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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


Thank you for your comments. We agree that knowledge has to come first. We also agree that teachers have many methods and strategies besides lecture to get that knowledge into the student's brains. We also agree that the strategies must fit the particular style and personality of the teacher, and the needs of the students. Finally, we also agree that in order for students to internalize and acquire knowledge, students must be able to do something with that knowledge. What we disagree on is that students learn best from listening to teachers talk. They learn best from taking knowledge recently introduced to them and interacting with it: experiencing it, experimenting with it and discovering it. Students need three opportunities to engage with knowledge before we can say they know it, or before we can say with confidence they will remember it. Madeline Hunter's direct teach model illustrates this abundantly. It is a great model and if all teacher-centered teachers used it, like Dr. Schmoker explains in his book, "Focus" students would be learning much better. Direct teach may be more time effective for the teacher, and to start off learning there has to be some, but to immerse students in learning experiences that are relevant and urgent- requiring that students produce something pushes that knowledge into permanent memory like no lecture can. The "locale" memory system is engaged and students remember( Learn). Even Marzano states that teaching is a science and an art and that rigor can and does exist in both. In learning, the student must be the protagonist, not the product. We disagree that lecture is the most effective way for students to learn. It may be the most convenient, but taking notes on a lecture cannot be the sum of how students learn. I attended a p20 summit last week in which executive from Toyota, Rackspace and other businesses shared their concerns. Rackspace said that they need programmers that know how to collaborate well with others... And they must know how to learn... Because the language they know now will be outdated in six months. Toyota said that schools have to prepare students for jobs that don't even exist and the hardest jobs for them to fill are the jobs that require expertise in problem solving ( people who can fix the robots, parts conveyors and cooling systems). Unanimously, all four business executives stated that schools are fossilized and not producing the kinds of workers they need.

If you want to know the effect of lectures, simply ask the students. They will tell you how ineffective they are. They can also tell teachers what they need, what they hate and what engages them most.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and keep striving to be the best possible teacher!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]"Call me a fossil (I'm sure some will), but you can't effectively think critically about something BEFORE YOU'VE LEARNED IT. And the process of learning must sometimes be teacher-directed."Fossils leave the best impressions. I am a young teacher of 8 years, but what I do know and observe is that there is a fine line between lazy pedagogy and student centered learning. I also disagree with the title that good teachers do not teach. I consider myself to be a very good teacher, one that breaks information down and curates information that students can use to further the discussion.I LECTURE! ALOT!With that being said, my students are made a part of the conversation and for that, they walk away realizing that, "Hey, lectures are not all that bad after all." I get it all the time.I have seen project based teachers try to implement this strategy and only end up frustrating the students because there are too many doors and little direction. To make project based learning meaningful and appropriate for every single kid in the class, the projects need to be approached as independent study, with different rubrics to grade the material AND content. I can not assess a student who makes an iMovie the same as one who makes a poster-board presentation.I also think it is a bit of a utopia that you speak of in saying that every kid will WANT to be empowered with their education. I agree with Edwinivich when he/she said that content knowledge takes precedent, and is it so bad that we teach a kid how to sit and listen? I am not anti-project, but I do know that I have TOO much information to get through in a school year to even dream about making a majority of my lessons project based. I can just hear the complaints now from parents and kids alike, that projects did not help them on the test that they paid 90.00 for, because I wanted them to figure it out on their own. The logistics of providing 1:1 instruction in a classroom of 32+ is daunting!I would love to hear your specific suggestions on how I can tackle the problem of not having 31 teacher's assistants in the room. And please, don't tell me to go read a book and figure it out on my own. Sometimes it is better if someone JUST TELL ME![/quote]

Mrs A+'s picture
Mrs A+
Middle School Educator

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.

HumanImprint Quote: "I LECTURE! ALOT! With that being said, my students are made a part of the conversation and for that, they walk away realizing that, "Hey, lectures are not all that bad after all.""

As we move to our "21st century skills," which are really all the lifelong skills we have tried to instill in our students since the beginning of time, our students and the tools we use are ever changing. Critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, and communicating are the intended outcome across the content areas, yet there is a drive to continue with practices that don't engage students to develop these skills. I would challenge full-time lecturers to quantify how students are engaged and interactively manipulating and understanding information to truly be able to use that knowledge throughout their lives. In the end, it is what we are able to motivate the students to do, not the information that we regurgitate that creates these 21st century learners.

I also don't think we can overlook the changes in generational thinking and learning. With advances in resources and access to technology, the new iGeners learn in a whole different way than previous generations. The greatest act of ageism is to react negatively to the next generation of students who expect innovation, creativity, and individualization of their world.

I understand the disagreement with the statement "great teachers do not teach," because of the definitive nature of the words. In fact, teachers that inspire, collaborate, learn alongside, encourage, and facilitate are 'teaching,' just not through traditional methods of instruction but varied and engaging models. It's not about the next best tool, or the oldest model of instruction, but it's about what students are doing with their knowledge that matters most. I would recommend checking out "Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice" by Toshalis and Nakkula. The "focus on the verbs," as Prensky would highlight, is what this text explores. "Motivation, engagement, and voice are the trifecta of student-centered learning. Without motivation, there is no push to learn; without engagement there is no way to learn; and without voice, there is no authenticity in the learning. For students to create new knowledge, succeed academically, and develop into healthy adults, they require each of these experiences."

How do traditional instructional strategies help students engage in learning?

How do we accommodate a new generation of learners who don't know a world without creativity and innovation without changing our methods?

Is it more important for educators to meet the needs of the students by diversifying or meet the standardized tests?

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.

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