iSchool Logo

Ken Bain: Deep Learning: Pursuing Questions that Are Important, Intriguing, or Just Beautiful

Ken Bain is the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia and a Professor of History and Urban Education. He is an acclaimed educator who has lectured at over 300 universities and founded and directed four major teaching and learning centers. In this PIL interview, we talked to Ken about his latest book, What the Best College Students Do (Harvard University Press, 2012) and "reframing the very nature of education." (Interview posted: October 10, 2012)

Ken BainAlmost a decade ago, Ken Bain conducted a bushel of interviews in which he inquired into what makes college teachers great. The resulting book, What the Best College Teachers Do quickly became required reading for anyone who has ever set foot in a college classroom. It also ended up rocking educational circles, winning numerous awards, and being translated into 12 languages.

At the time, Publishers’ Weekly wrote, “Bain’s sound and scholarly yet exuberant promotion of America’s ‘best college teachers’ abounds with jaunty anecdotes and inspiring opinions that make student-centered instruction look not only infectious, but downright imperative.”

Now, Ken Bain is back. In his latest book, What the Best College Students Do, he conducted over 100 interviews with remarkable lifelong learners, such as Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He had them talk about how they put grades aside and used their college experience to nurture the intellectual curiosity that had always been a part of who they were. As a result, they became deep learners and went on to lead purposeful lives.

We interviewed Ken in October 2012. We discussed some of Project Information Literacy’s (PIL) latest findings. We also asked Ken how educators can foster deep learning in college students today, especially when they are conducting research and finding answers for use throughout their lives.

PIL: In your new book, you mention a quote by the educational reformer, John Dewey. You write that he “supposedly once said, ‘we don’t learn from experience, we learn about thinking about experience’” (p. 143). What does this quote mean in the context of the argument you present in your book?

Ken: I think this phrase means that people learn deeply by learning to think about the experiences that they have, to compare them with other experiences, frame them in multiple ways, question them, ask what they mean and what implications they have. The people we studied learned to think about their own thinking, to ask themselves how ideas come up in their minds. Ellen Langer’s work on mindfulness gives us one of the most powerful approaches to this kind of learning. She found that if students said to themselves, this “could be” a solution to a problem, they were far more likely to imagine multiple solutions than the student who simply says this “is” the solution.

When students learn in school, they can just accept everything, memorize it, and spew it back on an examination. They can memorize steps to solving problems. But the highly creative and productive students who are profiled in my book, constantly questioned everything they learned, trying to think about it in different ways. They learned to speculate even before they learned the accepted answer to a problem, and they thought about how what they learned in one class interacts with something they learned in another. That habit of speculating about solutions helps produce adaptive experts, people who can adapt to unusual problems rather than just sticking to routine answers.

PIL: Throughout your new book, there is a recurring theme: grades shouldn’t matter as much as so many students think they do. But if you are an educator, librarian, or parent, you know firsthand that grades matter very much to today’s students. Why are grades a trap? How do they impede learning? Has the quest for high marks gotten worse with each passing year?

Ken: What matters most is learning deeply, thinking about implications and applications, and expanding the powers of one’s mind. If students intend to learn deeply, grades will usually take care of themselves. But if they intend only to make good grades, that doesn’t necessarily lead to understanding, to mental growth of the individual. People who set out just to make high grades often achieve that goal, but they don’t achieve anything else. They become quite strategic, protecting their grade point average like a mother hen guarding a chick, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will learn broadly and deeply.

Indeed, there are several problems with strategic learners. They often feel manipulated by the grades that they covet so dearly, and the research on human motivation tells us that such people will lose their interest. They’ll perform only for the grade, but they won’t become the kind of life long curious learners that we saw among our highly creative people. They won’t explore new areas for fear that they will jeopardize those grades, and gradually, they will lose that childhood curiosity that we saw still alive and well in our highly productive “best students.”

