George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Do We Teach?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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The act of teaching is a complicated endeavor that defies anyone to clearly define it in simple terms. I would like to give it a whirl -- with a little twist.

Do you want to know the real reason we teach? Ostensibly, it is to save time. We'd like to give the younger generation a leg up so they don't have to do all the experimenting on their own, so they can figuratively stand on the shoulders of giants. Unfortunately, according to history, we have assumed that we learned it right in the first place.

The Right Stuff

As it turns out, there have been several instances where we have taught what we knew to be correct, only to find out that we were wrong all along. Copernicus, Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Henry Ford, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur -- all had to fight against what was commonly taught as truth. In essence, they had to relearn everything they had been taught to believe as truth in order to learn new truths.

This is the paradox of education: Education is always teaching the past with the finest intentions of helping the future, but unwittingly stymieing the present learning. If we teach the students what we know, we at times also put limitations on what they can know.

To further complicate matters, somewhere in the educational halls of learning, it was determined that the best way to teach someone something is to tell them what they should know; thus, they would be taught and could benefit greatly from the knowledge obtained. Given this noble attitude, teachers across the world have tried and tried to tell students what they should know, somehow missing the fact that inextricably connected with teaching is learning.

Recently, some have wondered whether learning hasn't taken place, whether any teaching has occurred. Few would argue that simply telling someone what needs to be learned rarely results in learning. Yet, amid all the tremendous strides in pedagogy, the time-honored lecture persists as a mainstay of education.

The Knowledge Explosion

But we have to consider this question: In today's educational climate, is saving time still the real reason to teach? The answer to that question can be found in the perceived rate of knowledge growth. According to some very smart experts, during the last seven years the amount of knowledge available has doubled. Education cannot keep up if we continue to presume to be the sources of knowledge for our students.

Today's classrooms need to be not only a place where teaching occurs to save time but also a place where there is a focus on learning how to learn knowledge that isn't even available yet. To presume that a teacher could possibly keep up in teaching the current exponential growth of knowledge is absurd.

The role of the teacher has changed significantly: Rather than being a purveyor of knowledge, the teacher joins the students as the learning leader and the classroom is transformed into a high-performance learning team.

What should happen is that the teacher teaches the basics to the students and then gets out of their way as the students learn what they need to learn in this century.

Reinventing the wheel used to be a time-wasting activity, but today, as in the past, doing so produces better wheels and, fortuitously, trains students to think, to solve, and to create rather than to just remember. The reinvented wheel is not what is important; it is the actual process involved in doing the re-creation that garners the most returns.

The problem-solving process cannot be taught; it has to be experienced.

Unfortunately, elementary, middle, and even high schools seem to be intent on controlling students in lockstep educational processes that only anecdotally allow interaction with current knowledge. In today's rich electronic environment, students find themselves limited to what they can learn from textbooks.

Beacons of Hope

There are bright spots occurring in education. These beacons understand that it is about what is learned, but also about how it is learned. For example, I know of first graders who honestly use and understand a thesaurus. Rather than walking, they amble, shuffle, or gallop depending on their moods.

Neither "Run, Spot, run" nor "A is for apple" seem to be the limit of their learning, as is true in many first-grade classrooms. The term "accelerated instruction" needs to be reclaimed from remedial education and applied to mainstream classrooms.

I have the privilege of being involved with a program to try to turn this model around. The focus is on the teachers and their knowledge of the content and pedagogy involved in teaching math and science. Sandra West, of Texas State University, has been implementing a grant provided by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to improve teacher quality. The grant work supports the training of fifth-eighth grade math and science teachers to plan and teach collaboratively.

The goal is to create an integrated math-and-science program as a way to help students understand both subjects to much higher degrees. As I trained the principals of these teachers about the underlying concepts of the program, I heard an exclamation, "Why was I never told about this before?" The principals were able to see the potential power of teachers collaborating on how to integrate math and science so that students will more easily learn both.

Long past are the days where teachers could be effective by themselves. The survival of public education will ultimately be determined by the extent to which teachers embrace peer collaboration in planning and implementing high-performance learning teams.

Finally, teachers must honor and value the time that students spend in our classrooms by devoting the majority of it to the only real teaching that has a chance of keeping up with the ever expanding volume of knowledge -- teaching the students how to learn through inquiry and problem solving. These have to become the core of the educational effort rather than afterthoughts and embellishments, which -- interestingly enough -- will save incredible amounts of time, which is what education was supposed to do in the first place.

How do you collaborate with your peers to save time and energy, and to create more effective and dynamic learning environments? Please share your thoughts.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (48) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Karen LaPointe's picture
Karen LaPointe
Early Childhood Special Educator, going back for my Masters in Literacy

I was a bit confused by your first paragraph, saying you wanted to "give teaching a whirl"- are you currently a teacher, or have you had any formal education as a teacher or experience in a classroom. Your idea of an inquiry-based system for education is a good one for several reasons, but it is not a new or innovative idea. Essentially, you described the fundamental structure of a Free School: a private institution that is not bound by the same strict standards as a public school in the same state (not to say there are NO standards, but private schools have much more leeway within education laws). The reality of it is that in the current public school climate, especially considering No Child Left Behind, teachers are more and more constrained when it comes to their teaching. Often, districts and school administrators control the programs teachers use, down to the very words they speak when teaching a topic. How do you suggest we get around this and offer inquiry-based learning in public schools? I would be interested to hear ideas.

