What the Best College Teachers Do

by Ken Bain

Harvard University Press.  190 pp.

Among Alasdair MacIntyre’s more famous claims is that every ethics presumes a sociology.  Philosophies of human action do not rise out of nowhere; they’re systematic reflections that arise out of particular forms of life, whether those forms be the Athenian polis, the Christian monastery, the modern nation-state, or the consumeristic Internet community.  Such a focus on material conditions (and the insistence that learning the ethics of one set of material conditions means a richer range of possibility for others, even if there’s never any “going back”) allows for a richer examination of ideas and some more flexibility for future ethicists in terms of what the next ethics might look like.  Along similar lines,  but seemingly in the opposite direction, Ken Bain implies a claim throughout What the Best College Teachers Do that every measurement, statistical or otherwise, of the quality of teaching in any place, at any moment, assumes a basically coherent narrative about what education is for and why a human being might want to get educated.

Which Teachers Are Great?

Ken Bain wastes little time setting out precisely what he sees as good education.  It’s not a simple picture by any means, and it’s not monolithic.  But the common threads that tend to connect the college professors that students remember as the best teachers answer the following questions in the affirmative:

  1. Did students continue to learn within the field once the course was over? (7)
  2. Did most of the students (nor all but more than an elite minority) learn the material? (8)
  3. Does the students’ learning pass academic muster, and do the students leave the institution to become competent practitioners in whatever context follows? (9)
  4. Does the learning experience transform the learner, and can the learner see the transformation in herself or himself? (10)

Teachers get to those affirmative answers in different ways, and Bain’s book explores several of those, but ultimately the end, not the means, stands as the book’s thesis: a good college teacher must get a significant portion of the students at hand to come out of a course different from what they came in, and those differences should bear the marks of discipline-governed excellence.

Put that way, the book seems rather uncontroversial, rooted simply in the actual practices of those who exist within the disciplines, and that’s the point: Bain’s concern is that too many teachers, because of bad habits we’ve picked up, measure students’ excellence in ways that do not measure excellence among our colleagues.  What counts as excellence for one does not register when evaluating the other, and as a result, one of them (usually student evaluation) loses its sense of connection to wider networks of inquiry and thus its teleological meaning.

Whether because of pressure from testing maniacs or because we doubt the validity of what we do day to day, not all of us are willing to invite our students into the mental existence that we enjoy.  Some of us look at test scores without asking whether the tests actually measure students’ abilities to exist as practitioners within the field or at the very least to think in ways that reflect the discipline’s contribution.  Others have bought into the “gatekeeper” narrative, holding that if “too many” do well (too often at performing tasks that bear little resemblance to operating as intellectuals within our disciplines), we must be doing something wrong.  Others still swing the opposite direction, letting student evaluations (and their punishment of rigorous standards of evaluation on teacher evaluations) dictate what counts as a successful class.  A bit of historical and sociological investigation can unveil the origins of all of these phenomena, but Bain is not interested in the history of the weird and inadequate: his focus is on seeing, emulating, and extending excellence, and excellence means pointing one’s practice towards the intelligible and articulated standards that govern real, practicing academic disciplines.

Aiming for Lasting Change

The sort of learning that transforms and stays with students, Bain found, is that which constructs knowledge rather than assuming that knowledge can simply transfer from one speaker to many hearers (26).  Bringing students into the life of chemistry and Continental philosophy and economics and developmental psychology involves slow, deliberate alterations not in the number of facts they’ve absorbed but in the mental models within which they encounter new facts (27).  Ultimately the educated person, who has genuinely learned, not only provides different answers but poses different questions in the face of new realities (31).  Ultimately the best teaching, as Bain discovers, does not command students to recall bits of data so much as it invites students to inquire alongside the more experience inquirer (27).

