Monday, February 6, 2012

Good question-making at the root of effective teaching--an interview with Ken Bain

In 2004, Ken Bain wrote about creating "natural critical learning environments" in his book What the Best College Teachers Do.  Presently, Dr. Bain is working on completing his new work What the Best College Students Did

The Higher Education Teaching and Learning Portal features an interview with Dr. Bain in the second volume its International HETL Review. Dr. Bain takes the opportunity to expand on his ideas about teaching and research--how they are related without having to be in opposition to each other--and about the centrality of questions to both teaching and research: 
Rather than dwelling on the perceived conflicts between them (teaching and research), we need to explore ways that the learning of teacher and student can complement each other rather than stand in conflict. I think the most fruitful way of doing that may be in understanding the power and importance of good question-making in the success of each. The ability to ask good questions has long been recognized as central to research and publication success, but we also need to see its importance in cultivating someone else’s learning, and how, in turn, the ability to ask good questions to spark someone else’s learning can help drive a research agenda. Great teacher/scholars recognize that already. 
The connection is this: people are most likely to take a deep approach to their learning when they are trying to answer questions or solve problems that they, the learners, have come to regard as important, intriguing, or just beautiful. Yet in a formal educational environment, the learner is usually not in charge of the questions. We could solve that problem by putting the learners always in charge of all the questions, and some people have attempted to do just that. But while that has some benefits, it also has limitations. Novice learners cannot imagine some of questions that advanced learners have begun to consider. Thus, we need to have advanced learners (teacher/scholars) raising questions for novice learners (students) to think about.  
However, that often creates a gap between the conditions that prevail in a formal educational environment and the conditions that may stimulate deep learning. The great teachers have learned to fill that gap by asking questions that students will find important, intriguing, or just beautiful, and they manage to do so because of their own deep understanding born out of their own learning. Their own struggle to frame the questions that will provoke students often leads to new insights that will influence their research. Cultivating someone else’s learning entails more than asking great questions, but it is the necessary ingredient that underpins everything else.