Ken Bain believes that the best new idea in education is not to find better ways to use technology. He believes in courses — "super courses," he calls them — that will transform the teaching and learning experience. With Marsha Marshall Bain, his longtime collaborator, he explores these courses in Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning (Princeton University Press). Ken Bain, a former history professor, founded centers for teaching at Northwestern, New York and Vanderbilt Universities. They answered questions about the ideas in his new book via email.
Q: What makes a "super course"?
A: Since we spent 300 pages exploring this question, we couldn't do it justice with a short summary. The quick answer is that a super course follows the research on motivation, how humans learn, what it means to learn deeply and how best to foster that learning. It is a learning environment that fosters intrinsic motivation to learn in ways that make a sustained, substantial and positive change in the way people think, act and feel. It does not rely on the old-fashioned appeal to grades.
Students coming out of super courses take control of their own education and drive themselves to think through all of the major implications, applications and possibilities of what they are learning. They connect information and concepts across a variety of situations they encounter. They become adaptive experts, inventive problem solvers and eager to learn. In a super course version of what we call a natural critical learning environment, heterogeneous student groups tackle questions and challenges they find intrinsically interesting, important and beautiful.
The challenges put them in a situation where some of their important paradigms do not work as well as they thought. People in the class learn to think critically, which means to reason from evidence and concepts, examine the quality of their own thinking, make crucial decisions, and defend them rationally and articulately. It also means that they can explicitly examine their own mental models and adjust them to fit new ways of thinking and emerging evidence. The whole experience leads them to ask probing and insightful questions and make improvements in their reasoning as they think.
Learners receive feedback on their efforts, develop the ability to provide meaningful responses to themselves and others, and — when they sometimes come up short — can try again without penalty or shame. In that environment, everyone receives respect and encouragement for the unique perspectives, qualities and creativity that each person brings to the conversation. Educators have long recognized the value of learning by doing and learning by teaching. We have celebrated students who act rationally and creatively, and we have appreciated the value of productive failure, of trying, coming up short, receiving feedback, trying again and doing so in collaboration with others struggling with the same problems. Our scholarly and research lives are built around such notions.
As Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach has argued, science depends on the ability to try things that often fail, get feedback (collect data) and try again. But we have often stumbled in giving students that combination of experiences that are so important to our own deep learning. It seems to be too much of a burden and far too time-consuming in our busy lives. Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning provides readers with rich models drawn from a variety of disciplines that can be implemented in a variety of courses. Equally important, it allows us to explore ways to break down the walls between academic disciplines and help students combine areas of studies to tackle important questions.
Teachers begin building super courses by framing powerful questions that fascinate and intrigue students. The courses deliberately use practices and language that make students feel like they are in control of their own learning rather than approaches that place teachers’ requirements at the center of the process. The most effective super courses form around questions that are already on the minds of students, big inquiries that encompass far more than a single discipline and often appeal to a desire to help other people. Super courses help students understand that to grapple with their big question, they will need a better understanding of whatever material is being taught.
In a traditional course, the primary objective might be to remember information and procedures and perhaps develop a certain level of understanding of key concepts. In a super course, the ultimate goal is to join a high-level conversation around problems, to contribute to that exchange of ideas and to work toward solutions, ultimately realizing the problems one faces in believing whatever someone accepts as true. Thus, the super course sets higher standards, but it gives learners numerous opportunities to struggle with other people trying to find tentative approaches, receive feedback and try again. Both productive failure and growth mind-sets undergird the super course.
Q: Would you please describe some of the courses you found for the book? What drew you to these courses?
A: We offer around 20 examples, some more extensively than others. They come from the sciences, humanities, professional fields, social sciences and the arts. Many cut across traditional disciplinary lines, stressing ways to solve problems rather than any one way of building knowledge. We visited schools across the United States as well as in China and Singapore and explored other courses in Europe and Africa. Here are a few examples from the book, chosen somewhat randomly. At the University of Virginia, undergrads contemplate the big questions that drove Tolstoy and other Russian writers by working with young inmates in a maximum-security prison. That course illustrates the power of learning by teaching — not by lecturing but by designing an experience in which other people are likely to learn deeply.
