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

Getting information into the heads of students does not have to be tedious or boring for students, but it is never easy.

You are referring to "inquiry" and you are correct. You don't tell them what is what. You just let them discover, make mistakes, and fix them, all by themselves.

This doesn't mean that you do not prepare them to be successful with strategies for analysis, critical thinking and problem-solving. You will have to help them at first by providing tools such as SWOT charts, data analysis forms, categorization tools, and maybe even problem-solving heuristics. The idea behind using inquiry to teach is that you stack the deck so that in the student's investigations, they are bound to learn what they need to learn.

I prefer the five e model: Engage, Explore, Explain, Evaluate and Extend. For example, if you want to teach the students about Ohm's Law, then you engage them by providing microphone, speakers, and amplifliers of different resistances and let them see if they can get them working in 15 minutes. Then after being successful or unsuccessful in exploring, students need to explain what they learned, Then for ten minutes, they need to evaluate or test out their theories and finally for another ten minutes they need to elaborate on (extend, expand, enhance) their learning by finding applications for their knowledge or creating new ones.

During this time, the only thing the teacher is doing is asking questions that make the students verbalize their thinking, that help the students to focus on what is important, or that challenges them to provide evidence for their conclusions. The teacher gives no answers, clues, or help of any kind.

The next day you can comment that what they discovered has a name- Ohms Law and you will find that they are ready to understand and appreciate it. You can introduce the vocabulary, terminology and symbology to them and now they have a framework of understanding where they can put that knowledge.

Have fun with this.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I agree with this in theory. Actually, I'd rather play the role of a facilitator than a traditional teacher in the classroom anyway.

What I am not sure how to do is front load the information for a PBL without teaching the information first. Are you suggesting that I tell them the general topics of info that they need to know and then let them go and find it? I would love to hear more strategies on teaching without teaching.[/quote]

Karen's picture

I have long been an advocate of experiential/discovery/project based learning, but I am having a problem with my urban public district's new teacher accountability system. At any moment a "peer evaluator" (aka Hit Man) can step into my room to judge my proficiency as a teacher, and I am finding that the only way to receive a decent rating is to be in control--in other words, the system mitigates against the idea of teachers stepping out of the way to let kids own their learning. If I am not performing center stage, the evaluator has to just sort of guess as to my influence on what he or she sees; often a student-centered learning process appears messy and unprofessional--so I run the risk of being rated messy and unprofessional. The solution, of course, is longer and more frequent observations by these peer evaluators, but the budget only allows for a half-hour twice a year. The sad reality is that teachers, at least in my district, are thinking twice about maintaining their democratic, project-based classrooms.

Bertha Kaumbulu's picture

Your question is quite valid. I cannot offer you any suggestions, but I agree. It has been suggested to me that more direct teaching is necessary to justify accountability to both supervisors and parents.
I have implemented project based and inquiry-based learning for some time, but never without criticism from superiors. My peer colleagues are always quite intrigued. The students' scores on standardized tests are always high--nobody slips through the cracks so to speak.

I sit baffled this summer after receiving a low evaluation based on exactly what you are discussing in this article.

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. http://www.charityhume.com/store/

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