Put that way, perhaps some of the “traditionalists” (though many “traditional” notions of education don’t go back farther than 1983, when “A Nation at Risk” convinced a gullible country that bubble-tests measure something real, or at most to 1873, when Harvard University decided that colleges need “gatekeeper” composition courses to keep the rabble out) will object that there are facts without which students cannot do the high-level reasoning.  Fair enough.  Bain does not call for the abolition of vocabularies and evaluations; he simply notes that, in the practices of those teachers whose students are thinking like physicists and educators eighteen months down the line, the vehicles by which those vocabularies arrive in students’ lives are not numbered lists but context-rich, demanding, complex learning environments that require the vocabularies to solve problems and in which the problems are not multiple-choice tests but tasks that ask students to deploy, not merely to recall, what they know.

Bain’s book then turns to a detailed conversation about some questions that showed up over and over when the best teachers, those whose students remained active thinkers, planned their classroom sessions.  Common threads arise pretty quickly in this section as the great teachers ask, among other things, the following:

  • What big intellectual questions will this course answer? (50)
  • What reasoning abilities and processes do those big questions require? (51)
  • How will I introduce students to the debates and conflicts that arise in response to the questions? (53)
  • How can I teach students the standards by which professionals within the field evaluate good and inadequate work? (59)
  • How will students understand their own transformation as they learn? (60)

Bain, always noting the practices of particular college teachers, traces out a picture of teaching-preparation that’s always got its eye on the final goal and always considers the students and their developing conceptions of complex realities as the ethical center of teaching.  In other words, “covering the material” is neither good-in-itself nor bad-in-itself but always adequate or inadequate only as a function of how such “coverage” effects the sorts of transformations that the course aims for.

Here once more, Bain is consistently teleological, always keeping a projected aim at the center of the process and always willing to build and rebuild the concrete practices of the classroom, the evaluation process, and all other parts of the curriculum in order that they point towards those ends.  Therefore Bain proposes that professors ought to conceive of syllabi as making promises rather than laying out schedules (75), offering to students a vision of how they’ll be better if they commit themselves to learning what the teacher is teaching.  He also calls for teachers to assume that every student who signs up for the course is capable of intellectual transformation and to gear the course towards that aim rather than gatekeeping (83-84).  The best courses, with these ideas in place, direct all concrete activities towards practicing the intellectual life of the discipline, not towards examinations that little resemble what a practicing chemist or psychologist or educator or preacher does (87).  Bain’s picture of great college teaching is therefore democratic at its core, assuming that the teacher’s first responsibility is to offer opportunity to everyone in the class and only afterwards to evaluate the extent to which particular students have seized such opportunity.

From Strategy to Tactics

The latter half of Bain’s book turns first towards classroom sessions and then to the ways in which we assess and evaluate student learning.  Bain narrates a broad range of practices in the classroom, an array that defies easy summary, but he groups them in a schema that has the best classroom sessions aiming for a certain set of common virtues:

  • The best classes get students’ attention and keep it (109).
  • The best classes start with the students rather than an abstract notion of “the discipline” (110).
  • The best classes engage students in thinking-practices particular to the discipline at hand (114).

The tension between the second and third items should be obvious, but a bit of familiarity with Alasdair MacIntyre helps out.  After all, if the journey of a class session happens in the course of time, then it’s not hard to imagine beginning with unaltered student assumptions about reality, engaging in a reasonably limited way in suggesting alternatives to those assumptions, and pointing, by the end of a class (or a sequence of classes anyway) at different ways to engage with reality.  Such is the point of practices in After Virtueand although Bain does not cite MacIntyre, the structure of good teaching, according to his account, is the same Aristotelian shape.  One of the practices that Bain observes in classrooms is one of my favorites, the think/pair/share structure (or, as I call it, the small-to-large class), in which students begin with individual one-shot writing prompts, then go to small groups, then to a full-class discussion (130).  The main distinction upon which Bain insists, though, is between encouraging plentiful talk and encouraging meaningful talk, the latter being the sort that reflects and unfolds the transformation that excellent teaching is after (127).

