Steve Pealrman (00:00):
I have the honor today of speaking with Ken Bain, author of Super Courses, The Future of Teaching and Learning. Ken's also the author of what the Best College Teachers Do and what the Best College students do, and this is his most recent effort. I'll leave it for him, of course, to speak to the exact nature of super courses. But I will let on that we get into issues that contend with very important elements of education, including our fundamental faith in our students to be able to be intellectuals and problem solvers and good faith participants in our disciplines. Certainly we get into discussions of problem-based learning, but much more than that we get into a fascinating discussion of how important it is to not just adjust or try to amend, but rather absolutely shatter students existing paradigms for education to shatter their existing mental models about the world.
Steve Pearlman (01:05):
And that without doing so, education is certainly not maximizing its overall potential. And since the podcast would be utterly remiss not to do so, we certainly also get into what are some exciting examples of super courses and the steps involved in trying to start one. So here's Ken Bain on Super Courses, The Future of Teaching and Learning. Ken, thanks so much for joining me on Pedagogy. I really appreciate your time. My pleasure. I'm gonna start with something a little unconventional here because what I'd like to do is actually start not talking about the super courses per se, but since this is the Pedagogy podcast and since you know, my main focus is on critical thinking and so much of what you talk about in the book with respect to super courses and pedagogy obviously is related to critical thinking and you bring it up and the educators you reference bring it up so many times.
Steve Pearlman (02:01):
But I'd like to start with something you said in your book. I'm gonna read their quote and then I'm gonna explain why I think it's so impactful. You're speaking to educators as you write this. You say, if you are thinking my students can't become sophisticated thinkers, you may be right, but one of their biggest obstacles may your conception of them. And I think that's so critical because it taps into something that I constantly speak with educators about and their concerns about their students' capacity to engage deeper learning, unconventional practice, and certainly with the respect to their students' capacity to think critically and engage matters deeply, which is that I don't think we can judge our students capacities in one model based on how they perform in another model. So how they're performing intellectually in one paradigm of education doesn't hold necessarily for how they could perform in another paradigm of education. And I think that's what you're talking about there. Is that accurate and could you speak a little bit more about
Ken Bain (03:05):
It? Yes. It's the notion that if we think of students as being incapable of doing something, we will communicate that, uh, lack of faith on our part to them very clearly. And there is a small but growing body of evidence that suggests that that in fact is the case. And I think that's, uh, that particular quote is embedded in a discussion of some of that, some of that evidence that students have really almost an uncanny ability to see ride through us and to understand what we are thinking and what we expect out of them and how much faith we have in them to do something. And so that, uh, the statement in, in essence means that we've got to believe that our students are capable of engaging in critical thinking if we provide them with the right kind of assistance, and that there's nothing magic that says that they're going to come into our classrooms with all of the abilities, but that if we design the learning experience in such a way that it will foster that kind of of development, then we have advanced the process. If that makes sense.
Steve Pearlman (04:18):
Yeah, I think it does. And I think that it plays so importantly into your whole notion of super courses, because if we don't work from the premise that our students are capable of doing more, then the whole idea of the super course is a non-starter from the beginning.
Ken Bain (04:34):
Yes, it is. Yes it is. And I think what we found in the teachers that we explored and some of whom of course are, are featured in the book, is that their work with our students began with that confidence, with that faith, that the, the students had the capacity to rise to this level, uh, that we're calling critical thinking, and that if we don't have that, uh, faith in them, uh, we're not likely to build the kind of environment that's going to foster that kind of development. And that furthermore, and this is the point of the statement that you specifically read, we will convey to them, uh, and the message that that we have no faith in them
Steve Pearlman (05:18):
That is a conceptual foundation, which I think is so important. I guess a lot of listeners are simply wondering, not having read your book, what's a super course?
Ken Bain (05:27):
Sure. It's the the notion of beginning with a question and a question that students are going to find important, intriguing, or in some cases just beautiful and a question that's going to invite them into an environment in which we, we will expect them to be able to engage in that question in a critical manner. And to be able to do all of the sorts of things that we would normally, normally expect for ourselves if we were invited into that arena where we were expected to, to think critically about a question. That is that the students have a sense of that they are in charge of their own education, that they have decided to join into this conversation and that, uh, and joining in this conversation, they are joining with other learners who are confronting the same question, and they're given an opportunity to try to receive feedback to, to, to fail, to receive feedback, and to be able to try again.
