Ken Bain: Focused on learning

KEN BAIN is the author of “What the Best College Teachers Do” (Harvard University Press, 2004), an international best-seller that has been published in 12 languages and has become a guidebook for educators. The South Orange resident’s follow-up, “What the Best College Students Do” (Belknap Press, 2012), examines how learning habits translate into professional success. From 2006-11, Bain served as the founding director of the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair State University.

1. What makes someone a good teacher?

I’ve spent about 15 years of my life pursuing that question. I wanted to understand more deeply people who have cultivated what we call “deep learning,” which really makes a difference in people’s lives, how they subsequently think and act and even feel. What I concluded is that there is no one single factor that accounts for the success that these people had. But important was their ability to understand their own subject very deeply and to ask questions that captivate students. What I saw was a learning environment built around questions. I began to realize something very simple: Human beings were most likely to take a deep approach to their learning and achieve a deep understanding when they intended to do so — and they usually intended to do so when they were trying to answer questions or solve problems that the learner came to regard as important, intriguing and, in many cases, just beautiful.

2. In analyzing success, are we too obsessed with grades?

I think so. We condition students to become obsessed with making grades. We invented grades as a shorthand to convey to society how much learning we thought took place. The introduction of that system set up this huge extrinsic motivation, which a lot of theorists believe began to undermine deep learning and to push students toward surface learning, which is to pass the test, get the credit, get out and get a job. They become preoccupied with making the highest grade because that is what they have to achieve in order for us to celebrate their achievements. So you get situations (in which) students can make very high grades, but they’re not really driven by their own curiosity.

3. By extension, there is great pressure on students not to fail.

I did this study of best students and I looked at 36 people who went to college — they didn’t all make top grades — and the reason I chose them is they became very creative, productive people. Actresses, Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, the whole nine yards. I even chose a comedian, Stephen Colbert. And Stephen had the most colorful way of putting a key point. He said, “You’ve got to embrace the bomb, and be willing to examine it and think about how I can learn from this particular experience.” We don’t do much in education to help students embrace and learn from their own mistakes. As a result, what we tend to do is to create a very fixed view of intelligence in the minds of the students — that you’re either born with an ability or not. That often leads to a sense of helplessness because the child is either going to decide “I don’t have it, so I might as well give up” or they may decide “I’m a genius” and build their whole self-image around the notion that “I’m a genius.” The key is helping them to embrace their own failures. We do that best by creating learning situations where they can try, fail, receive feedback — and we withhold that judgment as long as possible.

4. In New Jersey, there has been plenty of discussion about Common Core standards, which Gov. Chris Christie implemented and this year ditched. Is teaching to and learning on a universal measuring stick beneficial?

I think the Common Core movement came out of some worthy objectives. Namely, to make sure that all students had this opportunity of learning some of the key things about the world in which they live. However, I do think that it runs the risk of ignoring some fundamental elements about human learning. Namely, that in order for deep learning to take place, you need to have curiosity and intrigue and that perhaps the most common of cores is to begin not with a certain procedure or information a student should learn, but to begin with the idea of developing the dynamic powers of the human mind. This happens when students recognize their own uniqueness and ability to make unique contributions to society. Because if we are all unique, it means that I can originate ideas and perspectives that you never will. But we can also learn from lots of other people, all the great thinkers in math, science, in the arts and in history. The world becomes our oyster.

5. Another issue affecting education here is President Obama’s initiative to make community colleges more financially accessible. Will this help students become deeper learners?

This is a necessary condition to produce the kind of creative, productive workforce and citizenry that we need. The current system in which students often emerge with huge burdens of debt aggravates the problem of deep versus surface, or strategic approaches to learning. Students often can’t take a deep approach because they are burdened with financial responsibilities. The fact of the matter is who gets to go and who doesn’t get to go is too much dependent upon economic class and socioeconomic standing. Talent, however, is distributed more broadly. So we are missing out on a lot of extraordinarily talented and very capable people because they don’t happen to come through the right socioeconomic class and can afford to go to college without working 35 hours a week while taking 15 hours of classes.

Next Take 5: Former congressman Barney Frank


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