Field of Science

What the Best College Teachers Do: A Review of a Vexing Book

What the Best College Teachers Do is not a bad book. It is engaging and reasonably well-written. The topic is both evergreen and timely, and certainly of interest to college teachers at the very least (as well as to people who rate college quality and to people who use those ratings to decide where to go to school). My issue with this book is that it is incapable of answering the question it sets out for itself.

A problem of comparison

The book is based primarily on extensive research by the author, Ken Bain, and his colleagues. The appendix spells out in detail how they identified good college teachers (a combination of student evaluations, examples of student work, department examinations, etc.) and how they collected information about those gifted individuals (interviews, taped class sessions, course materials, etc.). They analyzed these data to determine what these best college teachers did.

Even assuming that (a) their methods successfully identified superior teachers, and (b) they collected the right information about those teachers' practices, this is only half of a study. Without even looking at their data, I can easily rattle off some things all these teachers had in common:

1. They were all human beings.
2. They were all taller than 17 inches.
3. They all spoke English, at least to some degree (the study was conducted in the USA).
4. Most were either male or female.

Commonalities are not limited to attributes of the teachers, but also to what they do in the classroom:

5. Most showed up to at least half of the class periods for a given course.
6. None of them habitually sat, silent and unmoving, at the front of the classroom for the duration of class.
7. They did not assign arbitrary grades to their students (e.g., by rolling dice).
8. Very few spoke entirely in blank verse.

While these statements are almost certainly true of good college teachers, they do not distinguish the good teachers from the bad ones. Since Bain and colleagues did not include a comparison group of bad teachers, we cannot know if their findings distinguish the good teachers from the bad ones.

Science -- like teaching -- requires training

A good test of teaching ability should pick out all the good teachers. It should also pick out only the good teachers. (A somewhat different cut of the issues is to consider test reliability and test validity). What the Best College Teachers Do focuses entirely on the first issue. As my reductio ad absurdum above shows, having only half of a good test is not a test that is 50% right; it's a useless test.

It's unfortunate that Bain and his colleagues failed in this basic and fundamental aspect of scientific inquiry. Although Bain is now the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University, he was trained as a historian. This comes out in the discussion of the study methods: "Like any good historians who might employ oral history research techniques, we subsequently sought corroborating evidence, usually in the form of something on paper..." (p. 187).

I would hope that any good historian doing comparative work would know to include a comparison group, but designing a scientific study of human behavior is hard. Even psychologists screw it up. And that's the focus of our training, whereas historians are mostly learning things other than experimental design (I assume).

Circular Definitions

Of course, failing to include a control group is not the only way to ruin a study.You can also make it circular.

Chapter 3 focuses on how excellent teachers prepare for their courses:
At the core of most professors' ideas about teaching is a focus on what the teacher does rather than on what the students are supposed to learn. In that standard conception, teaching is something that instructors do to students, usually by delivering truths about the discipline. It is what some writers call a 'transmission model.' ... 
In contrast, the best educators thought of teaching as anything they might do to help and encourage students to learn. Teaching is engaging students, engineering an environment in which they learn.
Here is what the appendix says about how the teachers were chosen for inclusion in the study:
All candidates entered the study on probation until we had sufficient evidence that their approaches fostered remarkable learning. Ultimately, the judgment to include someone in the study was based on careful consideration of his or her learning objectives, success in helping students achieve those objectives, and ability to stimulate students to have highly positive attitudes toward their studies.
It seems that perhaps teachers were included as being "excellent teachers" if they focused on student learning and on motivating students. The researchers then "found" that excellent teachers focus on student learning and on motivating students.

Vagueness and Ambiguity

Or maybe not. I'm still not entirely sure what it means to -- in the first quote -- focus on "what the teacher does" than on "what the students are supposed to learn." For instance, Bain poses the following thought problem on page 52:

"How will I help students who have difficulty understanding the questions and using  evidence and reason to answer them."

Is that focusing on what the teacher does or focusing on what the students are supposed to learn? How can we tell? By what metric?

My confusion here may merely mark me was one of those people expecting "a simple list of do's and don'ts" who are "greatly disappointed." Bain adds (p. 15), "The ideas here require careful and sophisticated thinking, deep professional learning, and often fundamental conceptual shifts." That's fine. But if there is no metric I can use to find out whether I'm following these best practices or not, what good does this book do me?

(Also, without knowing what exactly Bain means by these vague statements, there is no way to ensure that his study wasn't circular, as described in the previous section. I gave only one example, but the general problem is clear: Bain defined great teachers by one set of criteria and then analyzed their behavior in order to extract a second set of criteria. If both sets of criteria are loosely and vaguely defined, there's no way even in principle to know whether he isn't just measuring the same thing both times.)

Credible Reviews

So if we don't trust Bain's study, is there anything else in the book worth reading? Maybe. What the Best College Teachers Do is not myopically focused on Bain's own research. He reviews the literature, citing the conclusions from other studies of teaching quality, broadening the scope of the framework outlined in the book. However, this raises its own problem.

In writing a review, the reviewer is supposed to survey the literature, find all the relevant research, determine what the best research is, and then synthesize everything into a coherent whole (or at least, into something as coherent as the current state of the field allows). The reviewer generally does not describe the studies in sufficient detail to allow the reader to evaluate them directly; only a brief overview is provided, with a focus on the conclusions.

If you trust the reviewer, this is fine. That's why reviews from the most respected researchers in the field are typically highly valued, so much so that publishers and editors often solicit reviews from these researchers. Obviously, a review of the latest research on underwater basket weaving by a fifth-grader would not be so highly prized, because (a) we don't believe the fifth-grader did a particularly thorough review, and (b) we don't trust the fifth-grader's ability to sort the wheat from the chaff -- that is, identify which studies are flawed and which are to be believed.

