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The Truth About Teaching and Learning

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I would like to do an interesting visual exercise with you. I'd like you to imagine that on a blackboard with a piece of chalk, I draw a horizontal line all the way across the board. Then, on each end of the horizontal line, I draw a vertical one.

I scratch on top of the board the word continuum, pronouncing each syllable of the word as I go. On the left side of the word, I write "teacher directed," and on the right side, I put "student directed." I turn around and face you, and ask the question, "Where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" I then hand you the chalk. Let's say I did that with all of you now.

Into the Lesson

Afterward, I look at the board and ask why all the x's are in different places. You all respond in chorus, "Because we are all different!" You politely do not add the "Duh!" that you are all thinking.

Now, I take my piece of chalk (which is getting short because of all the x's), and I quickly create multiple continuums labeled from one end to the other: "efficient and effective," "quick and time consuming," "auditory and kinesthetic," "passive and active," "easy and hard," and "order and chaos."

As the chalk dust settles, I turn around and ask you the same question, "For each pair, where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" Instead of giving you the chalk, I direct you to create the continuums -- let's dream a bit here -- on your laptops and tell you to place the x on each as accurately and honestly as you can.

After a minute, you all hit the Send button on your laptops. In seconds, my computer has tabulated all the results, and I display those on an interactive whiteboard (more dreaming).

Through the Lesson

Imagine what that display looks like. I ask, "What do we see that jumps out at us?" One of you raises your hand. Rather than take the proffered answer, I respond, "Please talk with your partner and come up with two answers. You have 3.25 minutes."

The anticipation builds. You wonder exactly what answer I am looking for, and this goes through all your minds as you discuss with your partners. "What answers do you have for me?" Each partnership gives their analysis of why one side of the continuum has more x's than the other. All good stuff, mind you, but obviously not what I wanted.

With a smug look on my face, I go to the interactive whiteboard. Using my finger, I draw a fat red line around the ends of each continuum. I ask, "Did you notice that there are no x's on the ends?" You all "Ooh" and "Ahh" in unison as the lights go on in your brains. All right, you can stop imagining now. What? You'd like me to go on?

All right, let's keep our imagination hats on. "As you demonstrated earlier," I say, pacing back and forth in the front of the room, "we wouldn't expect each person to place their x in the same place, because we are all different. And, as you pointed out, there are more x's on one side than on the other because of various teaching truths that we are expected to follow."

"So, why aren't there any x's on the ends?" I raise my finger in the air and press on without waiting for an answer. "The truth about teaching and learning is that there are no absolutes. This data shows that teaching and learning are not about absolutes, nor are they about minimums or maximums." I touch the interactive whiteboard with my finger, leaving red dots as I emphasize the words. "They are about what lies between the ends of the continuums."

I circle the insides of the continuum areas. "They are about thresholds, plateaus, valleys, and peaks." I change the color to blue and draw dotted lines, horizontal lines, and jagged lines (prompting more "Oohs" and "Ahhs").

OK, now we really have to quit imagining, or we will get into the interactive part of the lesson and, of course, the evaluation.

Going Beyond

I'll just summarize the conclusion of the lesson for you. If teaching were an exact science, it would be a simple matter of finding the right formula and applying it. The truths about teaching and learning are that one size never fits all, and surefire works only some of the time.

Public school educators are starting to understand -- I mean really starting to understand -- that we have to blend chaos with order, easy with hard, and student directed with teacher directed in order to teach within the confines of standardized tests, limited time, and, certainly, limited resources.

Each teacher is different, and some teachers can get away with things that other teachers couldn't pull off in a million years. Both can be extremely effective. What is the common denominator? It is individualized, unique, blood-sweat-or-tears problem solving! Each successful teacher has to bring it down to the question "How can I help Myesha learn?" It is that simple.

So, what is the truth about teaching and learning? We don't know for sure. We just try our best, and that seems to work. I'd be interested in reading about what other truths you know about teaching and learning.

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Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Sometimes is right, but the odds are in our favor because human beings are naturally wired for learning.

Sometimes students learn what we want them to learn, but they learn ALL the time.

Since you are a creative and canny teacher, and you realize this, you stack the deck so to speak so that students actually have to work hard not to learn what they need to learn.