As Bain progresses from the classroom to the grading session, he notes that there really is no single “personality type” that makes a good professor (137).  Certainly there are classroom performers (I’ve been told I’m one of those), who take on a bombastic, loud character for the sake of memorable class sessions, but the more reserved classroom facilitator can be just as memorable and effect transformation just as reliably.  The main character traits (not personality factors) that Bain sees across all sorts of classroom personalities are curiosity, humility (142), and trust between teachers and learners (139).  For professors interested in teaching students to exist differently, there’s simply no room for the professor convinced that the students need nothing more than to be in the same room with brilliance.  Such a distinction has little to do with the much-revisited contest between lecturing and Socratic discussion (98) and far more to do with how thoroughly the professor has tied the everyday practices of the course to the intellectual aims of the same.

Bain’s chapter on assessment and evaluation is the least satisfying part of his book.  He’s got plenty to say about what’s wrong with college assessment, namely that it’s disconnected from real learning (150) and that it measures not complexity of thought but simple recall and recognition (160).  But the only real suggestion that he has for striving towards better evaluation is that testing should prepare students for real intellectual work (162).  In my own practice I’ve moved more and more, as the years have passed, towards task-based, open-book exams, and I have a hunch that he might mean that sort of thing, but if I’m honest, I didn’t come away from this book with much more than I started in terms of how to evaluate students’ learning better.  His section on evaluating teachers themselves is stronger; he suggests a rhetorical approach to teacher-evaluation, eschewing numerical student-ratings and even administrative observations whose rubrics are numerical ratings, preferring instead to base faculty evaluations on claim-based portfolios, which present teaching artifacts as evidence in an argument about a philosophy of education, with observations by administrators who have already reviewed the portfolios (167).  That suggestion struck me as quite smart, consistent with the overall philosophy of education presented in the book and promising for telling stories more interesting than “adequate” and “needs improvement.”

Publishing, Perishing, and Pedagogy

The book wraps up with a brief discussion of the ongoing feud between the research university and the teaching college and what, in each context, constitutes grounds for promotion, tenure, and other such matters.  Bain proposes an elegant and provocative (in the sense that it provokes thought, not anger) solution to the tension, namely to start imagining the telos of the college, as an institution, neither as research nor as teaching but as learning (175).  The upshot of such a suggestion is not hard to see: to the teaching college, whose temptation is to co-opt every hour of every professor’s professional life for classroom endeavors, some focus on whether or not the teacher is learning stands to improve the ways that students in those teachers’ classrooms learn, and that means that time for research and scholarship are not competing for scarce time-resources but, if such a college have faith, might actually make the classroom hours punch harder than they did before.  And to the research university a similar caution goes forth: rewarding publication, irrespective of its benefit to classroom instruction, is going to result in uneven performance in classrooms (when we’re lucky) or global indifference to the classroom (when we’re not).

It’s not a bad way to start a new conversation, is it?  Ultimately Bain’s short book is all about such new conversations, or perhaps for some of us about continuing the enriching the conversations already happening.  And one could do worse than to start or to maintain some good conversations.


2 thoughts on “Telos and Teaching: A Review of <i>What the Best College Teachers Do</i> by Ken Bain”
  1. Good summary.  My school (Briercrest College and Seminary) has this book as required reading for new faculty.  I recommend it for early-career professors.  However, those who have some years of experience under their belts may go through the book saying to themselves “I knew that.” “I already do that.” “That doesn’t apply to my discipline.”  Mid-career or late-career professors who are hoping for specific practical strategies for their classrooms, or who are hoping for deep reflection on pedagogy, should look elsewhere.  Try James Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom”, and “Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning” for a more explicitly-MacIntyrean approach in a Christian context.

  2. Charles H  Certainly your points are well-taken.  Since I run the new-faculty training program at EC, I found his book quite helpful for planning ways to conduct these conversations.  You’re right, though, that this is an introductory philosophy of education rather than cutting-edge new theory.

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