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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

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

Thanks for the shout out/validation. I'm not opposed to innovation and sensible, practical tweaking of methodology, but I absolutely oppose consultant's attempts to completely overhaul the entire classroom process and create overindulged students who cannot endure anything speaker centered because they've been told they shouldn't like it. I appreciate reading about your experiences, as well as the opinions of those here with whom I respectfully disagree.

I find it disturbing and ironic that so many advocates of Differentiation (which has SOME merit) are the very ones who are so quick to impose what they consider the best method(s). Lecture/DISCUSSION has its place. My reading of these posts indicate that even many of these Edutopians concede that point.

Balance, people. Balance. No reckless change for the sake of change.

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

Oops. "ConsultantS'." Grammar matters (too traditional, too archaic?). And that "shout out" was to HumanImprint.

Lori Horner's picture

I don't think that using active student centered learning experiences in the classroom creates a "Dave & Buster's" arcade atmosphere, nor do I think I diminishes the teaching profession.

You are correct in saying that some students thrive in a traditional teacher-centered classroom approach and likewise correct when you say that some students benefit from active student centered approaches as well. I think the point is that we do live in America and we do believe that all children deserve the right to have the best education possible.

What that means for master teachers is that we must create our own teaching "toolbox", if you will, full of alternative teaching methods so that every student can learn.
There IS nothing wrong with utilizing lecture/discussion methodology when it is implemented competently. And when coupled with activities that allow students to make active connections to your lecture and discussion material, it creates a powerful learning experience for students. (differentiation)

We live in a culturally, socially and economically diverse society. How would you suggest meeting the needs of all students?

Rick's picture
CTE Audio Technology high school teacher

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.

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

I don't argue that student centered methodology necessarily turns the classroom into a Dave and Buster's arcade. I do argue that an emphasis on "All Fun All The Time" - at the expense of rigor - does.

Total candor: I'm sorry to say I don't know how to engage or "meet the needs of ALL students." Neither do you. Nobody does, including the "change agents" and consultants who say they do (well, they usually say they'll SHOW you how - for a price). We, unlike most countries (who make no attempt to educate everybody) , deserve credit for sincerely trying to reach "all students," but I suspect that some are - Painful Reality Alert: unreachable.

But we'll keep trying, won't we? Because that's who we are and that's what we do. And teacher directed methodology, including lecture/DISCUSSION (Including elements of the Socratic technique) has an important place in that process. I agree with Mr. Johnson when he says we're all "on the same team." But I usually feel like MY methods are NOT welcome in the prevailing pedogogical locker room.

Lori Horner's picture

I agree that it can't be "all fun all the time" but when I read the post, I wasn't thinking of his methodology was fun and games all the time. What I was thinking was that our society has and is constantly changing and that is having some affect on how kids learn.

As a master teacher, I'm certain you've seen major changes over the years. I have. And to that end, we have to consider alternate methods of implementing the curriculum. That's all. Different methodologies so that every child has an opportunity to learn.

I have to say at this point that I don't believe in unreachable children. It may not be you or me and it may not be immediate but I work with little people every day and they're like little sponges soaking up everything around them.

I certainly wasn't picking on your methodology. When the speaker is interesting and enthusiastic, that evokes a listener to want to learn more. I know, I've been there but I've also been lectured to when the speaker couldn't hold my attention. That is difficult and meaningless to me. If you're great at it and your students are learning what you say and learning how to apply it, I'd say, keep doing what you're doing. I personally think it's good for the profession to try new things, consider alternatives and allow the students the opportunity to learn in the environment that they live in.

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

Mrs. A+ Middle School Teacher

Great words of wisdom! Interestingly enough, I thought it was an effective play on words, but I did not think that my post was all that provocative. I did not bring forward any concepts that I have not said before, though I did relate new experiences to highlight my intended message. I need to thank you for bringing the conversation back to my intended message: Great teachers use everything in their bag of tricks to get students to learn, including... "not teaching" directly.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote/]Thank you, Ben Johnson, for the provocative post. I greatly appreciate your statement, "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." This is open-ended idea for all our hard-working, dedicated educators out there, in that the diversity of our learners requires diversified strategies to get students 'doing,' including traditional methods.

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.

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