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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

A.C. Christian's picture
A.C. Christian
Parent of public school student in Connecticut

How dare you be mindful of professional self-preservation! Don't you care about the children?

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

Constructivist Chagrin:

I feel your pain. Having been both a teacher and an administrator, I know the ins and outs of both. First of all, just because there is controlled chaos in constructivist classroom does not mean that it is not purposeful, deliberate and well organized. So, do whatever you have to do to document your purpose, methodology and desired results-- and then test the students to show that they did learn (pre and post testing is even more powerful at showing increases in knowledge and skills gained).

Make sure that the administrator gets a copy of what you are doing and the results. Now this is from the administrator side of things. Two observations only is absolute hogwash. You can request as many observations as you desire. If the administrator says he or she can't, then take the case to the district because it is baloney. There is no district that assigns a cash value to half hour observations and puts a limit on how many an administrator can do.

On the administrator side, too often teachers view administrators as the enemy. You seem like you want them in your classroom, so that is a good sign. Take the time to get to know your administrator. Sit down and chat with him or her about what you are trying to do and the constructivist methodologies you are using. Ask for his or her help in perfecting them, and then set dates for the administrator to come into your classroom (if you do it early in the year, then their calendars aren't booked up so heavily).

Also, talk to your department chair and enlist his or her support for your strategies.

Finally, share the research with the administrator and the department chair so they know that you are being deliberate and following "research-based" strategies.

Basically, get to know and enlist the aid of the administrator and they will respond favorably.

Good Luck and let me know how it goes.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas


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

First of all, thank you for bearing the standard for student learning. We need more teachers and administrators like you.

The parent who posted was concerned about your preoccupation with your own evaluation. Your job is at stake. So do something about it.

It is time that you became an instructional leader, and start converting your fellow educators, teachers and administrators alike. There is no more powerful tool at your disposal than student test results. Be precise about your documentation. Perform pre and post tests (aligned to standards) after your learning activities and when you are criticized about your philosophy and the associated methods of engendering high levels of student engagement and learning, then you shut them up with the proof. Even on your evaluation, show the administrator that your methods are getting results, and show him the research-- even from Marzano on cooperative learning-- that you are following.

Ultimately, if your school environment is not likely to be converted even with the evidence, then you might want to seek a more favorable district.

I wish you the best.
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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

A.C. Christian:

Thank you for your passion. Some teachers should be ashamed. Most do not deserve your comments though. We would all love it if every teacher was willing to sacrifice themselves 100 percent for our students, but teachers have limits and lives outside of school. Having been a teacher, and having received the low pay (my family qualified for free and reduced lunch for most of the time that I was a teacher), I have to defend the teachers who really are trying their best for their students. Unfortunately, the current educational system does not reward loyalty, or self sacrifice, and teachers are left to struggle to survive, having both spouses work, and doing summer, evening and weekend jobs just to break even.

Does that mean we cannot do better? No. We can and we must improve. Edutopia is all about improving- working smarter rather than harder. This article is about engaging students in their protagonist role of learning, and placing the teacher as the supporting role.

Thanks for your passion, but be kind to teachers if you can.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Janet's picture
Algebra Teacher NYC

Bertha, I really feel your pain. The vision of the teacher doing all the talking while the students sit quietly and listen is what most supervisors see as the hallmark of good teaching.
Yet we know that students need to take active part in their learning, which may mean questioning what they learn, engaging in debate etc. You know your students are learning, but your administrators don't see it. What you have to do is to let your administrators in on your methodology, you have to let them in on your successes. Don't give up, your students need you.

LStefanick's picture
An outsider looking to learn about challenges inside the classroom.

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?

Charity Hume's picture
Charity Hume
Dean at Polytechnic School

I'd like to recommend THE WISDOM IN THE ROOM, a book I wrote that focuses on reversing the role of the teacher from speaker to audience. Think of the role of a director in a film; the actors receive all kinds of feedback, but the direction is not a lecture that demands passivity. It encourages personal, immediate response, action, and exploration. The book is full of specific techniques that move teachers away from outmoded lectures and allows greater engagement for everyone.

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]

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