Sometimes teachers unfortunately believe that they can force a student to learn by threats; grades, parents, or privileges. Fewer and fewer students respond to this method, yet it persists in nearly every school in the nation (or world). Teachers are just beginning to realize that the student has to be a willing and active participant in order to really learn anything.

Sometimes the teachers create large learning environments where this magically happens. Most of the time, it is the small bubbles of learning created by the teacher that provide student academic success and motivation for more learning.

Our job is to change sometime to most of the time when it comes to students learning.

Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Irish McDonough's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very curious about Dr. Howard Gardner that you mentioned in this post. Do you have any suggestions for information on him and what you use in the classroom to try and reach the multiple types of learners in your classroom? I would greatly appreciate it. I am a 4th/5th grade science teacher and am constantly looking for new ways to integrate my lessons to all students in the class. Thank you.

Irish McDonough's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Irish McDonough and I am a 4th/5th grade science teacher for Harmony Charter School in Carrollton, Texas. I am also a student of Walden University, working toward my Master's degree in Education. I wanted to comment about the statement that every teacher is different. This seems to be one of the things that I've found adminstration and professional development meetings with other school districts that I've worked for, lose sight of. When I first found myself being evaluated by my administration, I found a series of check off lists that I was being judged upon to be intimidating and a real eye opener as to what they were (and were not) looking for. In my quest toward being an expert teacher (which I believe none of us truly ever achieve) I've tried to understand what it is that I "should" be doing in the classroom and have found myself frustrated and worried that I wasn't doing things "right". I've had mentor teachers that have criticized me for things I've done, then had others praise me for the same elements. Overall, in trying to figure out what was "right", I came to realize that there is no such thing. It is whatever works.

I've stayed until the very late hours of the night, setting up labs and creating assessments that I thought reflected the standardized expectations that correlated to the state expectations. I've organized and reorganized my desk, student centers, journals, seating arrangements, and even became a slave to my "brain" (otherwise known as a student planner). But, none of these things really worked for me. They were the expectations the schools imparted upon me by decisions from the administration. It seemed the schools were attempting to homogenize the learning experiences throughout the school, so students would know what to expect and teachers could be more readily evaluated based on a set criteria and mission statement.

The truth that I've come to understand is that schools are not cooperations. They don't work under any "mission statement" like a company does, other than the edict of "Do whatever it takes (nearly inhumanly) to reach the students as successfully as we can." Anything else seems to be rhetoric or politically driven. The greatest ideas really don't hold water if I can't apply them through myself and for the interest of the student.

Becoming a more experienced teacher, I've also come to realize that we teach who we are, as stated multiple times by Sonia Nieto in her book "What Keeps Teachers Going". It is true. I'm not highly organized. Keeping children in orderly desks and color coordinated journals with perfect entries that follow the prescribed scientific journaling my last school has subscribed to, is not me. I drove myself crazy trying to organize these journals, have them write on the left side for this and the right side for that. Have my lesson plans strictly outlined and did my best not to deviate from that plan, less an administrator walked in and docked me points for not doing precisely what was written on these plans.

But, that is not the truth of teaching. It is getting their attention and interest (when you compete with XBox and ICarly programs, texting, and Twilight gossip). It is living in the moment of what happens and savoring the teachable moments that come from the spontenaety of the classroom itself.

Funny thing was that I resigned myself to be more authentic and accept the fact that I was not going to fit into a mold, just as my students do not fit into any molds. I was sitting at a hair salon school just the other day to get my hair done, when I saw a poster that summed it all up for me perfectly: Step One: Know the rules. Step Two: Bend the rules. Step Three: Break the rules. Now you are a Master.

You have to know what the "rules" are. The pedagogy and philosophies from the researchers and curriculum specialists that have fine tuned their understandings and research on the subjects and students. This is the beginning stage teacher. Then, you have to know when to bend the "rules". No child is a perfect fit into any one learner style. A child might be more kinesthetically inclined in one subject, and audibly inclined in another. A child could be excited from something at home and do horribly at reading silently that day from the nervous energy. You never really know. Then, lastly, there are times when rules just have to be broken. When teachers realize the prescribed program the school has bought is just not working. When the newest philosophy of this year has just not encompassed the student in front of them. When you have the lesson plans fully assembled, and yet inspiration from something random that comes from a student launches the classroom into invigerating productive conversations that create amazing understandings for the students.