Strategic learners often learn procedurally, but they often don’t tend to learn conceptually, and because they don’t understand basic concepts—they just know how to plug the right number into a formula—they often can’t solve unusual problems. At best, they become routine experts, able to apply the conventional answer to a problem. But they don’t tend to become adaptive experts, able to take on the unusual. Our society needs adaptive experts who can confront a rapidly changing world and the routine experts can’t provide much help.

Perhaps, the most serious problem with being a strategic learner is that it can cause extreme anxiety and other psychological problems. If students tie their whole self image to “making the grade,” rather than to understanding deeply, then any less-than-perfect grade can cause those students great anxiety, and even depression. Understanding deeply allows and even encourages learners to make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes, and to grow. Making the grade often allows no room for mistakes, and therefore no room for growth. I wrote a whole chapter on how creative people benefited from making mistakes, and another chapter on how they learn to comfort themselves in times of great stress.

And, yes, I think the problem here is growing, or at least has grown over the last thirty years or so. The emphasis is so much on grades rather than on understanding and growing the mind.

PIL: In our latest PIL study, we investigated how recent college graduates solve information problems once they join the workplace. As part of our study, we interviewed 23 employers who worked in a variety of organizations such as Microsoft, the FBI, the Smithsonian, Nationwide Insurance, and Mother Jones Magazine. Many of our interviewees said they found college hires struggling mightily when working on intractable information problems. Why are ill-structured problems so difficult for students to define and solve? Why is this process critical to getting the most out of college and, as you suggest, to leading a purposeful and meaningful life?

Ken: Messy problems are difficult for anyone. To learn how to solve them, we all need lots of practice in tackling ill structured problems, getting feedback on our efforts, and trying to find new solutions. Unfortunately, many people will go through college without ever having those experiences, or at least they don’t have them often enough.

The typical “learning” in college is often around preparation for an examination, and the emphasis there is on memorizing information and being able to recall it for the test. Even when the examination includes questions that require analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, students get one shot at finding a solution, and they don’t have many opportunities to try a line of reasoning, get feedback or challenges, and try again.

If you think about the kind of learning environment that professors expect for their own learning, you can see what is missing for students. If I’m working on, say, a paper for a journal, and I take it down the hall to seek comment from a colleague, I’d be terribly insulted if she looked me in the face and said, “you’re making a C thus far.” I’d expect substantive comments, suggestions on how I could improve my argument so I could take it back to my office and do more work on it before submitting it for publication. We seldom give our students that kind of learning environment.

In my new book, I used a murder mystery to illustrate ill-structured problems. Students in an investigative journalism class were looking into cases of possible wrongful convictions involving prison inmates sitting on death row. They had to confront the messy evidence of a “who-done-it.” But, overall, we can create compelling problems for students involving any of the great questions that arise out of our disciplines. In another illustration, I used the scientific and engineering research that a student did with spiders. I often challenge faculty to think about the biggest question any one course raises and to find ways to raise those questions in ways that students will find important, intriguing, or just beautiful. We then explore ways to help students struggle with those questions.

Such an approach can be used on any level, even on the introductory level. Rather than showing students how to solve problems or giving them answers that they can memorize, why not give them the problems and encourage them to speculate, even wildly, about possible solutions? Even if their efforts are amateurish and unproductive, they will learn by trying, by bumping up against the edges of their own ignorance, by exploring the ill-structured nature of the problems.

Some interesting work has been done in studies of expertise that relates to this subject. Back in the 1980’s some Japanese theorists argued that experts fall into two broad categories. Some are merely routine experts who know all the conventional routines for solving particular problems. Some of these people might even be considered world class in their ability to use those routines. But a few other experts who also know those routines will develop the ability to solve the unusual problem. These adaptive experts understand the conventional routines, but they also have the capacity to recognize and even relish the opportunity and necessity for invention.

What kinds of experiences are likely to produce the adaptive experts? In the U.S., John Bransford and others have found that lots of opportunity to speculate will foster that kind of adaptive ability. When we give students a messy problem and allow them to speculate, to work collaboratively to struggle with the evidence and craft tentative solutions, we foster their adaptive expertise.