Ken Bain (06:30):
I mean, that's what we expect as scientists, as scholars, to be able to do when we engage in, in, uh, in critical thinking on questions that are important to us within our various disciplines. But it's something that we don't always extend to students, but the super courses do, and they create that environment where students can try and fail, can receive feedback, and can continue to think about the, the proposition, I think in particular about something that my friend, uh, Deadly Hirschbach and Nobel Prize winner in, in chemistry in 1986, uh, once said to me, he said something to the effect that it's not that I'm so smart, it's that I'm stubborn and that I'm willing to confront nature in multiple ways and to try to develop answers to develop a, a dialogue with nature. I think he put it, and that if I fail the first time, I can come back and, and do it again, and I can keep doing that until I began to develop, uh, an understanding. And he, and his argument was that that's the nature of science and, and scientific investigation. And I thought, Well, yes, I think that's true, and that that's the nature of scholarship, and that's the nature of critical thinking, of being able to, to try fail, receive feedback and try again, and to be able to work with other people who are attempting to pursue that same question. So that's the nature of what the, uh, super courses entail.
Steve Pearlman (08:02):
Well, I absolutely love that distinction between being smart and just being stubborn and not willing to give up on things. I I had listened to an interview with Dyson who founded the Dyson Vacuum Company and so forth, uh, Dyson Engineering, and he made a very similar point, and it was saying that everyone looks at his vacuum and says, Well, you know, this is a breakthrough, it's innovative, and so on and so forth. But, uh, and I don't remember the exact figure, but I'm probably very, very close. He said, the first one that we went to market was Model 1,216. You know, there had been that many efforts to finally get a working prototype, and now it looks so simple and elegant, but it took literally over a thousand incarnations in order to get it there. And, and clearly that's an opportunity that students rarely have.
Steve Pearlman (08:52):
So you talked about this idea of what I call failing forward, the capacity to try and fail, get some feedback and try again and, and so forth, something so critical to what I think education needs to allow for. And you also talked about something that speaks to a construct that's very similar to problem based learning, and obviously a lot of these super courses are involving elements of problem-based learning in what they do since I think a lot of listeners are probably loosely familiar with the concept of problem-based learning already. If not only just from listening to the podcast, I'd like to give you the opportunity to speak to how the courses exceed problem-based learning. They are problem-based learning, but they do some things that are beyond just the scope of what we at least typically conceptualize as problem-based learning. And I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to that.
Ken Bain (09:44):
Well, certainly the super course as we saw it and found it, found that existing in, uh, education begins with the foundation of problem-based learning. But I think the, the primary distinction begins with the notion that the problems themselves are very carefully constructed to bring students into the conversation so that as advanced learners educators, we are often interested in certain questions because we were once interested in another question, and we were interested in that one because we were once interested in still an earlier one. And while we're deep underground digging at what we know to be extraordinarily valuable, intellectual or professional, or our students may be standing on the surface wondering why anybody in their Rhine behind would be so far underground. So I think one of the things that the super courses, uh, have done is to be quite careful with where they begin the conversation with the students so that they try to begin the conversation with the students of raising the question in such a way that their students will find it important, intriguing, or beautiful.
Ken Bain (11:01):
And we have a lot of evidence that suggests that those are the only conditions under which students are likely to take what is called a deep approach to their learning. And what we mean by deep approach to their learning is that they intend to understand and they intend to use that understanding to think about the implications and the applications and the possibilities for that matter of what it is that they are learning, rather than simply, I'm going to try to learn this so I can pass that examination to make an a in the course. And what we found among these super courses is that they deliberately tried to cultivate that deep approach that attempts to, uh, get students to buy into the questions. And that a lot of time in planning is spent on exactly how you frame those questions. Because as my, uh, explanation earlier suggested, if we don't speak their language, if we don't use examples that will be meaningful to them, then we're just like ships passing in the night trying to, uh, ruse each other's attention and concern. But the super courses, and, and I think this is one of the most distinctive features about them that made them different than just your garden variety problem-based learning, is that they found ways of framing questions that students would find exciting, would find important, would find interesting, would find intriguing, and that would convince them to take that deep approach to their learning rather than just a strategic
Steve Pearlman (12:36):
Approach. I know my listeners are probably thirsting for some material example of that, and obviously your book is rife with them. Do you have a particular standout for you of what a super course looks like of what someone actually did of one of the cases you studied?