Bain is clearly very smart. He has clearly read a lot. But I do not trust his ability to read scientific literature critically. The only evidence I have of his abilities is in the design of his own study, which is deeply flawed, as described above. If he can't design a study, why should I trust his analysis of other people's studies?

Building a better mousetrap

Criticizing a study is easy, but it's not much of a critique if you can't identify what a better study would look like. Clearly from my discussion above, I would want (a) clear criteria for defining good teaching, (b) clearly-defined measures of teacher behavior, and (c) a group of good teachers and a group of bad teachers for comparison, and probably a group of average teachers as well (otherwise, any differences between good and bad teachers could be driven by bad habits of the bad teachers rather than good habits of the good teachers).

After a set of behaviors that are typical of good teachers -- and which are less frequent or absent in average or bad teachers -- has been identified, one would then identify a new group of good, average, and bad teachers and replicate the results. (The risk is otherwise is one of over-fitting the data: the differences you found between good teachers and the rest were just the result of random chance. This actually happens quite a lot more than many people realize.)

At the end of this process, we should have a set of behaviors that really are particular to the best teachers, assuming that the criteria we used to define good teachers are valid (not an assumption to be taken lightly).

Becoming a good teacher

Whether or not this information would be of any use to those aspiring to be good teachers is unclear. To find out that, we'd actually need to do a controlled study, assigning one set of teachers to emulate this behavior and another set to emulate behavior typical of average teachers. Ideally, we'd find that the first group ended up teaching better. I'm unsure whether that's particularly likely to happen, for a number of reasons.

First, consider Bain's summary of the habits of the best teachers (summarizing, with some direct quotations, from pps. 15-20):

1. Outstanding teachers know their subjects extremely well.
2. Exceptional teachers treat their lectures, discussion sections, problem-based sessions, and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.
3. They avoid objectives that are arbitrarily tied to the course and favor those that embody the kind of thinking and acting expected for life.
4. The best teachers try to create an environment in which people learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality.
5. Highly effective teachers tend to reflect a strong trust in students.
6. They have some systematic program to assess their own efforts and to make appropriate changes.

Much of this list looks like a combination of intelligence and discipline. That is clearly true for #1, and probably true for #2 and #3. To the extent that #4 is hard to do, it probably takes intelligence. And #6 is just a good idea, more likely to occur to smart people and only pulled off by disciplined people. I'm not sure what #5 really means.

If the key to being a good teacher is to be smart and disciplined, this news will be of little help to teachers who are neither (though it may be helpful to people who are trying to select good teachers). In other words, even if we determine what makes a good teacher, than doesn't mean we can make good teachers.

The best teachers

Of course, even if the strategies that good teachers use are ones you can use yourself, that doesn't mean you can use them correctly.

There is an old parable about two young women. One was exceptionally beautiful. She used to sit at her window and gaze out over the field, looking forlorn and sighing with melancholy. Villagers passing by would stop and stare, struck by her heavenly beauty. One such villager was another young woman, who was the opposite of beautiful. Nonetheless, on seeing this example, she went home, sat at her own window, gazed out over the field and sighed. Someone walked by, saw her, and promptly vomited.

Objectification of female beauty and strange fetishization of melancholy aside, the point of this parable is that just because something works for someone else doesn't mean it'll work for you. When I think about the very best teachers I've known, one thing that stands out is how idiosyncratic their methods and abilities have been. One is a high-energy lecturer who runs and jumps during his lectures (yes, math lectures), who is somehow able to turn linear algebra into a discussion class. Another, in contrast, faded into the background. He rarely lectured, preferring to have students work (in groups or individually) on carefully-crafted questions. A third is a gifted lecturer and the master of the anecdote. While others use funny anecdotes merely to keep a lecture lively, when he uses an anecdote, it is because it illustrates the point at hand better than anything else. Over at the law school, there are a number of revered professors famous for their tendency to humiliate students. This humiliation serves a purpose: to show the students how much they have to learn. The students, rather than being alienated, strive to win their professors' approval.

These methods work for each, but I can't imagine them swapping styles round-robin. Their teaching styles are outgrowths of their personalities. Many are high-risk strategies, which if they fail, fail disastrously (don't humiliate your students unless you have the right kind of charisma first).

Are there strategies that will work for everyone? Is there a way of determining which strategies will work for you, with your unique set of strengths and weaknesses? I'd love to find out. But it won't be by reading What the Best College Teachers Do.


Unknown said...

Fantastic review. Thank you for pointing out the inherent difficulties with the book. It's a shame there aren't better science and education editors in the real world.

Only one point of minor dispute: Much of this list looks like a combination of intelligence and discipline. That is clearly true for #1, and probably true for #2 and #3. #3: Outcomes these days generally must be tied to the course for reaccreditation purposes no matter how much we might like a loftier objective.

Nicely done. It was a pleasure to read.

Alex said...

Sorry to go off-topic, but there doesn't seem to be a more general feedback channel.

A lot of posts here are written in the first person, but I've yet to see any personal attribution. Is the site intentionally anonymous? Is there only one writer?


GamesWithWords said...

@Alex: Semi-anonymous. There is only one author. It's easy enough to figure out who I am. But I don't want the blog to come up first when I'm Googled (which would happen, since this blog is fueled by Blogger). Poke around the "about" section if you are curious.

London Counselling said...

Unfortunately, in the 20th century there was a movement to try to turn teaching into a science, rather than the art that it actually is. No two artists work the same way, and great teachers are all unique in the way they work. I feel that the modern scientific approach to education is unfortunate.