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

[quote]I was a bit confused by your first paragraph, saying you wanted to "give teaching a whirl"- are you currently a teacher, or have you had any formal education as a teacher or experience in a classroom. Your idea of an inquiry-based system for education is a good one for several reasons, but it is not a new or innovative idea. Essentially, you described the fundamental structure of a Free School: a private institution that is not bound by the same strict standards as a public school in the same state (not to say there are NO standards, but private schools have much more leeway within education laws). The reality of it is that in the current public school climate, especially considering No Child Left Behind, teachers are more and more constrained when it comes to their teaching. Often, districts and school administrators control the programs teachers use, down to the very words they speak when teaching a topic. How do you suggest we get around this and offer inquiry-based learning in public schools? I would be interested to hear ideas.[/quote]


I was referring to giving a whirl to explaining why we teach rather than giving a whirl at teaching. I have taught every grade in one form or another. Primarily I was a secondary teacher, Spanish and math. I currently teach for the University of Phoenix teacher preparation program and I am a Learning Coach for the Texas Principal Excellence Program. I look at pure inquiry all the time as an unreachable goal even in a "Free school." The reason for this is that the students have been trained for eons to expect the teacher to provide all the answers. This has created a highly ingrained tradition which might be eradicated in 12 years if we could only eradicate it from the teachers. The biggest drawback of inquiry is the time it takes, especially when our students are not accustomed to doing it. So... the best we can do is a hybrid of inquiry. This means that the teacher creates learning scenarios, or learning bubbles that float in a sea of teacher directed learning. Within the confines and limitations of the bubble, the students have the autonomy to inquire and direct their own learning, but on the whole it is a teacher directed system. You are absolutely correct. Inquiry is not new-- I was just reading Dewey's work on "Experience in Education" written in 1938 and that was the main point of his argument.

How do we implement inquiry in public schools? The best way to do this in any school is to motivate the teacher to create confined learning scenarios that inspire the students to ask questions and be curious. I would say that this would be necessary to do at least once a week. In this scenario, the teacher has to learn to prime the pump but mainly the teacher needs to get out of the way and only intervene when absolutely necessary.

The sad fact remains that few public and private teachers trust the students enough to give them such autonomy. Teacher will have to learn how to relinquish control and put up with a bit of productive noise.

No, inquiry is not the answer to our struggling public school system. It is a piece of the answer that is encompassed by active teaching and active learning. Both have to be present in high performance learning teams.

In terms of districts which provide detailed scope and sequences, their intent is to standardize teacher instruction so district tests are comparable, not to prescribe verbage for instruction. Saavy teachers who understand this will create lesson plans that far exceed the district and the state standards. In this manner, neither teachers nor students will worry about meeting the minimum standards of the test.

Hope this helps,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Diana's picture
Fourth Grade Teacher From Brooklyn, NY

We can all agree that teaching is not an easy profession. Teaching is a calling for me. I enjoy to see the improvements in children's academic and social developments. A problem I do have with this profession is the testing. Our students are being programmed to past test not learn for the betterment of themselves.
I do enjoy collaborating with my colleagues to come up with effective practices and techniques. You would be surprise how much more effective planning takes place when there are multiple minds working together. Andrea I feel your pain with being overwhelmed. You just need to master your curriculum, know the children you are teaching, set your goals, and move your students. I put the test to the side and teach. Believe in yourself and your techniques. Its good to reflect and critique your lesson so that you can improve.

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

Dedicated Teacher: See below--

[quote]All this accountability and pacing guides and standards and whatever, strangling the life out of education, educators, and students.... I am very insulted by isolated "sweeps" by district office personnel who step out of their "ivory towers" ....they know nothing about the daily interactions and multiple complexities that each class period entails, yet they come to "evaluate" me without even a conversation with me. ... Who ever came up with the idea that teachers of the same subject and same level have to be on the same page on the same day? ... I wonder what the Founding Fathers would think about No Child Left Behind legislation.[/quote]

I would like to comment on what you wrote. First of all thank you for being a dedicated teacher. Your passion for students is evident.

I just want to point out that not all educators are as dedicated as yourself and because of that, they have have not met the needs of the students. The truth of the matter is that teacher performance follows a bell curve in which there are significant numbers of mediocre to poor teachers and few exceptional teachers. In response to this, the school administration, the district "ivory tower" people, the state and the federal government (admittedly, not perfect either) intervene in one way or another on behalf of the students. If all teachers had been doing their jobs, they would not have had to intervene. Dr. Michael Schmoker wrote a book called "Results Now" that explains what traditional isolation has done to the teaching profession. He explains that because teachers have been behind closed doors for so long, pedagogical laxness crept in.