What I wish is that teachers and administration could do is come together and honestly understand each other and the very real and maliable atmosphere a classroom is. Teaching isn't applying prescribed plans and finding the silver bullet. It is about taking this dynamic atmosphere and directing the outcome through careful persuasion and manipulation based on the direct relationships with the students. This is when, I believe, you become a "master teacher"...who now gets to go back to the books and learn more "rules". A never ending cycle that will never really get perfected, but can definitely be improved.

Livia 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that effective schools have a vision and a master plan that the entire staff has collaboratively developed and continually refines. Effective teachers know the standards that must be taught and use many different strategies to ensure that all students learn. ALL students - that's the key, isn't it? With regular collaboration and data analysis, goal setting, backwards planning, and a strong leadership team, all students learning needs can be more effectively addressed.

Strong leadership means that trust has been developed so that conversations can occur about the things that work and those areas where improvement is needed. The motivation to move forward grows from the implementation of these areas and a strong, deep belief that ALL students can and will learn.

Effective teachers also are willing to "open their classroom doors" and work together with new teachers and those who are veterans who are willing to learn and change. No, schools are not corporations. They are learning communities where students, teachers, parents, and the site administrator continually learn and grow.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


AMEN! I want you on my team! You understand! You Got It!

You can say you heard it here from me first. I believe that the savior of public education as we know it will be professional learning communities where among groups of dedicated teachers, deep conversations occur not about what to teach, but about how to teach it. Until this happens, public education will continue to limp along, and get further behind in meeting student needs.

Let me add one more thing to your statements. Not only do teachers have to believe that every child can learn, but the teachers have to believe that they can get every child to do that. It is time for us educators to stop blaming the students, the parents, prior teachers and everyone but ourselves. We have to believe in our heart of hearts that we can overcome any societal, economic or cultural barrier that our students bring into the classroom, and that we can get them to learn, not just minimally, but to learn by great gulps!

Keep that passion and that fervor-- we all need that!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


It seems to me that you are entering the self actualized stage of being a teacher. You have already passed through the initial stage of shock your first few years and you have made it through the reality gap stage where you see the chasm that exists between what we know education can be and what it is. Congratulations! You are starting the stage where regardless of what happens else where, you will create productive learning environments for your students.

It is not that the rules are bad, nor is it that the rules do not apply. The issue is that the system needs to change to fit the needs of the students--and the lumbering dinosaur of a school system does not respond very quickly.

So keep up the active teaching and learning that obviously occurs in your classroom. Also, be nice to the administrators. They were (are) teachers too and trying their hardest to get that dinosaur to turn around.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Kathleen Riebe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Granite School District 5/6th grade

I am almost beginning to think that saying about feeling beautiful is make sure you do not read beauty magazines. Feeling successful as a teacher is trying not to do everything that each different thing tells you.

My class is a emints classroom, which means I have a computer for every two students. I started this program two years ago. We as a district just incorporated Imagine It as a Language Arts Program this year and Everyday Math last year. We have had three principals in four years and I finished my masters prior to the emints. My head is spinning from all the directions and directives I have been given. The silver bullet is always being introduced. These programs have taken over the prior silver bullet.

The "new" twist on some of these things is that it is researched based. These are terms I am looking for. Longitudinal studies that support a learning program.

The title one school I work in has it's finger on the pulse, but just like others have said we learn and teach in unique ways. I try to approach each subject in every way imaginable and when the response is high I run with that. So with these new programs, they are overwhelming, our goal is to find the aspects that are most successful and meet the needs of our students.

However, I do find fault with the system. When I encounter a student in my class with an IQ of 70 and the "system" tells me that this aggressive student can not get the help he needs in a more controlled environment because they are full I am frustrated for the students who miss the teaching time as I am putting out the fire. I do find fault when I have three students who do not know the difference between odd and even and read on a second grade level in 6th grade. I am not saying they can't learn but how does a teacher make up the 3 years they are behind and still teach the grade level curriculum. This is the "dinosaur" I would like to see turned around.