Harvard physics students learn about the universe not through lectures but from their peers in a class where even reading is a social event. Dance students at a Dallas high school learn how to develop growth mind-sets and to live a creative life. One of our personal favorites is a high school engineering course that 15 girls in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles designed for themselves. They wanted to help the homeless people they saw every day on the streets by designing portable solar-powered tents for them. To do that, they needed to learn engineering, so they did, finding material on the web that could teach them everything from the engineering principles of solar panels to programming.
What makes these super courses is that they all use powerful researched-based elements to foster intrinsic motivation, self-directed learning and self-reflective reasoning. In the book we offer excerpts from sample syllabi and show teachers how they can build their own super courses. We suggest the questions they need to ask themselves and then search findings they need to consider. We hope our work offers teachers a way to build experiences that can help students to reach their full potential, to equip them to lead happy and productive lives, and to meet the world’s complex challenges.
Q: What can administrators do to encourage more great courses?
A: A growing number of colleges have established offices that encourage and help faculty to explore the research on motivation and learning and to build super course-type offerings. We argue in the first chapter of the book that while technology can sometimes play a supporting role in the building of a strong deep learning environment, it is a poor substitute for exploring the research on how and why people learn deeply and taking a deep dive into the pedagogy of super courses. The effort should be led by people with experience in building natural critical learning environments.
The University of Virginia, for example, elevated Professor Andrew Kaufman, who developed a super course we explored to a central position within the university from which he can help and encourage faculty to explore community-based learning environments like his Books Behind Bars program. LaSalle University is focusing on high-impact practices and making sure that every student has multiple opportunities to experience courses built around those well-documented practices. The applied physics program at Harvard, with strong leadership from Professor Eric Mazur, is bringing learning experts from around the world to campus.
At first, they brought those people to Cambridge, but since the pandemic they have employed virtual technologies to do so. It is also important that administrators steep themselves in the research and theoretical literature on super courses and natural critical learning environments, not just assign someone else to do the thinking and work for them while they focus on fundraising, hiring and firing, setting policies, and other conventional endeavors for deans, provosts and presidents. Most administrators came up through the ranks of their faculty or from schools that taught them to focus on administrative chores. They might know little about the emerging landscape of super courses and research on human learning and motivation. They need to catch up. In the book we explore a whole institution that deliberately relies on the learning sciences to guide its operations and offerings (Olin College of Engineering) and a department that does the same (the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering connected with Georgia Tech, Emory University and Peking University). Finally, administrators must incorporate their devotion to and understanding of what it means to learn deeply into the ways they make decisions about the hiring, rewarding and retention of faculty. The old-fashioned habit of simply counting the number of publications of an applicant or candidate for tenure or their h-index must be replaced with something more vigorous and meaningful that fosters an attention to building super courses. You can't just pay someone to become deeply interested in how people learn and how best to foster their learning, but systems of roles and rewards can certainly distract them from pursuing that interest.
Q : Your last chapter is on grading. How did you find grading to be done in great courses?
A: As that chapter explains, we are still exploring how best to escape the downsides of grading. The practice of assigning a number or letter to someone's work and thinking is a fairly recent development in education. Its chief liability is that it often substitutes the threat of the grade for strongly motivating environments. Furthermore, it sets up a system of extrinsic motivators (learn this — you'll get a bad grade if you don't) that actually diminishes long-term interest and work. Students often feel that someone else (the teacher) has taken control of their learning, undermining the sense of autonomy that considerable research suggests is key to a happy and self-directed life. It might get short-term benefits (learn it for the test or assignment), but it doesn't always produce a lifetime of learning and a sustained and substantial influence on how people learn, how they solve problems or create something new.
The super courses are changing that landscape in several significant ways, and we explore those in the book. We can’t rehash all of that here, but let us mention a few key points: super courses are redefining what it means to learn, and they are finding ways to give people multiple opportunities to try, come up short, receive substantive feedback and try again before anyone attaches a letter or number to their work. They are also exploring ways for students to learn to assess their own efforts and those of others rather than simply passing out marks from on high.
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