Art of old masters in moulding minds

May 7, 2004

What makes a great teacher? Asking powerful questions and encouraging learners to challenge long-held assumptions are key, says Ken Bain

When Chad Richardson came to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas in 1977 to teach at the University of Texas-Pan American, most of his pupils were first-generation students who had struggled with schoolwork. Within a few years, Richardson had transformed the lives of many of them, helping them develop exceptional skills as writers and thinkers.

What did he do that made such a difference? What does any great teacher do to foster remarkable learning results? Since the late 1980s, my colleagues and I have studied more than 60 outstanding teachers from a variety of universities and discovered common threads running through their thinking and practices.

We have found that, while necessary, mastery of techniques such as assessing students' work or communicating clearly can no more account for their success than Rembrandt's brush strokes can fully explain his genius.

Something else guides their pedagogical masterpieces.

The teachers we interviewed believe that learning has little meaning unless it has a sustained and substantial influence on the way people think, act or feel, causing them to change fundamental paradigms, build new mental models of reality or realise the problems they face in believing anything.

Such learning is most likely to take place, our subjects told us, when people are trying to solve problems that they find intriguing, beautiful or important, and they have a chance to try, fail, receive feedback and try again. Deep learners need teachers who will both challenge their thinking and consider their work fairly and honestly. They also need a chance to collaborate with other learners and to believe that they are in charge of the decision to learn.

Consequently, our subjects create natural critical learning environments in which they embed the skills and information they wish to teach in questions and tasks that students will find fascinating - authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity and challenge students to rethink their assumptions. They allow students to work together on questions and problems, come up short, receive feedback and try again. They do not concentrate only on the ability to recall information, recognising that the power to remember increases as comprehension and reasoning abilities grow.

Great teachers have faith in their students' abilities to learn, set high standards of development, see intelligence as flexible, and think that each student brings something special to the table. They treat them with decency, reject power over them in favour of creating opportunities and believe that a variety of social and other external forces can influence how students perform.

When Ed Muir, a professor at Northwestern University, teaches Italian Renaissance history, for example, he recreates trials from that era to help students develop an understanding of the period and of how to use evidence to draw historical conclusions. Jeanette Norden, a biologist from Vanderbilt University, stresses both the personal and intellectual development of her medical students as she confronts them with clinical cases.

Because Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach regards science as a journey rather than a set of facts, he takes his chemistry students at Harvard University through historical struggles to fathom the universe. When Derrick Bell teaches constitutional law at New York University, he engages students with stories of private lives entangled in legal issues and charges them with arguing cases before their peers.

To create natural critical learning, great teachers ask stimulating questions and help students to understand the connection between those inquiries and matters that already concern them. "How could you not be interested in organic chemistry?" asks David Tuleen, a chemistry professor at Vanderbilt. "It is the very basis of life itself."

Great teaching depends on far more than powerful questions, but it probably can't exist without them. It depends ultimately on the willingness and ability to create the conditions that speak to individual students. "You don't teach a class," Paul Baker, the famous dramatist from Texas, would say, "you teach a student."

Ken Bain is director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University. Portions adapted from his What the Best College Teachers Do , to be published this month by Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.

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