Every student in my class increases by at least one grade level, but I don't think it is the interactive board, the computers, the standardization, the interactive chat in real time or the surveys. It's what has helped students through the years a consistent teacher who is not their best buddy but their compass. The bells and the whistles might make make them more excited to come, but I don't know if that is what is actually most effective. My biggest Eureka last year was realizing that the students don't have the vocabulary to vocalize their problems and questions. This has made them all realize that they are not alone and makes them feel secure in asking for the help they need.

Lastly, my students know where they are. They need to verbalize their problems because so many think that they are doing great when they are not. Telling a student the painful truth about his lack of ability is the only way for them realize they have a problem and then as team set out to overcome those hurtles. I am shocked when students do not receive their scores form teachers. It would be like kicking a ball and thinking you got the goal every time or not at all.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Another self actualize teacher! Well done! You see the problem, and you roll up your sleeves to fix it. In this stage, we have to be the perpetual optimist. We have to believe we have the power to fix the kid who only reads on a second grade level. Getting every kid to advance at least one year is a wonderful accomplishment- but I feel you are not satisfied until they are all at least on grade level. Of course you can't do this by yourself, but you use every trick in the book, you motivate the parents and most of all you inspire the student.

As you so insightfully stated, the student has to be part of the learning process and immediate and specific feedback must be given for the student to know where and how to improve, add to this the opportunity to do it again and you have the formula for true formative assessment--i.e. forming the student. Too many times the programs assume that we unscrew the top of the student's head and we simply pour the knowledge in. Students learn best when they are actively involved. That sounds trite, but when a teacher is talking and students are listening the students are not actively involved. Listening is a passive activity and proven to be the least effective way to learn. 75% or more of what happens in schools today is teachers talking. This is frightening.

You are where you need to be and just like He-Man you have to be able to shout, "I HAVE THE POWER!" because as much as we say we believe every kid can learn, when we give an excuse, then we really do not believe it. For this to work, however, we have to be more than good teachers, we have to be exceptional teachers willing to do extraordinary things to help the students overcome what ever learning barrier they bring to class.

The number one arsenal we have is pure, undiminished enthusiasm which shines so brightly and is so all-pervasive that the students are infected by it. The teacher has to model the zeal for learning and make the hard work fun.

I think you get the rest of the story...

Thanks for all you do in turning around your dinosaur. It will happen--one student at a time.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Judy Spady's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've learned a lot from everyone's thoughts and posts on here and I decided to write because of my passion to improve our educational system in a way that will work instead of the traditional reform methods that aren't moving that dinosaur!

As you all have agreed on, every teaching style is different and that's what makes teachers so good at their job. Please recognize that this variation of teaching can also be very frustrating to parents and students!

My children attend school in a very small community so when we hear about how another child in the same grade is learning completely different topics and in much different ways, you find yourself asking "why?" And later, "why can't some of this be more standardized or consistent across the board?"

It seems to me that the answer is to standardize it a bit more BUT not from a top-down management strategy from the administrators but using a method that is created by all the key players involved (i.e., the group of teachers, parents, students, community members).

My organization implements a process called 'Appreciative Inquiry' which focuses on the positive core of the team and gets everyone on the same level to collaborate and creat their dreams. It is a way that every teacher can share their ideas in an extremely positive way but also work toward a common vision.

I would love to hear input from others on how you think this process would work for your school. It seems that the methods of 'reform' always come from the top...even so high as the Federal Government yet nobody ever asks the people 'who matter' to design the programs!

Thanks for sharing your stories,

Judy Spady
Peak Transformations, LLC

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for your comments. It is refreshing to bring in the parental and community view. From that stand point it is easy point out something that we, being so close to the problem, easily overlook.

In keeping with the analogy, I am not entirely sure that we need a new dinosaur. Rather, I think we need a something a bit more modern and agile, like a horse.

Your appreciative inquiry sounds a lot like professional learning communities. As such, then, we absolutely agree.

The issue with the top-down management strategy is another issue entirely. In Japan, I think they tried your concept in an automobile factory and found that the assembly line workers immediately came up with more efficient and effective ways to build cars because they listened to what the workers had to say. The problem with education is that the teachers are so busy teaching that they do not have time to get politically active.

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