How to teach without telling, and why?

When I work in schools to assist teachers with their teaching practice we often have conversations about the benefits of student centric versus teacher-centric instruction. The truth is, as I explain to them, there is a time and a place for both types of teaching, and that it isn’t as straightforward as saying that all teacher-centric instruction is bad, and all student-centric learning is good. In fact, rather than there being only two options, our teaching strategies (and therefore student experiences) sit on a spectrum.


Direct teaching and passive learning

We all know what sitting in a lecture feels like. The lecturer, the know-er of all things, points to their slide and explains what you need to ‘know’, we are passive receptacles required only to listen.

In this environment it is very difficult to know what is actually happening in a student’s head; they could be focused on the content or they could be thinking about what they are having for dinner. This can result in students feeling disengaged and disconnected from the learning.

However explicit teaching can sometimes be useful in the classroom. When we teach the specific formulas in mathematics or the rules for punctuation in literacy we don’t necessarily want the students to bring their own perspectives – we are teaching a specific skill that will then be applied a at future date.

In situations like these is it often better practice to hold the students hands through the maze, and point directly to the knowledge and skill, often forcing them to use specific terminology and formulaic processes.


  • Useful when teaching specific skills.


  • Students are passive and can be disengaged.

  • There is no way of knowing what is happening in the student's head.

Facilitative teaching and inquiry learning

Conversely there are times when we want students to have their own space and time to discover knowledge. Preschools are examples where learning is mostly unstructured, where children can be students in their own time, at their own pace, and for their own reasons.

This is great for student engagement, but is problematic because we cannot predict where the students will end up, and what is even more difficult is knowing how to assess them and provide constructive feedback. As I explain to teachers, these two styles of teaching and learning are at opposing ends on a spectrum and there is a middle ground.


  • Great for student engagement


  • Difficult to know where the students will end up

  • Difficult to assess and provide constructive feedback

Teaching without telling and learning by exploring

This teaching style looks and feels to the teacher just like facilitating, very hands off. But the real difference is in the curriculum design where you imagine yourself as a maze builder. You want to structure the lesson with a goal in mind, and include exploratory opportunities for your students. In my opinion, this guided inquiry is how best to balance student engagement with student outcomes.

Guided Inquiry allows students to:

  • Discover content for themselves

  • Practice skills

  • Make their own mistakes

  • Form their own language around the experience.

1. Start with the end in mind

Before you begin you need to know where you want the students to end up after the lesson. What is the content to learn and what are the skills to master?

2. Student options with structure

Include in your lesson a space for students to pick their own path. This could be allowing students to pick one of several countries to study, one of many natural disasters to research or a range of tasks that match their preferred learning styles or even tasks that take them out of their comfort zone so they can experience different learning styles. At the same time, provide students with strict and explicit guidelines for their work. We all know that learners require boundaries. These tasks are best explained by going through an example with the whole class.

3. Allowing students to explore beyond

Once you have finished planning and facilitating – feel comfortable to let the students explore within the environment you have created. When your students find ways to accomplish the task that you hadn’t expected then it’s best to let them go. You will still be there as a guide, if they really require assistance or clarification, but you need to trust that the planning you have put in will keep them travelling along a defined path and they won’t be able to go too far off the rails.

The students' exploration is structured so they can be brought back in line with the task, but part of the experience of learning by exploring is feeling free to be creative within the environment that has been created for you. Sometimes this can be unnerving for teachers, and it can take some time to be comfortable allowing students to find their own way.

Karen Green - Curriculum Consultant MAPPEN Author

PlanningKaren Green