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 often 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: that of learning from the very best.

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



Students Are Not Asking Questions

It seems that this problem, already well-known to many our colleagues, has started to go mainstream:

Students Are Not Asking Questions: A Working Conference to Address a Fundamental Problem in Education

A Conference to Address a Fundamental Problem in Education on July 13 and 14, 2015. 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM at Park Plaza Hotel, Boston, Massachusetts

University Mathematics in Perspective

University Mathematics in Perspective

29th Residential Course for Sixth Form Students
Wednesday 24 – Friday 26 June 2015
University of Leeds, Devonshire Hall

Click here for more details.

Sample lectures include:

“Polyhedra” – John Truss
“Mathematics and Card Cheating” – Kevin Houston
“Funny Fluids and Soft Stuff” – Daniel Read
“The Taccoma BridgeOliver Harlen
SupernovaeSam Falle

Dominic Cummings on Standards in English Schools

A few posts from Dominic Cumming’s Blog touching on issues of mathematics education policy.

Standards In English Schools Part 0: Introduction

Standards In English Schools Part I: The introduction of the National Curriculum and GCSEs

Bureaucratic cancer and the sabotage of A Level reform

A random quote from Bureaucratic cancer …

Some have asked ‘how much confidence did you have in ALCAB doing a good job?’ Answer? Initially not much. They are all under huge pressure to say everything is fine. Initially for example, despite physics departments across the country  complaining about the removal of calculus from Physics A Level (complaints that practically none of them will repeat publicly because of fear of their VC office), it did not look like ALCAB would be much use and they rejected calls from various professors I know on this subject. There is massive political pressure to focus exclusively on the numbers taking an A Level rather than the quality  of the A Level.

But my hope was that by creating something that would be seen as the ‘voice of the university subject experts’, they would have to listen and adapt in order to maintain credibility and avoid embarrassing challenges. There are more and more enraged academics fed up of VC offices lying to the media and misrepresenting academics’ opinions. I thought that creating something would push the debate in increasingly sensible directions where the emphasis would be on the skills needed on arrival at university. Now, everything to do with A Levels is dominated by political not educational concerns about the numbers doing them and ‘access’. This has helped corrupt the exam system. If we had professors of physics, French, music etc every year publicly humiliating exam boards for errors, this would soon improve things from a low base and make it much harder for MPs and Whitehall to keep corrupting public exams.

Carter review of initial teacher training

Report from Sir Andrew Carter, chair of the independent review of the quality and effectiveness of initial teacher training (ITT) courses. [pdf] The report sets out how the ITT system is performing and highlights examples of good practice as well as areas for improvement. The government’s response to the review is also available.

Some recommendations of the report relevant to mathematics departments in universities:

  • Recommendation 1a: Subject knowledge development should be part of a future framework for ITT content.
  • Recommendation 1b: Issues in subject-specific pedagogy, such as pupil misconceptions, phases of progression in the subject as well as practical work, should be part of a framework for ITT content.
  • Recommendation 3: Schools should include subject knowledge as an essential element of professional development.
  • Recommendation 4: DfE should make funded in-service subject knowledge enhancement courses available for new primary teachers to access as professional development.
  • Recommendation 5: Universities should explore offering “bridge to ITT” modules in the final years of their subject degrees for students who are considering ITT programmes.
  • Recommendation 8: There are many universities that are home to world-leading research and assessment organisations – yet in our experience it can be the case that these organisations are either not involved in ITT or are involved in a superficial way. ITT partnerships should make more systematic use of wider expertise outside university departments of education.
  • Recommendation 13: All schools should, whenever practically possible, seek out and participate in robust local partnership arrangements. In a school-led system, this recommendation is naturally the responsibility of schools.

The Government response to the Carter review of initial teacher training (ITT) is difficult to interpret. Department for Education has no control over universities (the only serious providers of “subject knowledge”), and is therefore is unable to formulate a coherent policy of improvement of teachers’ subject knowledge. The deliberate attempt to shift ITT away from universities – towards a school-based, apprentice training model is a very recent and peculiarly English idea, whose (real and potential) flaws do not seem to be recognised in either the report or the government response.

Disclaimer: writing for this blog, I act in my personal capacity; the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent position of my employer, or the London Mathematical Society, or any other organisation or institution.

