture.

I currently teach Kindergarten and I know that my students always learn best when they are exploring on their own. I am always available to them to help them with making sure they are on task and have a clear understanding, while at the same time taking a step back to let them learn. This has been something I have been working on more and more over the years.

The majority of my teachers growing up did teach through lectures. It has been hard to make the adjustment of letting my students learning independently/small group. It has proven time and time again that their knowledge on a subject matter is much greater when they have done the learning themselves.

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Middle School Integrated Curriculum-Aspiring Leader-Lifelong Learner

Great teachers Lead Learning, facilitate inquiry, and stimulate creativity!

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Middle School Integrated Curriculum-Aspiring Leader-Lifelong Learner

I liken this to a recent EdCamp Leon I attended. Jason Flom gave a presentation on neurosciences and how we think about learning processes and development . He recommended a book called "MINDSET" by Carol Dweck - read this! It also reminds me that as a teacher I am morally and ethically responsible to keep up with my own learning before I can teach.

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

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.