George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Great Teachers Don't Teach

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.

About the Author
Share This Story

Comments Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Wil's picture

Thank you posting for such an interesting and informative article. I currently am seeking a Master's in Education and student teaching 9th grade Biology. I really appreciate how an article like this one lets me focus on what is essential to being an effective teacher. I still have problems with my lesson plans in that I still concentrate on lecturing to students rather than letting them be active learners. Even when doing group activities, I sometimes try to micro-manage and don't let students experience learning on their own. This article was a brilliant reminder that I need to let go and trust students to use their own inquisitive nature to learn. Also, I am encourage that student engagement also was emphasized. Students won't learn if they aren't interested in the material and that also requires that teachers get to know their students. This was a great piece that will help my self reflect on my current and future teaching practices. Overall, this was an impressive article that truly underscores the qualities of a great teacher!

Gary Butterworth, M. A.'s picture
Gary Butterworth, M. A.
Educator, Trainer, Speaker, Author, Performer

Wonderfully insightful article, Prof. Johnson! Indeed, students learn best when they are in control of their learning. In my own classroom instruction, I have found that students get the most from my teaching when they are involved in the sort of "dialogic" engagement that Paulo Friere popularized. Prof. Johnson's reference to Dewey and experiential learning resonates as well. I appreciate the refresher offered here on the way in which students learn best (by doing and reflecting) and the way they learn least (by listening and watching). My current interest is in the teaching of history in particular. With a background in performance studies, I am developing a method in which students become storytellers and embody the historical figures for whom they are studying. (They adopt the style of the old time "Chautauqua" presentations in a big-top tent.) In addition to the performance itself, student scholar/performers engage their audience of classmates in Q&A--in character. Many thanks, again, Prof. Johnson for the article; it will serve as a fine reinforcer for my own engagement with teaching. Would enjoy hearing from others who may have thoughts on alternative ways of teaching history. Keep up the good conversation!

Tempe Laver's picture

Just as I suspected. More constructivist twaddle. You are very wrong - students learn best by direct instruction and from the teacher. Good evidence confirms this yet there are still so many educators that cling to this nonsense. The trouble is that it is so damaging to the future of our kids. If you want to be an effective teacher know your subject, preferably have a good text books, work out ways to discipline your students, and stop with the "busy" work and set about passing on that content.

John Brigham's picture
John Brigham
I think that organic chemistry should be taught first.

The original article implies that the role of the teacher is unimportant. But it has consistently been shown that the quality of the teacher is the most important single factor. And, faced with a complex mix of learning styles, the single most effective teaching technique is lecture. It is great to see some controversy about this article. Education is a messy business. But we all already knew that!

The Teaching Engineer's picture

I agree with the results but I feel that the "how" described in the article is a bit (benevolently) manipulative. A great teacher does not need to "maneuver the students" or "stack the deck".

Rather, s/he just needs to love the subject, see the world through those eyes, and love showing what s/he sees to the students. In a word, a great teacher ... inspires.

Matt Murchison's picture

I think that the premise here is sound, but describing it as "not teaching" seems a little hyperbolic. I know it creates a counter-intuitive "hook" for the article, but I think that creating learning experiences (at least for me) is always accompanied by some level of direct instruction. I think that a complete reliance on direct instruction is potentially detrimental, and I agree with your sentiments to that end.

Caleb Bogaczyk's picture

Teachers fail because of this all or nothing approach. Of course you need to get your students to experience the learning themselves, but you also have to teach them the content. Direct instruction and laboratory activity go together but are not always done together. This idea that it has to be all laboratory and no lecture is causing students to get frustrated because they do not have the proper background to succeed in the laboratory.

James Hunter's picture

Teachers arise spontaneously in the presence of students, being induced by their curiosity.

Aliyu Nurudeen's picture

I've just landed. It has been a voyage of recap of what I used to do some 15 years back. All teachers must imbibe the spirit of in loco parentis and bear it in mind that there are two jobs "Teaching and others". A reawakening piece !

Thomas Morris MSc PGCE's picture
Thomas Morris MSc PGCE
Teacher, education researcher, advocate of change

Some very good comments made above. The truth is that learning is a porweful and innate human ability. All a teacher can do is then "block" learning through, for example, lesson by lesson of boring powerpoint presentation. Of all the books I have read I would reccomend
"How to Teach without Instructing: 29 Smart Rules for Educators" by Rolf Arnold.
This book supports the notion of moving away from instruction. And as a teacher this is what I have done over time. Moving towards the role of a "facilitator" who increases the competence, confidence, and capabilities of students in student centred environments.


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.