Mathematical practice: Job opportunity

I am seeking to fill two research assistant posts, one in Oxford, one in Edinburgh.
The description in the job-ad is fairly open, as I am looking for flexibility in thinking about new ideas, and ability to deliver on written work,  rather than any particular technical specialism. The survey paper is the best guide to the thinking.
Professor Ursula Martin CBE
Professor of Computer Science
University of Oxford


No, it is not the Queen’s Honours list. It stands for Outcomes Based Education, the latest pedagogical fad. The EU has practically adopted it as its official educational project. Which probably means that to bid successfully for EU funded projects you’d stand a better chance if you insert the OBE here and there.

But I am writing this because in the Wikipedia page Outcomes-based education

I was somewhat amused to (re)read a paragraph such as this:

In a traditional education system, students are given grades and rankings compared to each other. Content and
performance expectations are based primarily on what was taught in the past to students of a given age. The goal of traditional education was to present the knowledge and skills of an older generation to the new generation of students, and to provide students with an environment in which to learn. The process paid little attention (beyond the classroom teacher) to whether or not students learn any of the material.

and guess what reference they cite at the end of this paragraph? The
Constance Kamii and Ann Dominick 1998 paper on the “harmful effects” of algorithms in Grades 1-4. They also quote this gem from the paper:

“The teaching of algorithms is based on the erroneous assumption that mathematics is a cultural heritage that must be transmitted to the next generation.”

And whole countries build their educational policies on such “findings”.

Alan Turing: The Imitation Game

Of course, what makes Turing special to so many of us is not the detail of his life so much as the *meaning* that each of us as individuals draw out of who Turing was and what he left behind. And this explains why “The Imitation Game” grips and moves so many of us, with its emphasis on the inner mind and experience of the man. The current IMDb user rating is 8.4 out of 10:

compared with the 8.1 (for instance) of 4 Oscar winner “The King’s Speech”; or 7.9 for 3 Oscar winner “Avatar”. 8 Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire” gets 8.0.

On Rotten Tomatoes “The Imitation Game” gets a creditable 90% critics rating; and 95% Audience Score (the audience score higher than for the three Academy ‘Best Pictures’ mentioned). See:

But here is Christian Caryl writing on “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” in the influential New York Review of Books:

Let’s take an overview of this carefully argued piece. The ‘traitor’ comments, also appearing in a Guardian item: (referring to Turing’s “cryptographic work at Bletchley Park from 1939-45″), show a misunderstanding both of movie and the historical and social context). We will be guided by the sort of computational broad sweep handed down to us by Alan Turing – just skip the next paragraph if you want.

The problems with a movie as complex and dependent on higher order impact and meaning as “TIG” is that the appreciation and evaluation of the movie is not algorithmic. The observer may doggedly limit attention to the detail (as one certainly would in evaluating a mathematical proof, but not if watching Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1), or perform a higher order computation with a quite different result to that of someone else (we don’t all like the same movies). Much deep information theory is based on quite basic intuitions – we observe that someone “could not see the wood for the trees”; or, converely, in the UK people say “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”. The emergence of Turing, person and work, certainly does depend on detail. The jury is still out on who is right about the balanceand dependencies between the levels of meaning. People we have high regard for will come to quite different conclusions. It was Alan helped us to understand the emergence of ‘incomputable’ higher order information, and what it means for human versus algorithmic thinking.

What about “the portrayal of Alan Turing in the movie” as “an arrogant and obnoxious dick” as one of my distinguished correspondents wrote? Or, conversely, those who described the movie as a piece of hagiography? Back in 2012 I wrote a piece for the Guardian Northerner on “Alan Turing and the bullying of Britain’s geeks”:

and got a number of very moving letters of appreciation for bringing this sensitive issue into the open.

I wrote: “In 2002, an American study found that 94% of school students with Asperger’s syndrome faced torment from their peers and commented:

‘Some of their behaviors and characteristics that others see as ‘different’ make these children easy targets for frequent and severe bullying. Having Asperger’s Syndrome means these children are part of a vulnerable population and are easy targets.’ “

It’s conjectural, but probable (see the quote from Alan’s brother John in the Guardian piece), that Alan did fit with this, and was misinterpreted as ‘arrogant’ at times. He was by many accounts a lovely man with a great sense of humour – with children especially, and those like Robin Gandy that he was close to. But scriptwriter Graham Moore is the right person to get the balance right – there are some great interviews on the web, here
is one:

He describes how:

“I had been a lifelong Alan Turing obsessive. Among incredibly nerdy teenagers, without a lot of friends, Alan Turing was always this luminary figure we’d all look up to.”