Ken Bain (12:52):
Well, several of the courses appeal to a, a sense of concern for other human beings. So that, for example, the course that Andy Kaufman developed at the University of Virginia, he's a professor of Russian, his or Russian literature is going to be inviting students into conversations around some of the great works of literature that emerged, especially in the late 19th and and early 20th century. But he does not just simply appeal to them on the traditional intellectual level, he also appeals to them on the sense of their concern for other people. And the course is called Books Behind Bars. And so what happens in the course is that students first apply for the course, and if they apply for the course, they are acknowledging that, that they are interested in doing what the course is planning on doing. And what is planning on doing is to arrange for, for each one of them to go into a high security prison, I'll call it that.
Ken Bain (14:01):
Although, uh, the folks involved do not like that term for, uh, young people who've committed in some cases, some pretty atrocious acts and, uh, are being assigned to spend some time with the correctional facilities in Virginia. And what Andy Kaufman brings to that experience is that he brings this group of students who've applied to, to engage in this activity, and they go into, uh, the correctional facility, uh, 10 different times during the course of the semester. And each time they engage in a very deep conversation about some of the major issues that these, uh, Russian writers, Tolstoy and others have raised in their work. And they take those work that, that everyone has read and, uh, think about those questions, uh, questions about the meaning of life and thinking about what it means to be a human being and thinking about the purpose of one's existence.
Ken Bain (15:07):
And they're tackling those together. So there is an enormous, uh, level of motivation involved in the course that would not ordinarily be there in say, a traditional literature class. And in fact, I compare this class to another class, uh, in Russian literature, uh, anonymous class that relies on the old traditional methods of, uh, you know, dramatic readings or other kinds of things that would get students interested in the story, but instead appeals to them in that sense of altruism that they have toward these young people, people that are really not much younger than they are.
Steve Pearlman (15:44):
Yeah, I think that's such a great example, and I'm glad you used that one because of personal reasons, which is that I, you know, my, my master's is in literature and I was reared on literature and, and I was reared with the idea that literary texts are philosophical texts and they're historical texts, right? And they're economic texts and so on and so forth. They're all the human condition. And so when I have educators who say, Well, how could you possibly do problem based learning with literature and say, Well, you can't find a problem in the world today that there is not literature that has spoken to it or vice versa. We cannot look at any piece of literature and not find ways to connect it with the human condition today and problems we face in our world, individually, collectively, socially, what have you. I mean, we don't have to take students to a prison necessarily to make it problem based learning, but it's such a great example of bringing deep meaning to something that students might not otherwise connect with this, you know, Russian literature from years ago from a different culture.
Steve Pearlman (16:45):
And I'd like to add into this something that you wrote that I think is also phenomenally important, and I don't think gets talked about very much in the discussion of courses like this. In the discussion of pedagogy, even progressive forward thinking pedagogy you write, students will come to the problem based environment with deeply rooted mental models of reality to stimulate growth. You must put them in a situation where their paradigms don't work and they must care that they don't, as the Dutch scholars put it, learners should become cognitively and emotionally involved with the subject, or as we have put it, they must intend to learn deeply. And this obviously goes back to your point about how critical it is that we bring this intention from them, but I think that other point within there about breaking their paradigm, doing something in the chorus where their existing paradigm cannot work, seems so important into shifting them into a new mental model. And your book speaks to that a little bit more and actually shows the research as to why students will continue to rely on their previous mental models when they can. But I'm just wondering if you can talk a little bit more about your thinking on that and what you've learned about that particular need to break the paradigm, a situation where the previous paradigm doesn't work, and the need to shift them into something new, and how super courses go about that.