Anyway, now you have people (administrators, and ivory tower people) visiting your classroom more often. You have people making sure that you are on schedule to teach the required curriculum, and you have people who check student scores to see if you have done a good job in teaching the learning objectives.

The founding fathers would have applauded setting minimum standards and holding teachers and schools accountable for assuring that all students make progress. In my opinion, NCLB is the best thing that has happened to public education since Madeline Hunter. For the first time, teachers and administrators have to show that they are meeting all students' basic educational needs. The only problem is that many educators have over-reacted and instead of improving instruction, which was the intent of NCLB, they have focused on playing the game of testing. So, for them, NCLB has become another thing to complain about, along with poor parental support, lack of funding and belligerent students, which are excuses for poor teacher performance (as demonstrated by poor student performance). The real issue is the teachers' lack of confidence in their own abilities to turn things around.

So, the other side of the coin is that even in this so-called restricted environment, teachers are still capable of teaching "how" they want to even if they do not have complete control over the "what". Teachers can freely collaborate with their peers in and out of school to implement best practices and create engaging, high-impact lessons. Teachers are at liberty to set high standards of performance, even ones that go above and beyond the minimum standards set by the states. Teachers are 100 percent in control of creating high performance learning teams in their classrooms, creating partnerships with the parents and establishing exciting and exhilarating learning environments for their students. NCLB did not take any of this away.

There is not one administrator or "ivory tower" person that was not a teacher first, so they do know the intimate details of the classroom and if you ask them, they will be glad to help. The best teachers I have known are the ones that are glad to get help, advice, pointers, encouragement, and even criticism from any source. You complained that they did not speak to you first. What would you have told them to look for in your lessons? It is not too late. When was the last time you invited them to your classroom if you want them to know what is really going on?

I applaud your care and concern for public education and simply want to remind you that we are only victims if we allow ourselves to be and that the power to change things is really in our own two hands, figuratively speaking, because most of the obstacles we perceive are derived from our own attitudes.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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


[quote]One other point. I heard Dr. Daniel Kim speak at the Ohio School Board Association last week about systems thinking. He says most often our schools work as a collection of people. When they become a system, everyone is working together for a common purpose. What he said that made me go hum.... was when our super star teachers work their hardest, they still may not move the district forward unless they learn how to lead their colleague to teach like them. Like a car... when all the parts work together, the car will move forward, when any part works extra hard but other parts don't work together, the car still won't move forward, and the part that is working extra hard will burn out. Just some food for thought for those who are pulling more than their share of the load and feel overworked and under appreciated. I'd be interested in your thoughts.[/quote]

Thank you so much for your insightful comments. We do need more "Super Sar Teachers" and the best way to get them is from other "Super Star Teachers." You hit the right nerve when you wrote that teachers need to quit complaining and work to make more super stars like themselves. Yet to my knowledge not much is said about being a teacher-leader taught in pre-service education or continuing professional development.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

I taught to help change the world, first in my own neighborhood, and then in a school in Germany. I then went to DC Schools thinking that I could make a difference but found it depressing, expensive and a solution that was unworkable for me. So I left DC and moved back to Arlington , Virginia.. sometimes where you are and how you are appreciated makes one a better teacher. I had a few principals who fed me the golden tickets, great professional development, summer opportunities and respect. The difference I made is still coming back to me, though I never expected it. On Facebook children I taught long ago speak to me.
I guess as a minority, it was always important to help all minorities especially the girls go forward since lots of people did not expect much from them, or me. My mother wanted me to have the chance to change the world that she did not have. She supported me to make a difference. She taught me to be giving and to reach out to others.

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


We never know how much effect we have on our students, even the difficult ones. That is the ultimate reward of being a teacher. Thank you for your years of service.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

Kate's picture

As a former substitute teacher (not a student sitter), I found the curriculum to be, at times, not in touch with the students' needs. A group of PSSA students and I shared a day together. While my classroom time was short, I know I instilled in them a respect for Math. While Math was not my forte in school, it was Art, I found that the way that Math was given to these particular students was boring and not in their interest. I brought it to their level of living, working a job before and after school and when they were out of school working in general labor or other lower paying jobs. They were not going on to college, they just wanted to get out of school the best way they could and were not interested in Math. Until I changed their way of thinking about it. Math is used every day by everyone, in one way or another. To teach Math as a dry, uninteresting subject is wrong. I took it to their level of thought. How much would new tires be for the truck they drove to and from school? How much would the tax be on them? What would the total be? How much money did they need to buy groceries for the week? How many lunches could they make with a pound of bologna and a loaf of bread and what would that cost be to them? How many hours of overtime would they have to work in order to pay for the hot water tank when it died? When we discussed these things, Math then became important to them. They worked out problems using ads in the paper and figuring costs. Sometimes I think the schools and the administration get hung up in the stats and should concentrate on what they are there to do, TEACH.

wanyi wang's picture

Teaching is not simply to teach what we teachers know about a particular subject, there is a lot more than that. The role of teacher plays a big part in young people's life. How we present ourselves in front of students has great influence on them.

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