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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

Comments (38)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Peggy Villars Abadie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sorry about to verbose submission. Here si the lats of the response that would not fit above.

The motivation to do so is a hope to go well beyond improved student achievement all the way to maximized student achievement.

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


Thanks for the comments. You are correct of course. I did not contribute a strategy or magic silver bullet to "Move the profession forward." I did have a purpose, and I think I accomplished that purpose. For some reason teachers seem to forget the "obvious". They have to stop blaming everybody else; society, parents, earlier grade levels, administrators and the system. What should be obvious is that teachers own the problem and they also own the solution, both on a classroom level and on a systemic level.

Too many teachers isolate themselves (and administrators allow it) and only join forces when it is to fight against individual accountability and transparency. Shoddy instruction cannot be tolerated, but it is tolerated because no one but the students see it.

The sole point of my essay was to inspire teachers to believe that they have the power to take whatever instructional problem they are faced with and find a solution--but they have to have the heart to do it and then they have to take action.

You seem like a person that is doing that! Thanks!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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


You hit the nail on the head. Strong leadership is necessary. I has to be a sustained leadership and the efforts have to be part of an overall system that coordinates them to work together. The necessary change has to be a new way of doing the business of teaching and learning which involves as an integral component, evaluation of data. Such solutions exist (see my website by clicking on my name).

Most teachers desire to succeed only as far as they are inspired by their leaders. What we need is more teacher leaders.

It seems that you are in a position to develop a few of those. Good luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Terry Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Learning sometimes happens as a result of teaching - this is what I have learned in my 15 years in the elementary classroom. This is key because it speaks to the fact that learning doesn't take place just because I want it to happen, just because I have a great lesson plan or a great experiences ready for my students. It happens "in" the student when the student connects and perceives a purpose in the moment, or an enlightening pathway revealed, or a key to previously closed solutions, and so forth. It is for this reason, that I believe standardization will only go so far, until it runs into the fact that humans are all different and will always display and express themselves and their knowledge in varied ways and detail. So we can strive to create the best possible conditions for learning to occur, but we should not be so surprised when it does not happen as through we were tuning machines.

Johanna Riddle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Education is a human business, and therefore sometimes messy. It's effectiveness rests on the ability of the teacher to know his or her students--where they are developmentally, where their interests lie, what their strengths and weaknesses are, where their life challenges and heart's dreams lie. If that connection isn't made, and teachers do not nurture that connection intelligently, responsibly, and thoughfully, then the rest of it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. How do we accomplish that? Smaller schools, for starters. Thinking developmentally (Gee, I miss that word in education!) instead of incrementally is another crucial piece of the puzzle. Thanks, Ben, for expressing the crucial notion of humanity in education so clearly.

Susan Kelewae's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with much of what you have said, but as for leadership - too much of any good thing is not so good. I was fortunate to have a principal that empowered his staff by trust and encouragement, and care. Teachers are by nature leaders or they wouldn't be in a classroom. They most need trust, left alone, and allowed to shine. Throughtout 36 years in a middle schoool, I rarely saw the need for the prinipal to intervene and when he did, it was for good reason. Yes, we all want to succeed and we can. As a leader, be there for us when we need you, not when you think we need you. Be there as cheerleaders for your teachers - openly to the other teachers, parents, students and community. Schools can run if the principal is away, but not without teachers............lead by example - do your job, we will do ours. Listen to us with an open mind - that's what a good teacher does, that's what a good leader does. Not much difference, huh? Perhaps our mission isn't always "unified" - as you said, we are different, our missions do not have to be the same, but the goal can be. Just think of all the ways to teach a subject or concept. It is important to give freedom, trust, support, and backing to teachers. We will rise to high levels,and so will our students.
Sue Kelewae

Irene Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Johanna's point that learning comes down to knowing your students. We MUST make the effort no matter our class sizes. At Discovery Lab School in Washington state, I enjoy teaching my Language Arts and Social Studies students over the course of three years. Although there are 87 students to come to know and love, and eventually lose (as they move on to High School,) it's a real advantage to be able to teach each of them more than one year.

Teachers have different strengths. This is an advantage for our students too. The world is full of different personalities and styles. Learning to adapt is an essential skill for anyone. We shouldn't mimic others (even if they are amazing at what they do,) but we can learn from their different approaches and find what works well for us.

Kent Swanson- home-school father's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Your honesty is very refreshing. We are getting closer to where we need to be in our children's education with people like you. Children do not learn unless they want to. Our challenge then should be how do we stimulate our children's desire to learn. Too much of what we do in our public schools removes the desire to learn in our children. Teachers cannot teach unless children want to learn no matter how good a teacher is. Some teachers have the ability to stimulate their student's curiosity, but we can't expect all teachers to develop that ability. That ability comes from inspiration--a very uncontrollable phenomenon. Our teachers need a teaching and learning environment that stimulates curiosity and the desire to learn. I believe this is a critical ingredient that has not been prioritized. The current learning environment was developed around testing and accountability not curiosity stimulation. You're right Ben there is no silver bullet, but there is a proper learning environment. Right now that proper learning environment is a moving target but we, because of our failures and sincere desire, are getting closer to understanding what that is.
Ben, I am a dyslexic, learning-disabled, home-schooling father of six children. I have a unique vantage point to view learning from. I think my vantage point is very important to the education debate. I would like to send you a book I have written with my compliments that embodies my point of view. If you are interested let me know where to send it and let me know what you think.

Kent Swanson
Ashton, ID

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


Thanks for the kind words. My family and I did some home schooling when the kids were small and we all learned a lot. I just wanted to clarify the idea of learning environment. You are absolutely correct in that this is the key to students learning. The teacher might get confused a bit and think this means a good, well equipped classroom. While this does not hurt learning, it is not essential. For example, I consult with a charter school that hold their classes in some of the throwaway portable classrooms from other schools. Old chairs, tables, ancient computers and even old text books abound. However, the principal understands that learning happens within the sphere of an enthusiastic, vibrant and passionate teacher who knows how to engage students in loving learning as much as the teacher loves learning.

That wonderful bubble of learning emanating from the teacher could be anywhere. But it does not happen by accident. Educational environments are deliberately created and capitalize upon by thoughtful planning, collaboration and active instruction and effective data gathering. Home school teachers know this.

I would be interested in reading your book. I would like to write one of my own. My email address is ben@eduteks.net. Feel free to contact me.

Thanks again,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


Humanity in education is an interesting concept. At one time, teachers were worried that computers would replace them. Visions of students learning in tiny cubicles from a computer brought shivers of horror from many old timers. Well, we have been there and back and have come to the realization that no matter how good the program, a human teacher is much more effective. Why is that? Well, a computer can't get in your face and yank on your chain to get you to pay attention, certainly, but a teacher really doesn't need to do that too often. All the teacher has to do is glow so brightly that the students cannot help but want to learn what the teacher is so excited about. With such a teacher every class period is an adventure in discovery and learning. And then you have the teachers who still don't get it--they are not the ones reading this, unfortunately. At the secondary level, paper and pencil rule, and the textbook composes the sum total of all the "learning activities." At the primary and elementary level, the "Crayola Curriculum" dictates that students cannot learn anything without coloring it (Schmoker, 2006). These teachers seem to sap the enthusiasm for learning from students as if they were black holes. There are far too many black holes in schools today. We need more brilliantly glowing teachers like yourself.

Thanks for all you do to help teachers use technology correctly, yes, even smart boards.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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