Ken Bain (18:07):
I think this is extraordinarily important, and it's something that educators often do not pay attention to. And it's to first understand how the human brain works, beginning with our first learning soon after we're born, that we build models of reality, and then we use those models of reality to understand any new sensory input, anything we hear or anything we read or anything we experience or touch or whatever else the case may be. And I often encourage, uh, people in, in workshops to think about the paradigms that students are likely to bring to the course that you, the educator will want them to a minimum question, and how will you put them in a situation in which they are likely to engage in that questioning? And the answer to that latter part of that statement is that humans are most likely to engage in questioning when they are put into a situation where their mental model doesn't work, and they care that it doesn't work.
Ken Bain (19:12):
So to trigger all of that, we've gotta first find out what mental models they are bringing to the learning environment and to be able to then say, Okay, here's one that is problematic. And we want students to grapple with that mental model and to raise the questions again, and, uh, to perhaps bring themselves to a point where they have what some people refer to as an expectation failure, that is they expect something to happen and it doesn't. And so they have to stop and grapple. They have to stop and say, Oh my goodness, I, that's not what I expected. I've got to rethink this. And I think one of the things that the super courses did so well is to engage students in that kind of questioning of, um, anything that they might believe in. And it begins, you know, with the, the, uh, the notion that the mark of an educated person is not the person who has a certain set of beliefs, but a person who realizes the problems that they face in whatever they may believe, and they can begin to grapple with those and to began to question them and to see whether or not they want to continue to accept them.
Ken Bain (20:27):
I think all of the super courses that I describe in the book engage in that process of putting students in a moment of questioning and of doubt that they've got to rethink something fundamentally important. Certainly the, the physics courses that Eric Basu developed at at Harvard are, are good examples. Students will come into a a typical course like that and they'll have all sorts of, of metal models about how the physical universe works. And as a result, they will have some difficulty in grasping the implications of something as simple and straightforward as, uh, Newtonian concepts, let alone, uh, um, more recent, uh, contributions to the field. And what one of the things that, that Eric did in, in devising his course and devising the problems that he challenged the students with is to begin by understanding what those mental models are and then raising the questions or presenting them with a problem that would get them to question those mental
Steve Pearlman (21:33):
Models. Pedagogy will resume in just a moment, but first, if you're a high school, college, or graduate school educator, then I'd like to offer you a full free preview of my online level one critical thinking program for students. I actually developed this program because so many educators have asked me for a way to jumpstart their students' critical thinking skills. This program, which is approximately a three hour student experience, does the following. It teaches your students three essential mindsets for thinking critically. It teaches them a copyrighted neurobiological process for thinking critically about any subject in any discipline. And then it does something particularly distinct. It prompts students through a step-by-step process in which they actually compose a very short essay, entirely driven by their own critical thinking. Students can complete this program outside of class with no impact on your class time, and you can see the final product when they're done.
Steve Pearlman (22:32):
I think you'll find this to be an exceptional program for your students, but whether you assign it or not, I'm confident that it will be an asset to you in terms of infusing critical thinking in your own approach to teaching. So provided you're an educator, I'd be excited to grant you a free preview of this program. Please just come to the critical thinking initiative.org/podcasts. Sign up with a.edu email address, or if you don't have a.edu email address, just email info at the critical thinking initiative.org with confirmation that you're an educator. Again, please just come to the critical thinking initiative.org/podcasts and sign up for a free preview of the entire program. Please make sure you either sign up with a.edu email address or email me at info at the critical thinking initiative.org with other confirmation that you're an educator. And I'd be excited to grant you free access to a program preview. And for everyone who's listening, please remember to liken share pedagogy, find the Critical Thinking Initiative on Facebook and LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter at at Steve j Pearlman, that's at Steve j Pearlman. Now, back to pedagogy,
Ken Bain (23:50):
Raising the questions or presenting them with a problem that would get them to question those middle model.
