Thursday, March 3, 2016

What do the best college teachers do? Bain's six habits

Like many new(ish)* academics, I have been encouraged/obliged to take a course on teaching and learning in higher education. I should really have done this when I originally joined the ranks back in September 2011, but due to some procrastination and job changes on my own part, I did not get around to it until this year. The purpose of the course is to introduce academic teaching staff to various concepts in educational theory and encourage them to critically reflect on (and hopefully improve) their own practice.

The attitude towards such courses is pretty mixed. I’m generally of the belief that any academic involved in teaching should care about their teaching, and should be open to the possibility of learning something about how to improve that practice. But I am also aware that teaching can be pretty demoralising: non-attendance is a major problem at university; and you have very little meaningful feedback from students regarding the value of what you are doing (the feedback forms/surveys they fill out are not meaningful). Furthermore, academics are increasingly asked to jump through various accountability hoops, ticking boxes and quantifying their work output in order to meet the demands of administrators. Courses in teaching and learning are often viewed cynically as yet another hurdle to be overcome in the quest for job security.

Still, I try to be positive. I think my teaching is okay, though perhaps getting worse over time, so I welcome the opportunity the course provides to reinvigorate what I’m doing. To this end, I’ve started reading more of the literature in the area of teaching. I find that the literature tends to divide into two main categories: (i) that which gets bogged down in ‘theory’, developing sophisticated models of learning and teaching; and (ii) that which is practically useful and occasionally inspiring. I tend to prefer the latter.

I think Ken Bain’s book What the best college teachers do belongs to the latter category. It is a breezy romp through the practices of the ‘best’ college teachers in the US (who counts as ‘best’ is subject to a reasonably lengthy discussion at the outset of Bain’s book — I won’t get into it here). It contains lots of useful tidbits and some of the examples are quite inspiring. If I could design a module as thoughtful and rigorous as Derrick Bell’s course on constitutional law apparently is (described in the book between pages 145-149) I would be happy. Reading about it makes you want to strive for something similarly life-changing.

But this is not the place to embark on a long description of the contents of the book. Instead, I thought I would provide a quick summary of the six key habits that Bain says are followed by all of the ‘best’ college teachers. They are:

1. Intellectual engagement: It probably goes without saying, but all the teachers in Bain’s study are deeply engaged with the subjects they teach. They are not necessarily highly-respected researchers in their field — indeed, the best researchers often fail to be the best teachers — but they do care about their subjects. In particular, they tend to have a good understanding of the controversies that shaped the history of their subject (and thus a good sense of how and why certain facts and theories came to be accepted), and an ability to think about their subjects at a metacognitive level. That is to say, they can identify potential stumbling blocks to understanding and they can carefully guide students around these stumbling blocks.

2. Student-focused: The teachers studied by Bain tended to prepare for teaching by focusing first on what the students should get out of the subject; not on what they themselves needed to do. This may sound obvious but many teachers struggle with it. They focus on the material they need to cover and how they need to present themselves, not on what the students should achieve. I think shifting perspective in this way is helpful: I know from my own experience that there is a tendency to obsess over what you yourself are doing and how you appear, not on what the pedagogical goal is. Self-obsession is probably my worst vice and one I have to work hard to overcome.

3. Non-arbitrary Expectations: The best teachers tend to demand more from their students, but not in a silly or arbitrary way. They don’t demand more for its own sake. They focus on developing the thinking and doing that the students need in their lives. They don’t focus on skills that are simply dictated by the accidental history of the module or programme on which they teach. They focus on what really matters. One potential example of this, from my own line of work, is the tendency for some to focus on what I take to be relatively unimportant skills like mastering an arbitrary citation style system. While a consistent method of citation is preferable, I think it is a waste of effort to get students master any one in particular. Correct citation is not some voodoo that will transform an unimpressive piece of writing into something that dazzles the reader. Citation is secondary to good writing. So instead, I get students to focus on the general rationale for citation, telling them that what really matters is (a) can a reader easily identify and locate the source they used for a fact, an argument or an idea in their paper and (b) are they giving proper attribution to other people’s ideas. Those are the things that really matter, not whether they know all 500-odd pages of the Blue Book citation system.

4. Critical learning environments: The best teachers work to develop a ‘natural critical learning environment’ within their classrooms. They get students to focus on intellectually stimulating and important problems. They get students to question the assumptions underlying their own worldviews. They encourage them to develop novel and interesting perspectives on the issues that shape the field. This is possibly the most important habit of good teachers.

5. Respect their students: This is another obvious one but one that many don’t adhere to. The best teachers treat their students with respect. They trust them. They assume — until proven wrong — that the students honestly want to learn and are capable of learning. They don’t talk down to the students; they talk up. They provide guidance and assistance, of course, but they believe that the students are ultimately capable of mastering the subject at its highest levels. As a result of this, the best teachers are often open with the students about their own intellectual struggles with the subject they are teaching.

6. Evaluate Progress: The final thing the best teachers do is adopt some systematic and meaningful system for evaluating both the progress of their students (through assessment) and their own progress (through student feedback). I think this may be the most difficult thing to do well. Crafting an appropriate assessment should be relatively straightforward, but oftentimes teachers are bound by arbitrary customs or traditions within their subject/institution. Ditto for feedback. University administrators often insist upon standardised feedback surveys for students, and students grow weary filling them out. The result is low response rates and low quality information. Bain’s book contains examples of possibly preferable systems, but it would take too long to set them out here. Read the book instead.

Each of these habits sounds like a plausible contributor to good teaching. The only thing I would say is that one shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of developing such habits. It’s not the case that you can wake up one morning and decide ‘Today’s the day I will start treating my students with respect and fostering a critical learning environment in my classroom’. Being able to do this depends on your own perspective and understanding of the subject, your institutional setting, the other demands on your time and, above all else, your motivation. In my own case, I find my motivation for teaching ebbs and flows. It’s an important part of my self-identity to think of myself as a good teacher, but as I’ve become busier with other parts of my job, I find I have less energy for teaching. I hope this will change and I’ll achieve more balance in the years to come, but I suspect that hope is forlorn.

Anyway, I don’t want to end on a negative note. I do recommend Bain’s book. The strength of the book lies less in the general principles and habits he identifies, and more in the detailed examples he provides.

* There comes a time in every academic's life when they have to admit that they are no longer the youngest, hippest member of their department. I need to face up to the fact that that time, for me, has now passed.

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