Book review: What The Best College Teachers Do

Someone told me something a while ago. I wish I remembered who it was. I think it was someone on IRC – probably in #haskell on Freenode or #math on EFNet.

Teaching is impossible. All you can do is help people to learn.

At the time I likely dismissed it as trite and meaningless, because I have a tendency to do that that’s taken me a long time to reign in, but it was a good turn of phrase so it stuck with me, and over time I’ve come to realise just how true it is.

What The Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain, is a book about how you can help people to learn.

It starts from the novel perspective that rather than trying to fit education to some preconceived notion about how things should work, we should instead look at what actually happens in practice and see what did and didn’t work.

I tend to disagree with people. Even when I think they’re mostly right there’s usually something I think they’ve not thought through properly, or that is simpler or more complicated than they think. It’s nothing personal, it’s just a thing that happens.

That’s not what’s going to happen here. I pretty much agree with everything in this book. And not in a “Oh, well, yes, that’s obvious” sort of way. It’s more of the excited jumping up and down sort of way where you’re shouting “This. Yes. This. What they are saying is exactly what I wanted to say only properly thought out and way better put”, only where that’s usually about one particular turn of phrase or short essay this is an entire book. Very little of the information in it was surprising per se, but it’s the lack of surprise you get from having a whole bunch of things you knew but didn’t know you knew suddenly clicking together into a coherent framework.

If I had to draw some highlights from the book other than “Go read the entire thing”, they’d be as follows:

  • Attempting to pour knowledge into peoples’ brains simply doesn’t work
  • Very few people have learned to learn or to engage critically with a subject, because there’s no class for it and you’re just expected to sort of pick it up (or, worse, it’s not considered important for you to pick it up). This is such an essential skill that in order to teach someone anything you must also teach them this
  • Students have built up mental models of how things work which may be wrong and may need to be unlearned. It is important to make sure that they are not just learning to parrot knowledge but are learning a new way of thinking about the world.
  • The best way for a student to learn a subject is for them to be interested and engaged with it
  • The best way to get someone interested is to connect it to questions and subjects they care about and to use it to study those questions
  • The easiest way to kill someone’s interest is to destroy their confidence in their ability
  • You can bolster peoples’ confidence by setting high but achievable standards and maintaining unwavering confidence that they can achieve them. This is also a good way to avoid problems of stereotype threat, where someone is reminded that “people like them” aren’t “supposed to” be good at this subject and do worse as a result
  • Treat your students as human beings and engage with them as equals.

The above is only a bit of a random and paraphrased collection of some of the best bits of the book. Seriously, if you have any interest in the subject of how to teach people, go read the whole thing.

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