Steve Pearlman (23:58):
Yeah, that's such a great example because you talk as well about the fact that when he began this process, he was motivated by the fact that he had done some research on his students and found that after they had taken his entire course, there are mental models about an understanding of physics in terms of how they really perceived the world, hadn't really changed much in his original paradigm of the course and the way that most people would approach teaching physics. And so all of this instruction, though, they had some technical knowledge, they could pass a test on certain theories or what have you, their literal perception of the world hadn't shifted what through his paradigm out of flux right, was that he had to find a different way to get students to engage this. And he started confronting them with these challenges to their own thinking and, and self-awareness of their thinking about physics first and used that as a mechanism to drive them forward. Do you think that's an accurate assessment of that?
Ken Bain (24:57):
I think so, and I think that's, uh, that's what happened in all of the courses that we described. Now in physics, you're describing the physical universe and how it's likely to operate under given situations. Uh, one of my colleagues once said, uh, physics is actually a very simple discipline. And I heard him say that. I said, Oh, wait. But what he meant by that is that physics is all those things that are always true, and they're not very many things in physical universe that are always true, but that's what physicists are trying to do. And so many students will build their own little physics world that runs counter to the findings of research. But I think the same thing happened in other fields as well, from sociology to literature to history to other fields.
Steve Pearlman (25:50):
Yeah, there's no question about it. And that same principal holds consistent across all the super courses. Very often when I work with educators and I'm talking about critical thinking and trying to get their students to use a critical thinking model and compose an essay in a different fashion that's driven entirely by their critical thinking, and that takes a while. But the initial model is something that we can communicate to them relatively quickly and very frequently. What educators will communicate to me in this process is that the students aren't changing how they're writing their essays, that they learn the critical thinking model, and they do some exercises, but then when they go to write the essay, they write the same kind of essay they've written before. And what I say to them is, and this is something I always do in my classes, is, and it sounds terrible, but it's not cuz it's a fail forward opportunity, but fail them on the paper if they're not, not doing any of the critical thinking things that are required.
Steve Pearlman (26:46):
Let them see that very low mark on the paper, not such that it could count not as a summative, but as a formative measure so that it breaks their paradigm so that they realize that they have to try something different and that the old thing won't work anymore. And I think that's, for me, a cognate between how I've encountered that same paradigm problem and how you're describing it in super courses, though I think in super courses there are actually some other very interesting ways that educators use to break students out of those paradigm. So I'm wondering if you can mention another one or two of those.
Ken Bain (27:22):
Sure. One of 'em is a course that was developed by a theater director by the name of, uh, Paul Baker. And he and developed this course back in the late 1930s and taught it himself all the way into the nineties. And, um, eventually taught it on, on every level one might imagine. He started out on the college undergraduate level and then eventually went to graduate level and from there down to the elementary level of teaching the course. But the course was called Integration of Abilities. And it was based on several important concepts and most fundamental of which was the idea that he wanted to help students develop what he referred to as the dynamic powers of their own minds. And he wanted to help them develop as creative thinkers who would be able to imagine questions and be able to imagine possible solutions to those questions that no one else had ever considered.
Ken Bain (28:24):
And, uh, the course is built around a series of exercises and based on the idea of education by looking inward at who you are and understanding yourself and understanding your own prejudices and understanding your own middle models that you have built up out of your own experience. And then to be able to, as you look at those models, to begin to try to take them apart and to question them. But the course goes on to advance the notion that education doesn't just end by looking at yourself and how you, you think and how you imagine the world and how you create in the world, but that it goes on to look at, look out from yourself, to look at other people and their thinking and how they think about the world, how they think about the creative process. So it's a study of creativity first in, in yourself and creativity in other human beings.
Ken Bain (29:21):
And the students in the course engage in a series of projects and engage in, uh, uh, projects that ask them, as I say, to look inward first and then to look outward. And in that kind of paradigm of a course, cause the, the course itself is challenging, the traditional paradigm that the students have, the traditional paradigm being one of, okay, the teachers are gonna tell me what to do, I'm going to do it, and if I do it on time and sufficiently well, then I will receive a certain mark, whatever that may mean, and then I'll go on in my life. But, uh, in this kind of paradigm, the whole world becomes your oyster because you have an opportunity of looking at creative acts in almost any field you might imagine. And his definition of creativity, by the way, was not, uh, rooted just in the arts, but a recognition that creativity takes place in every facet of human life and human experience from running a business to running a society, to, um, dealing with relationships with other human beings of thinking about, uh, how you treat other people or solving personal problems of something of the sort.
