!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Ken Bain on Teaching

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ken Bain on Teaching

In 2004, after fifteen years of research, Ken Bain, now Vice Provost for Instruction at Montclair University in New Jersey, published What the Best College Teachers Do. Bain investigated what attitudes and practices distinguish excellent teachers.

Bain defines excellent teachers as those who
achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel.
Bain had two acid tests for including particular teachers in the "excellent" category:
  • Most of their students were highly satisfied with the teaching and inspired by it to continue to learn.

  • Colleagues in the field or in closely related fields would regard the [teachers'] learning objectives as worthy and substantial.
Though Bain was looking at college teachers, his criteria for excellent outcomes apply with little modification to employee development efforts for an increasingly large portion of the workforce of a country like the United States. In assessing the success of a teacher, Bain
looked for signs that students developed multiple perspectives and the ability to think about their own thinking; that they tried to understand ideas for themselves; that they attempted to reason with the concepts and information they encountered, to use the material widely, and to relate it to previous experience and learning. Did they think about assumptions, evidence, and conclusions?
Below, in somewhat edited form, is a summary (pdf) of Bain's major conclusions, as drawn up by the Faculty Innovation Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The summary is organized according to the six broad questions Bain investigated.
  1. What do the best teachers know and understand?

    • Know their subjects well

    • Study what others are doing in their field

    • Often read extensively in other fields

    • Take a strong interest in the broader issues of their disciplines

    • Develop techniques for grasping fundamental principles, and organizing concepts, that help others build their own understanding (i.e., the best teachers do not confine their job to "covering the material")

    • Know how to simplify

    • Cut to the heart of the matter with provocative insights

  2. How do they prepare to teach?

    • Treat teaching as a serious intellectual endeavor

    • Begin with questions about student learning objectives, rather than focusing first on the course content

  3. What do they expect of their students?

    • They expect strong performance, while offering assurance that the students can meet the learning objectives, i.e., the best teachers take full advantage of the Pygmalion effect

    • Their learning objectives embody the kind of thinking and acting expected for life, i.e., objectives are not mechanically tied to the course content

  4. What do they do when they teach?

    • Create a natural critical learning environment, i.e., an environment in which intriguing or important problems and authentic tasks challenge students to grapple with ideas, using critical thinking skills to examine assumptions and mental models of reality

  5. How do they treat students?

    • Manifest trust and seek commitment to learn

    • Believe that students want to learn

    • Are open with students and talk about their own intellectual journey and encourage students to be similarly reflective

    • Often discuss openly and enthusiastically their own sense of awe and curiosity about life

  6. How do they evaluate their students and themselves?
    • Use a systematic process to assess their own efforts and to make changes

    • By checking their own efforts when they evaluate students, they avoid judging students on arbitrary standards
A theme in Bain's work that I'd emphasize is the importance of fostering deep learning. I mention this because too many corporate trainers are convinced that all learning objectives must be "behavioral." I beg to differ. It is appropriate to make conceptual understanding a learning objective when such understanding is the foundation for applying knowledge correctly and for building further expertise.