Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

I finally finished What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. Yes, I am a college teacher--I teach part-time at my local community college--so I bought this book with the hope that I would learn some tips on how to be a more effective teacher. It did not disappoint.

From the cover blurb:
What makes a great teacher great? Who are the professors students remember long after graduation? This book, the conclusion of a fifteen-year study of nearly one hundred college teachers in a wide variety of fields and universities, offers valuable answers for all educators.
The short answer is--it's not what teachers do, it's what they understand. Lesson plans and lecture notes matter less than the special way teachers comprehend the subject and value human learning. Whether historians or physicists, in El Paso or St. Paul, the best teachers know their subjects inside and out--but they also know how to engage and challenge students and to provoke impassioned responses. Most of all, they believe two things fervently: that teaching matters and that students can learn.
In many ways this book both reinforced and challenged some of my own ideas and opinions about teaching. The main emphasis of the "best teachers" in Dr. Bain's study is student learning. Indeed, it seemed that attitude and mindset on the teacher's part are almost more important than any specific teaching methods. He seemed to say that if teachers will approach their students with the right attitude and goals, they will find ways to figure out the methods that work the best for them.

So, what do the best teachers do? I'll just lay out some of the more important points, and leave the details and explanation to the book. First, good teachers understand ways to learn and what kinds of learning are the most effective, long-term. They understand the differences between deep learners, strategic learners, and surface learners, and strive to help their students become deep learners.

Second, their focus is more on the students' learning than on their teaching. It's not about what the teachers can teach to the students, it's about what the teacher can do to help the students learn. It's a focus on the student's needs rather than the teacher's knowledge.

Third, the best teachers appreciate every student's value, have faith in all students' ability to achieve, and set high standards while conveying to the students that they trust and believe the students can meet those high standards. This faith in the students means that they leave learners in control of their own education, while assuring students that they are there to help them achieve.

When it comes to teaching practices, the best teachers try to create natural critical learning environments. Bain explained it this way:
More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: "natural" because students encounter the skills habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating--authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting; "critical" because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people. Some teachers create this environment within lectures; others, with discussions; still others, with case studies, role playing, field work, or a variety of other techniques (p. 99).
He then goes on to provide more detail in how these critical learning environments can be encouraged and gives examples of the ways that the best teachers in his study accomplished this.

One of the important points that really made me think was this: the best teachers are flexible and change the rules to fit individual student needs in the interest of learning. I guess in that area I tend to be a bit rigid. I don't like to have a lot of late work coming in because I'm afraid that students will fall behind and never catch back up. I may try some more flexible deadlines in future classes as an experiment on this idea, but my usual experience in my classes is that students wait until the very last minute to turn in their work, for better or worse. I'll have to think on this one.

The other point that I thought broke with convention was that the best teachers emphasize learning rather than performance in their assessment of students. This really makes sense, yet my natural instincts (based on my own experiences as a student) are to do timed, closed book exams with test performance as an important part of the grade. The best teachers in this study, however, look for alternatives to performance to assess learning. They might drop those in-class exams in exchange for term projects or take-home essays. They try to encourage critical thinking rather than strategic memorization.

But in the end, Bain concludes, there is no single "best way" to teach--adaptation and invention is necessary because students and situations will vary.

This review is getting a bit long now, so I'll try to wrap up. Overall, I thought the book was quite logical and thought-provoking. It has given me much to think about and I found myself brainstorming on ways to improve my classes to try to help my students think critically, become more interested in the subject, and learn more. I also think that this book is not just for college teachers. I think anyone in a position of trying to help a student learn would find inspiration and motivation in this book. That would include teachers at any level of education and parents as well.

Book details:
Ken Bain. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2004. 207 pp. $21.95. ISBN 0-674-01325-5



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