Ken Bain (30:38):
And, uh, a building a course that so fundamentally changes their experience with taking a course and getting an education. So the course was ultimately about every student and about everybody else.
Steve Pearlman (30:55):
So much of what you talk about with respect to the construct of these courses, and it's been a subtext that's been running through our discussion, is the autonomy and freedom given to students in this process of learning. And you write in your book, Humans are born with insatiable curiosities, but here's the rub. Our desire to do something will go down if we have the feeling that someone else controls us, extrinsic motivators, for example, grades tend to suppress internal desires. Maybe we were just honorary creatures, but we don't like to lose what psychologists call a locus of control. And I think that's phenomenally important. I've talked about it before on the podcast, even with respect to the neuroscience of how our amygdala functions and brain functions and the importance of having control over their learning experience and over their environment. You've taken it a little bit further in this text with respect to just how much any observation seems to, at times, at least with anything that's kind of more of an intellectual task, suppress that learning experience for the students and how important the freedom really is for them. And it obviously runs through all the super courses, but could you speak more to that principle of empowering students with their own locus of control?
Ken Bain (32:18):
Well, certainly much of this of course, comes out of the pioneering work that Edward DC and his colleague Robert Ryan developed in the course of the last 40 years or so, going, going actually all the way back to the sixties. And it challenged the, the prevailing notion that, uh, was probably highlighted most by, uh, BF Skinner, that in order to motivate people that you had to use a carrot and stick approach, that you had to either, either offer them rewards or punishment. But what this research suggested said, Oh no, wait a minute, if that's your notion of, of how you motivate students, you deny them that sense of control and you deny them that sense of autonomy of living their own lives. That, uh, DC and Ryan had argued that human beings have three basic necessities, um, beyond, uh, sex and food and those, uh, necessities where psychological necessities of that we needed to feel a sense of autonomy was the first and, and most powerful of those, uh, uh, notions.
Ken Bain (33:27):
And that, uh, what grades do unfortunately, is that they deny students that sense of autonomy when those grades are used as motivators. And we do that so easily in our classes of saying resorting to the old, well, it'll be on the next examination. So that's the reason you should read this book rather than raising a question and posing a problem that students will find so compelling and that you will help them to see that reading this book will help them to address that problem that they have now taken up as a result of your efforts. I'm trying to think of a, another professor who's not in the book but was in the first book I did on the subject, What the Best College teachers Do. Uh, who argued that, uh, to put it very simply that one of the first tasks of the good teacher is to capture the attention of students and to help them to focus on something that they might not focus upon otherwise.
Ken Bain (34:31):
And then getting them to see how important and significant, uh, that that question that subject is. And I came to believe by looking at how other people do that, that means in many cases, changing the language we use, changing the examples we use to raise the question so that the question becomes important to students. I've always raised the possibility, and I certainly saw it in, in, uh, some of the super courses we examined, that the arts provide us with considerable opportunity to help not necessarily, uh, answer questions, but to raise them and to consider the possibility that is not just the art that we want to view, that we want to listen to, that we want to think about, but their art, the art, the songs that they listen to, the things that they read, the, um, things that they see. And to use those things, the artwork of their generation or their community, their focus to raise important questions that we get them to, to consider and to, uh, to think about.
Steve Pearlman (35:41):
And that's exactly why one of the key phases of my critical thinking process for students is teaching them how to form an important question. And it might be something that's already meaningful to them about the subject matter, but they need to know how to frame that question more deeply. Or it might be something that's used as a process to find something that's interesting to them. But I see so often educators who are posing much more specific questions to students in terms of assignments, which is not what super courses do, uh, in terms of large problem based learning kinds of questions. But educators who are posing these more menial questions to students are sort of presupposing what the students should be interested in about the topic. And the students know this, the students know very clearly that this is what the teacher thinks I should be interested in.
