What the Best College Teachers Do: Implications for Teaching Art Education Methods Courses for Elementary Majors Ken Bain. Boston, MA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2004. ISBN 0-674-01325.
During the 2006-07 academic year, we came together in a doctoral seminar intended to support and analyze art education practice in the context of higher education. Our primary focus was our common teaching of M333, Art Methods for Elementary Teachers, a required course for undergraduate students training to be elementary school classroom generalists. In spite of best efforts over the years, M333 has proven challenging to teach and instructors often felt less than successful at the course's end. One goal of the doctoral seminar, therefore, was to foster systematic reflection about the underlying assumptions on which we were basing instruction in M333 and to consider how the course might be transformed.
Although we explored a number of readings in the seminar, Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) became an interesting and useful starting point for discussion. It challenged our thinking and provided the impetus for revisions to the M333 syllabus in the second semester. As such, we wish to share some emerging insights through a collaborative book review1 of the Bain text. We summarize its content and then reflect on the extent to which it may be usefully applied to the design of art methods courses for preservice elementary teacher generalists.
In Chapter 1 and the Appendix, Bain describes the study on which his book is based and how he determined what would count as the 'best' of college teaching. He began by interviewing hundreds of students and teachers across multiple types of institutions, ultimately selecting 63 teachers for more in-depth study. Bain notes his goal of trying to understand not merely the strategies that these individuals use but also how they conceptualize their practices. Key criteria for selecting participants were both high satisfaction among students and evidence of the quality of learning. In the courses of the most remarkable teachers, students described learning as deeply engaging and often intellectually transformative, having a sustained impact beyond the end of the course.
In Chapter 2, Bain identifies the problem that even students who receive high grades in a course may not by its end have given up misconceptions that block important learning. He introduces the principles on which his research participants base their instruction, including the assumption that knowledge is constructed rather than received; and that it either builds on or must confront and unravel beliefs that students already have. He notes that mental models change slowly and that rejecting deeply ingrained beliefs may be emotionally traumatic, requiring a particular context that he refers to as a safe, yet critical, learning environment. Such a milieu provides fascinating, personally compelling experiences, but also supports trying, failing, and trying again.
In Chapters 3-7, Bain expands on how the best college teachers prepare for their classes, what they expect of and how they treat their students, how they conduct class, and how they evaluate students and themselves. Among the key points are that these special teachers:
1. View their teaching - and the evaluation of their teaching - as serious intellectual endeavors, of equal importance to research;
2. Design courses not around tasks to be completed but around big significant questions that the course will address, as well as the reasoning abilities that students need to develop, and pre-conceptions that students may need to challenge;
3. Frequently present syllabi as enticing and personally meaningful invitations rather than a set of requirements and seek students' personal commitment to learning in the course;
4. Begin from students' interests rather than the assumptions of the discipline;
5. Expect 'more' of their students, not in the quantity of assignments but in assuming that all are capable of understanding sophisticated concepts;