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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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Ponder's picture
Ponder
Ponder is a higher order literacy tool for inquiry-based learning

BIngo! This is exactly right. I bet most readers' memories of their favorite teachers involve active, engaged classrooms where the students are in the spotlight. Whether it's an off-topic digression of a discussion that suddenly students realize is essential to understanding the main point of a reading or a project where students are trying to find an evasive solution to some problem, the teacher played the role of facilitator. S/he wasn't doing the thinking for the students.

At Parlor, we believe we are building a product that helps put students in the driver's seat by allowing their reflections on readings to guide discussions and empowering them to contribute new content to the class curriculum. We hope this will engage students more deeply and provide an opportunity for all those great teachers to facilitate learning in the way you've described.

Great post! Thanks!

Edwinivich - Rich U's picture
Edwinivich - Rich U
Veteran Public High School Teacher Who Didn't Flee The Classroom

With respect, the author reads like yet another classroom fleeing educrat/ consultant who wants to turn the classroom into a Dave & Buster's arcade, relegate master teachers to mere facilitator status (guide on the side rather than sage on the stage - gag), and disregards the VERY REAL pressure of test score components in current teacher evaluations.

Such an approach also runs counter to the educational theory (also flawed) of - buzzword alert: Differentiation! Are there some students who benefit from what Mr Johnson is advocating? Probably. Are there some (many?) students who absolutely thrive in a traditional teacher-centered classroom approach? Yes! Establish rapport, establish credibility, and teach. There is NOTHING wrong with utilizing lecture/discussion methodology - if implemented properly and competently.

Are the nations that are beating us academically (although it MUST be pointed out that those societies make NO attempt to educate EVERYBODY, unlike the US) featuring this overly student centered approach? For the most part, they are not. And what Mr Johnson is describing here is possible ONLY AFTER SOME TYPE OF NON STUDENT CENTERED CONTENT TRANSFER HAS TAKEN PLACE!!!

Also: I'm willing to speculate that when Mr Johnson presents this theory of methodology (for which I suspect he's well compensated), he utilizes speaker centered, lecture style techniques to "impart" it.

Margarita Finkel's picture
Margarita Finkel
Social media for e-learning & technology

A personality does play an important role, agree with you Ben. Also, I think it's important to have empathy for students so it's build trust and more relaxing and engaging atmosphere in the classroom. I've checked with Quib.ly. Experts there have always interesting comments. I fallow Roberto Catanuto there, he always shares interesting ideas. If you like you can have a look here: http://quib.ly/qu/what-makes-a-good-teacher

Amanda Swanson's picture

I was really interested in reading this blog as soon as I read the title because I think this is true, that great teachers dont teach. I have heard this in many classes from many professors. I think we as teachers activate students knowledge and help guide them onto inquiry.
I think it is true that when your students are excited and engaged in the discovery in your classroom you are succeeding in your teaching profession.
Overall I agree that teachers instill and give students direction into their learning and they can take off with all the knowledge!

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

Amanda:

Thank you for the comment. While teachers who "teach" abound, teachers who know how to help students learn independently are rare. I am encouraged that you will be one of the latter. Good luck in your career.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[/quote]I was really interested in reading this blog as soon as I read the title because I think this is true, that great teachers don't teach. I have heard this in many classes from many professors. I think we as teachers activate students knowledge and help guide them onto inquiry.I think it is true that when your students are excited and engaged in the discovery in your classroom you are succeeding in your teaching profession.Overall I agree that teachers instill and give students direction into their learning and they can take off with all the knowledge![/quote]

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

Margarita:

True teachers, like yourself, are constantly learning. That attitude and the enthusiasm you bring to the learning that takes place in the classroom becomes embedded in the hearts and minds of the students. We have to keep learning, and we even learn from students we are supposed to be teaching. I will check out quibly so I can learn too. Thanks for your thoughts.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]A personality does play an important role, agree with you Ben. Also, I think it's important to have empathy for students so it's build trust and more relaxing and engaging atmosphere in the classroom. I've checked with Quib.ly. Experts there have always interesting comments. I fallow Roberto Catanuto there, he always shares interesting ideas. If you like you can have a look here: http://quib.ly/qu/what-makes-a-good-teacher[/quote]

Keisha Fitzhugh's picture

Amanda:

I completely agree with you. I know we talked alot about inquiry based learning in our science methods class and I feel it is a great way to get students to question their learning/material. I also agree that when students are discovering they are engaged in their learning and in turn makes you a better teacher.