Steve Pearlman (36:35):
They didn't really care whether the students are actually interested in it or not. And I think students perceive, and there's some research on how this turns them off, students perceive this as an immediate modicum of disrespect for their own intellectual capacity from the educator. When the educator says, Here, you should write your paper about this thing, it's assuming that the student couldn't find something that was equally interesting or meaningful to write about, about that particular subject point in history or philosophy or whatever it is that they're engaging it. I think it's very problematic as a paradigm for education that we should do that thinking for the student instead of giving them the locus of control and empowering them to ask questions that interest them and relate to their world.
Ken Bain (37:22):
I couldn't agree more. What these super courses do is avoid that paradigm and, and, uh, spend a considerable effort in framing the question in thinking about what is going to stimulate the students to be interested in this particular, uh, subject and, and, uh, thinking about how they would tackle that subject. And that's part of the genius of the, of the super courses is connecting things that might seem totally unrelated to the subject, but it's something that comes out of the world of the students that they have previously expressed some interest in and some awareness of, and using that as a stimulus for something that's way over here and, and seemingly unconnected. Uh, and in that regard, I, if I could be so bold to mention the, the course that that I developed at Northwestern, uh, that I do mention in the course in the, in the book under the, the heading of, uh, sort of a self examination of this process of building a a super course.
Ken Bain (38:26):
And it was a course on the Cold War. And what I did is I created a series, a movie series that students would watch outside of class and each one of the films was selected to raise an important question about international relation. My favorite and ones that, that that sort of breaks many people's mental models, uh, just by, by mentioning it, is the the first film that students would see in this course, uh, this course that I developed back in the 1990s and haven't taught since simply cause I've moved to other institutions and and done other kind of work. Uh, but it certainly, it was, it was one of the, my favorite courses that I ever worked with. As I said, I, I created this, uh, movie series and the first movie that I asked the students to go see was Godfather Part One. And you say, Well, what does that have to do with the Cold War?
Ken Bain (39:21):
And it comes from an article that, that Francis Ford Colo wrote about his famous film. And in it he argued that the film was not about just a crime family in New York or New Jersey, but it was in fact a intended to be a microcosm of the world in which we live. And so the question that I asked students is they would go to see this film in some cases for the the 12th time in their young lives was, is this a microcosm of international relation, this story of this fictional crime family and its relationship with five other prominent crime families. After all, they have armies, they have, uh, peace conferences, they have, uh, at least uh, spoken treaties and understandings with each other. And is this the paradigm? Is this the nature of international relations? Namely that nation states are simply a bunch of criminal thugs, each one out to protect their own national interest, uh, no matter what the cost may be to the rest of the world.
Ken Bain (40:36):
And, uh, students would often go to the film and come back to it and then make an argument. Ye yes, that's the nature of international relations. And then I would take the occasion to make a counter argument that the in nature of international relations could be best understood with a completely different kind of paradigm that's much more complex and based upon some important theoretical work on international relations. And if I had simply given them that body of work from the field of international relations and said, read this work, they wouldn't have done it or they would not have approached it with a, a deep mindset. But now having raised this question in reference to a film that all virtually all of the students were familiar with back in the nineties, they are willing to do so and willing to raise those questions and to examine that literature in a critical fashion. Yes.
Steve Pearlman (41:32):
Cuz you so clearly broke their original paradigm about all that with the film and then reproached that new paradigm as well with your counter argument. So I guess as I wrap up here, and it's really enjoyed this interview because I think it's getting into some of the subtler points around problem-based pedagogies that often don't see enough light. But I guess I'm certain that a number of listeners are thinking these courses sound very intriguing. Maybe they wanna start down the path. What's the steps in the process? How does an educator who's thinking about doing this, how do they start down that road?
Ken Bain (42:06):
That's a really brilliant question and has been the basis of workshops that we've done with quite a number of schools. And I think it begins with a series of questions. And the first of those questions is the most fundamental of basically what is it that you want your students to be able to do intellectually, physically, emotionally as a result of taking your course? And I chose the verb to do, um, because of what it's saying. And that is literally what kind of activities, uh, intellectually do you want your students to be able to, to engage in. And this brings us back to what is critical thinking and brings us back to a consideration of, okay, what are students doing intellectually when they are thinking critically and how do you define that? And then the second question in planning is, how will you create an environment in which that ability, whether it be that critical thinking or an emotional ability like appreciation for a certain body of literature, for example, or a certain body of, of music for example, how do we create that environment in which that ability is likely to emerge at the level that, uh, we are expecting?
