Part of our ongoing series of conversations with thinkers and activists on education issues

In a year in which we’re exploring great teaching, it’s a good time to talk with Ken Bain. He’s a longtime historian, scholar and academic who has studied and explored teaching for decades, most notably in his 2004 book, What the Best College Teachers Do.

Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do.
Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do. (LA Johnson)

You focused on 100 college professors in a wide variety of institutions and disciplines. What do the best professors know and understand about teaching?

They certainly understand their discipline. They often understand the history of their discipline and know that everything that they believe can be questioned. They are accomplished scholars, artists and scientists. They know how to simplify and clarify complex subjects. They may not have studied human learning but they grasp important insights into how human beings learn and how to foster that learning through practice.

How do the best teachers prepare?

They prepare by thinking about the intended outcomes [of their instruction]. They treat their lectures and discussions as serious intellectual endeavors. The best teachers use a much richer line of inquiry to design a class and every encounter with students. Then they think about how they will help students achieve. The best teachers also think about how they’re going to give students feedback. This involves some basic questions: What do I want my students to do intellectually as a result of taking my class? How can I help them?

What do the best teachers do in the classroom that’s different?

They create a critical learning environment in which students rethink their assumptions. It’s an environment in which students believe their work will be considered fairly and honestly. The best teachers allow students to try, to fail and try again. They allow students to collaborate with one another in tackling the most intriguing problems.

They treat their students with decency and respect, no matter how much a student is struggling. The best teachers trust their students rather than blame them. They often give up their own sense of power over students.

Why is that important?

Ultimately students have to take control of their own education. And if that doesn’t happen, they’re not going to learn deeply. Students have to have that intrinsic motivation and if there’s someone else in charge of their education, telling them what to do, then they’re not going to become those independent, lifelong learners. So a good teacher is there to inspire and guide the individual but ultimately to help them work on their own and take personal responsibility (for their learning).

How do the best teachers check their own progress and evaluate their efforts? In other words how do they know they’re being effective?

They’re constantly looking for results of learning, how much progress their students are making. And it’s not just about meeting a particular standard, although that’s important. When a student arrives with a weak [academic] background, the teacher has to figure out how much progress that student has made with the teacher’s help. That’s what’s important to the best teachers.

We’ve had this dichotomy (in higher education) between research and teaching. And we’ve failed to recognize that teaching and research have something in common — learning. One is concerned with the learning of the student. The other is concerned with the learning of the faculty member. Over the last 30 years there’s been a growing concern about meeting the demands of both.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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