Book Review: What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain

Throughout the year, Departmental Teaching Fellows will be choosing books from the Bok Center Library to review. Our first review comes from DeptTF Erin Blevins of the Department of Organizational and Evolutionary Biology. What follows is a synopsis of her review; to read the full text, click here.

Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press), sets itself up for failure…and miraculously avoids it.  I was drawn to the book both for the promise of its title—Who are these all-stars? What’s their secret?—and the seeming impossibility that it could deliver.  Bain and colleagues set out to define “the best teachers” and find commonality in good teaching across disciplines as far-flung as theater and med-school neuroscience, ultra-selective and open-enrollment schools, and a variety of instructor personalities.  With such a broad goal, the book could easily veer into vague statements like “good teachers encourage critical thinking” and “create student-centered classrooms,” or offer a utilitarian list of exercises that fails to address deeper qualities of teaching.  Instead, Bain presents the results of a nearly twenty-year study and finds a middle course between the meaninglessly general and overly specific.  He explores the gap between grand aims and classroom execution, discovering that what the “best teachers” have in common are mindsets and strategies for navigating that space—more than what the best teachers do, it’s really about how they think. 

Bain discusses how the best prepare to teach, conduct class, and evaluate students and themselves.  This structure applies across all disciplines and institutions, and it’s telling that the best teachers are united not by classroom techniques or goals written on the syllabus, but by mindsets—“deep teaching” practices analogous to the deep learning they foster in students.  In some sense, Bain finds what we might expect: the best teachers approach their teaching thoughtfully, accountably, and keep daily activities relevant to course goals and “the big picture” outside class.  They do, in their individual ways, run “student-centered classrooms,” and “encourage critical thinking”—but Bain goes beyond these common pronouncements to describe, as best as he can, how the best teachers achieve those objectives.  Though he does not use the term “backwards design,” it fits: the best teachers build their lessons by working down from larger student objectives, not getting bogged down in details.  They set high expectations—at both open-enrollment and highly selective schools—but the workload is not a rite of passage but meaningful in itself, connected to the world beyond the class.  Before blaming students for any failures to engage, the best teachers take a hard look at their course goals and how they are implemented; each had a system to solicit and incorporate student feedback.

The best teachers are often unfamiliar with scientific research on human learning.  Nevertheless, each one has a self-constructed mental model that matches what cognitive science has discovered.  While this might be a testament to their perceptiveness, it also means that to succeed, teachers must individually reinvent the same wheel.  It is hardly surprising that teaching is improved when teachers have a good understanding of the system they work with, the learning brain.  Helping teachers build science-based models of learning will bring current research into the classroom and give us all the same advantage as Bain’s best.

In Bain’s words, “anyone who [reads this book and] expects a simple list of do’s and don’ts will be severely disappointed.”  This is not the book for extracting quick tips, but getting inside an effective mindset—it takes time to sink in.  Yet, the most striking (and reassuring) finding of the study is quite succinct: all Bain’s subjects shared the belief that the best teachers are made, not born.  The best teachers are not pedagogical savants.  In a process we can all emulate, they don’t do everything right the first time, they struggle, experiment with different approaches, and sometimes fail.  It’s the same process we see in our students; as good teachers, we realize that’s how we learn.

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