Book Review: “What the Best College Teachers Do” by Ken Bain, 2004

Book review by Richard Elwes:

Open a typical book on the theory of pedagogy, and all too often one is confronted by a morass of impenetrable and, one often suspects, unnecessary jargon. So it is a particular pleasure to read Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do”. The book is the outcome of a fifteen year study in which Bain and colleagues identified and analysed around a hundred excellent teachers at US Colleges and Universities. Through extensive observations, discussions, and interviews with the teachers and their students, Bain arrives at a range of conclusions regarding the practice of good teaching. His findings are laid bare in a series of straightforwardly entitled chapters: “How do they conduct class?”, “How do they treat their students?”, and so on.

Few of his discoveries come as complete surprises, yet many are genuinely enlightening. For instance, the best teachers “have an unusually keen sense of the histories of their disciplines, including the controversies that have swirled within them, and that understanding seems to help them reflect deeply on the nature of thinking within their fields”.

Many of the insights within this book derive from the removal of extraneous and superficial aspects of education. How do good teachers speak to their students? Obviously, there are countless possible answers. But what do these approaches have in common? “Perhaps the most significant skill the teachers in our study displayed in the classroom… was the ability to communicate orally in ways that stimulated thought.”

The author often allows his educators to speak for themselves, and as one might expect, they are a thoughtful and frequently amusing group. Thus we read the Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel opining that teaching is “above all… about commanding attention and holding it… Our task… is not unlike that of a commercial for a soft drink”. On the other hand, Jeanette Norden, professor of cell biology at Vanderbilt University, “told us that before she begins the first class in any semester, she thinks about the awe and excitement she felt the first time anyone explained the brain to her, and she considers how she can help her students achieve that same feeling.”

The teachers analysed come from a wide range of Colleges and academic disciplines; some teach only elite students, others specialise in assisting strugglers; while several are eminent researchers, a few have no research publications at all; they deploy a variety of educational techniques. Among this diversity, the conclusions that Bain avoids are as interesting as those he draws. “[P]ersonality played little or no role in successful teaching. We encountered both the bashful and the bold, the restrained and the histrionic…. We found no pattern in instructors’ sartorial habits, or in what students and professors called each other. In some classrooms first names were common; in others, only titles and surnames prevailed.”

All the same, some common traits are apparent. “Exceptional teachers treat their lectures… and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors, as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.”

Particularly important, Bain argues, is the fostering of a “natural critical learning environment”. This is the closest the book ever comes to jargon, but that judgement would be unfair: “‘natural’ because students encounter the skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating… ‘critical’ because students learn to… reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning… and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people”.

At this stage, the reader might worry that this catalogue of heroic deeds could be dispiriting to the rest of us. Not so. Whilst Bain is full of admiration for his teachers, he by no means deifies them. “Even the best teachers have bad days… they are not immune to frustrations, lapses in judgement, worry, or failure.” On the contrary, their ability to confront their own shortcomings is one thing which sets the best teachers apart from those others who “never saw any problems with their own teaching, or they believed they could do little to correct deficiencies”. Good teachers show humility and willingness to improve.

In comparison, the teachers identified as the “worst” by their students often appear to carry the attitude, as one of Bain’s subjects puts it, that only “smart men can possibly comprehend this material and that if you can’t understand what I’m saying, that must mean I’m a lot smarter than you are”. As the biologist Craig Nelson says “The trouble with most of us… is that we teach like we were god.” Contrast this to the view of Dudley Herrschbach, another of the teachers in the study (as well as being a Nobel Prize-winning Chemist) that “You have to be confused… before you can reach a new level of understanding anything.”

In summary, this short book is far more readable and entertaining than a text on educational theory has any right to be. It offers every Higher Education teacher an invaluable opportunity: to learn from the best.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN-10: 0674013255. ISBN-13: 978-0674013254.

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