Another on “Trial and Triumph” about the development of the script and the philosophy underlying the film:

Just recently, towards the end of November, I got a very moving message,
which for me brought out a key significance of the film and the special
understanding of all concerned with it:

“I followed your article in the guardian in 2012 from many previous articles about Alan Turing. He is quickly becoming a special interest , having known nothing about him a few days ago. I am inspired and in absolute awe of this man, someone who sees life differently. A possible member of team aspie too.
I thank you for your positive link to the aspergerians / aspies and how we should be seen as valuable to society, and thank you for recognising that so often we are not. As someone who was bullied relentlessly for being different , I am always grateful that someone has any positive light to
share on our experiences.
I am aspie, as is my daughter and son. I hope to share all the stories and information so Alan’s story will stay well known. Anyway, I have said what I wanted to, have a good weekend. Thank you.”

Apart from the science (a headline part of the Turing legacy for many of us) this is an issue reminds me why an Oscar for Alan does mean a lot. If “The Imitation Game” gets an Oscar, it will be seen by many as being for Alan Turing. Never before has there been a movie hero like him, not mad or disabled, but a man who did great things *because* of who he was – a hero for the information age. And – through Turing – we would have bullied thoughtful amazing kids coming out of schools all around the world … with Oscars! Oscars for being like Alan.

And “TIG” director is very much on-board with this aspect of his movie – Genevieve Hassan quoted him for the BBC under the heading “Alan Turing film celebrates ‘difference'”:

The LA Times has Morten Tyldum “on doing justice to Alan Turing”, talking about a number of issues, including the old chestnut about “TIG” not including enough gay sex:

It just so happens I was at a showing of the movie with a group including a clever mathematical teenager, and someone asked him if Alan Turing in the movie reminded him of anyone. The implication was accepted with a quiet smile communicated something very like pride …

Just this wekend WIRED magazine had this nice piece from author “Walter Isaacson on The Imitation Game and Making Alan Turing Famous”:
where we read:

“One of the reasons I wrote this book [The Innovators] is because I wanted to make people like Alan Turing famous,” Isaacson says in Episode 131 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And now I must admit that Benedict Cumberbatch, by playing him, has done that a thousand times better than I ever could have.”

What a nice man!

Apologies to for an untypical update. To be honest, I’m swamped with media items dealing with the movie, and thoughts arising from it. Those of us who started out 5 or 6 years ago, with even those professionally involved with computers and information not having even heard of Turing … it’s an amazing experience to have friends, relations, students who have suddenly ‘taken ownership’ of the Turing story via this movie.

Some are already going to Alan Turing biographies by Andrew Hodges, Jack Copeland, David Leavitt and others; visiting Bletchley Park, the Science Museum, the HNF museum in Paderborn, MOSI in Manchester, or the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California; or even braving Turing’s mathematics, computer science, philosophy and logic, and artificial intelligence via “Alan Turing His Work and Impact”, Charles Petzold’s “The Annotated Turing”, or various other excellent books – maybe a list is in order for a future update.

Anyway, it’s already approaching 4am. So just time before breakfast to dig out a few links to interesting “TIG” related links, and next time a return to shorter and more diverse Turing news.

The film made a great start at Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and here’s a typical review “Benedict Cumberbatch gives Oscar worthy performance” from The Independent:

The big event in the UK was the October 8 BFI premiere in London. Some of us northerners (well enabler Daniela and I) caught it in Manchester that night, a grand experience. And I managed a hasty Guardian Northerner blog “The Imitation Game: how Benedict Cumberbatch brought Turing to life” for the day before the premiere:

A further piece for “The Conversation”:
prompted Graham Moore to message us on Twitter “Thanks! I adored your
tremendous piece yesterday—Brilliant links between AT’s sexuality and his
imitation game.”
There was another in November on “Imitation Game will finally bring Alan
Turing the fame he so rightly deserves”:

About this time, everything went crazy, and did umpteen interviews – along with anyone else knew something about Turing and was willing to give their time, eg this on The Colin McEnroe Show for Connecticut Public Radio:

Also this weekend, Radio Times announced “Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Imitation Game is already a Hollywood award winner” – going on to explain “The Alan Turing biopic wins Best Picture at the Capri, Hollywood International Film Festival in Italy, the first of a busy awards season for the British film and its Sherlock star”:

Cumberbatch himself is getting huge amounts of praise – this from the Baltimore Magazine is typical “The Imitation Game Benedict Cumberbatch shines as the strange genius who broke the Nazi code”:

An important element of the Oscar campaign is the intervention of the Harvey Weinstein company earlier last year. These are fearsomely determined and able people, but with the sort of concern for the worthwhile that has guided them to a string of successes, including “The King’s Speech”. And an interesting piece from The Wrap suggests that they have realised that the strongest card in their hand is Alan Turing himself. It’s what drew so many creative people to the movie in the midst of the Turing centenary celebrations, including Black Bear Pictures founder Teddy Schwarzman when Warner dropped the movie in 2012. According to The Wrap “Weinstein Revs Up ‘Imitation Game’ Awards Campaign by Promoting Alan Turing, not Benedict Cumberbatch”: Of course, it’s the Turing-Cumberbatch package is a specially potent one.

A recent development has been the muttered suggestions of conspiracies and hatchet jobs in relation to such pieces as that of Christian Caryl in the New York Review of Books. But despite the sharpness of tone, and timing to coincide with Oscar voting, hidden agendas and conspiracies are yet to be uncovered. The Independent treads carefully with “Oscars 2015: The Imitation Game and Selma criticised for being loose with facts as voting season begins”:
While Deadline is more colouful with “‘Tis the Season: ‘Foxcatcher’, ‘Big
Eyes’ Latest Oscar Contenders Under Attack”:
And Jen Yamato starting her article with:

“Oscar voting opened Monday, and like clockwork, the haters have come calling. As Deadline’s Pete Hammond wrote on Monday, ’tis the season for controversy over fact-based awards contenders.”

I hope we have given a reasonable idea of the state of things at the start of 2015. My Google alert is sending me literally dozens of Turing related items a day, many duplicating and cannibalising each other, and a full report would take a week or more. It’s now gone 6am, enough for us all.

There is still lots to tell concerning Turing developments not directly directly to “The Imitation Game”. Please send any items – not to do with the film – by next weekend.

All best



Yagmur Denizhan: Performance-based control of learning agents and self-fulfilling reductionism.

Yagmur Denizhan: Performance-based control of learning agents and self-fulfilling reductionism. Systema 2 no. 2 (2014) 61-70. ISSN 2305-6991. The article licensed under the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. A PDF file is here.

Abstract: This paper presents a systemic analysis made in an attempt to explain why half a century after the prime years of cybernetics students started behaving as the reductionist cybernetic model of the mind would predict. It reveals that self-adaptation of human agents can constitute a longer-term feedback effect that vitiates the efficiency and operability of the performance-based control approach.

From the Introduction:

What led me to the line of thought underlying this article  was a strange situation I encountered sometime in 2007 or 2008. It was a new attitude in my sophomore class that I never observed before during my (by then) 18 years’ career. During the lectures whenever I asked some conceptual question in order to check the state of comprehension of the class, many students were returning rather incomprehensible bulks of concepts, not even in the form of a proper sentence; a behaviour one could expect from an inattentive school child who is all of a sudden asked to summarise what the teacher was talking about, but with the important difference that –as I could clearly see– my students were listening to me and I was not even forcing them to answer. After observing several examples of such responses I deciphered the underlying algorithm. Instead of trying to understand the meaning of my question, searching for a proper answer within their newly acquired body of knowledge and then expressing the outcome in a grammatically correct sentence, they were identifying some concepts in my question as keywords, scanning my sentences within the last few minutes for other concepts with high statistical correlation with these keywords, and then throwing the outcome back at me in a rather unordered form: a rather poorly packaged piece of Artificial Intelligence.
It was a strange experience to witness my students as the embodied proof of the hypothesis of cognitive reductionism that “thinking is a form of computation”. Stranger, though, was the question why all of a sudden half a century after the prime years of cybernetic reductionism we were seemingly having its central thesis1 actualised.