Ken Bain (43:28):
And then the third question is, uh, how will we confront and anticipate all of those things that could go wrong, uh, that will keep students from engaging in this kind of activity? And I'm currently writing a book under contract with, uh, Harvard Press, again that's aimed at parents. And the title of the new book is How do you Help your students Make the Best Out of School? Or something to that effect. And so in that book, I'm, uh, one of the things that I'm arguing is that parents can actually contribute a great deal to the creation of, uh, something that Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. And part of that growth mindset is the belief in your own ability to raise to that level of, uh, say for example, critical thinking or to raise to the level of being able to, to do calculus, to raise to the level of, of doing anything that higher education in particular ask students to do.
Ken Bain (44:36):
But that even elementary education is preparing them eventually to be able to do as they mature and, uh, the idea that the course is going to help them to develop as critical thinkers. Well what can go wrong there? And the work that Dweck and others have stimulated and uh, are carrying on on a massive scale is the recognition that if students have what she refers to as a fixed mindset, that is, that they believe that intelligence is fixed for life and that you cannot expand your own intellectual abilities, your own intelligence. We're not talking about, uh, learning additional facts or learning additional information or even learning additional procedures. We're talking about whether or not they believe that your fundamental intellectual abilities, your what we call intelligent can increase. And she argues that with considerable evidence that if students have the conception that your basic intellect cannot grow, that you're either born smart, mediocre or dumb or some shade of, of one of those three that that can interfere with your abilities to engage in in higher order work.
Ken Bain (45:56):
And I think there, there is extremely important evidence that that is the case and that uh, students who have that fixed mindset will often not only give up in terms of engaging that in that work will b but will be completely dismissive of it. Oh, that's boring, that's dumb, that's stupid. Okay, I'll do the work to get the grade, but I'm not going to engage in that. I will not have a deep intention toward my work. So that perhaps the, the first step in building a a super course and something that I didn't think about very much actually when I was doing the super course book is how can we foster that growth mindset on the part of our students? And it's a much more complex issue than simply telling them, yes, your brains can grow. It's helping them to understand how they can grow.
Steve Pearlman (46:48):
Well that's an amazing distinction and it's something that I think prompts all of us to reflect a little bit about our practice and certainly our educational system that has been mired in the skin area model and the fixed mindset model that it actually is weeding people out and putting labels on them as smart or not so smart instead of giving them those repeated opportunities to fail forward and literally grow their brains differently. And that's something that super courses are doing and I'm certainly glad you brought up your next book because it gives me, at the close of this podcast, the opportunity be perhaps the first to prematurely invite you back when the new book is ready to be on again.
Ken Bain (47:28):
It would be my pleasure. This has been enormously productive for me and I appreciate the questions that you raised. May I mention the fourth question in that preparation scenario? And and it's an equally important one and it is, uh, raise the question, how will I, as the instructor and my students best come to understand the nature and the progress of their learning
Steve Pearlman (47:55):
As coex exploratory,
Ken Bain (47:56):
Right, exactly. Better known as how will I calculate my, the grades? But if you think about the, the way I put it, it's a lot deeper than how will I calculate my grades?
Steve Pearlman (48:07):
Do you find that educators are able to work through those questions fairly successfully to move to a new paradigm in their education
Ken Bain (48:16):
With some difficulty? I must admit
Steve Pearlman (48:19):
I ask similar questions or pose similar frameworks, but that's been my experience as well. I think it's representative of the very issues you talked about in the book itself for students, which is that we are stuck in our own mental models, right? And we need those to be broken.
Ken Bain (48:34):
I think. So thank you for the wonderful discussion this morning and I really appreciate it.
Steve Pearlman (48:39):
It's been absolutely my pleasure and I'm sure the pleasure of my listeners. So thank you so much for being on the podcast, Ben. Thanks Steve.