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

Dear Edwinovich.

First of all, I thank you for taking the time first to read my blog, and secondly for expressing your opinion so passionately.

I am grateful for your many years of service to students and your obvious dedication to the profession of education. You and I have seen the changes in public education and have been dismayed by swings of the pendulum of pedagogical fads. I understand your anger directed towards educational charlatans that indeed have left the classroom for greener pastures (easier and more lucrative). I assure you that I am not one of them. I do not understand your reluctance to ignite and fan the flames of student initiative, curiosity and experiential learning when the research that supports constructivist practices is voluminous and incontrovertible.

This does not mean that there is no place for direct instruction from a master teacher like yourself. But long lasting learning happens after learning the content and student are able to manipulate, merge and engage in thoughtful analysis, critical thinking and creative thinking. These are things the teacher cannot give to the student--they must do it themselves.

If you are the thoughtful educator I think you are, then I am surprised that you might have succumbed to the pessimistic narrow-mindedness of teaching to test. Pressure to perform has always been a part of public education, but it has never stopped a dedicated teacher from exerting their best efforts and using the best strategies in behalf of their students. You most likely believe that that this is what you are doing.

Students drop out of school in droves because of the teacher-centered ideology you espouse; after all it worked for you, your parents and your grandparents. Charter schools, alternative schools and home schools are thriving on students unable to stomach the lock-step, "wait for me to tell you" rigidness of "sage on the stage mentality." Your vaunted teacher-centered instruction does so well that 80% of community college students must take remediation courses their first year.

I invite you to read three books: "Why Students Don't Like School", by Dr. Daniel Willingham a cognitive scientist, "Results Now " by Dr. Michael Schmoker, an my book, "Teaching Students to Dig Deeper: The Common Core in Action"

Like you I am doing everything in my power to help students learn. I, and many other teacher supporters, think it is time to work smarter as educators instead of doing the same thing that isn't working that well and isn't enjoyable for students. We are on the same team and there is no need to denigrate or demean my efforts.

Most importantly, you are doing what it takes to broaden your understanding of a more holistic way of helping students learn by spending time on the most progressive, project-based, and non-teacher centered website; Edutopia.org. You should read what the Founder of Edutopia, George Lucas, has to say about his experience with teacher-centered learning, and why he wanted to start Edutopia.

I wish you the best and sincerely hope that this summer will allow you to rest and recuperate so that you can continue to inspire your students.

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]With respect, the author reads like yet another classroom fleeing educrat/ consultant who wants to turn the classroom into a Dave & Buster's arcade, relegate master teachers to mere facilitator status (guide on the side rather than sage on the stage - gag), and disregards the VERY REAL pressure of test score components in current teacher evaluations.Such an approach also runs counter to the educational theory (also flawed) of - buzzword alert: Differentiation! Are there some students who benefit from what Mr Johnson is advocating? Probably. Are there some (many?) students who absolutely thrive in a traditional teacher-centered classroom approach? Yes! Establish rapport, establish credibility, and teach. There is NOTHING wrong with utilizing lecture/discussion methodology - if implemented properly and competently.Are the nations that are beating us academically (although it MUST be pointed out that those societies make NO attempt to educate EVERYBODY, unlike the US) featuring this overly student centered approach? For the most part, they are not. And what Mr Johnson is describing here is possible ONLY AFTER SOME TYPE OF NON STUDENT CENTERED CONTENT TRANSFER HAS TAKEN PLACE!!!Also: I'm willing to speculate that when Mr Johnson presents this theory of methodology (for which I suspect he's well compensated), he utilizes speaker centered, lecture style techniques to "impart" it.[/quote]

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