PIL: In our ongoing research, we have also found many college students travel the information landscape with a small compass. They use a model of predictability and efficiency when they conduct research and find information for course assignments. They rely on a few tried and true information sources and avoid plunging into the deep end of the information pool. As educators and librarians, should we be worried about this? How can we cultivate deep learners, rather than surface or strategic learners?

Ken: Yes, this is a major problem in higher education, but a predictable outcome, given the way we often treat “research” projects on the undergraduate level in particular. We often talk to our students about “finding a topic” for their research project (if we use research projects at all in an undergraduate class). Why not, instead, help students find questions that will engage them?

People are most likely to take a deep approach to their learning when they are trying to answer questions or solve problems that they have come to regard as important, intriguing, or just beautiful. One of the great secrets to fostering deep learning is the ability to help students raise new kinds of questions that they will find fascinating. Sometimes that means beginning with the questions that are already on their minds and helping them see how those inquiries lead to new puzzles.

Traditionally, we don’t spend much effort helping students to find those fascinating questions. As advanced scholars in our fields, we are currently interested in certain questions. But we came to those questions because we were once interested in other questions, and before that in still other questions. We’ve gone through a whole series of layers of questions that led to other questions. But while we are deep underground digging at what we know to be valuable intellectual or professional ore, our students are still standing on the surface wondering why anybody would be interested in the questions that drive our intellectual lives.

We have to help students become fascinated with new kinds of questions that will require that we frame the exercise of doing research as the pursuit of questions and problems, not just the exploration of a topic. Sometimes that means that we have to find provocative ways to ask the questions. Sometimes the arts can be highly effective ways of raising questions that will be both fascinating and beautiful. I love to use the motion picture arts and drama to raise provocative questions.

One secret might be in reframing the very nature of education. We often “sell” education as the chance to learn some subjects—chemistry, history, philosophy, business, whatever. In my new book, I explore a different kind of education in which students think of their experience in school as that chance to expand their own capacities and pursue intriguing and important questions and problems. Education can help people become more creative and productive individuals. At the heart of that approach is the realization that every student brings to each question a unique perspective that can be explored and expanded. It also involves helping students understand their own uniqueness and how the creative process works.

If we say to each student, you are unique, you can originate perspectives that no one else will think of on their own, then we can we can also help them realize the implications of that notion. If each person is unique, then we can all benefit from exchanging perspectives with one another. An important part of the creative process is recognizing good ideas when you encounter them, and learning to make them your own.

But to recognize good ideas, we have to encounter them, and to encounter them, we have to explore broadly. So much of library research is the process of encountering and exploring other people’s ideas. If we can find the questions that hook students, if we can help them understand the creative process, and if we can help them see that their education will help them become more creative and productive people, then they will more likely see value in exploring other people’s ideas. They will come to understand that the world is their oyster.

It also helps if you help students learn to compare and contrast ideas so that they learn to question and challenge ideas as they encounter them. I’ve used the idea of understanding the distinction between disagreements in belief and disagreements in attitude to give students a new way of understanding. Such study approaches can help but only if students INTEND to learn deeply, only if they want to understand, think about implications, applications, and possibilities.

Motivation becomes the key. To be motivated to learn deeply, they have to be inspired, to see the purpose for their research, to believe that they can do it, and to believe that they are in charge of their own education. That last ingredient often becomes the biggest stumbling block because we characterize these learning opportunities as “assignments” in which we are in charge rather than the student.

PIL: There is an interesting thread that runs through many of the remarkable lifelong learners that you profile in your book. Many of them shared a deep curiosity about an issue or a topic, which they nurtured by reading since they were quite young. Why is reading so essential to deep learning? What role do libraries, public and academic libraries, play in shaping lifelong learners?

Ken: Reading is the way to explore other people’s ideas, and through that exploration to make them your own. I think the people I explored understood that through reading they could develop and expand their own minds and become more productive and creative people.

Libraries play a huge role in this process. I think you are right: the lifelong learners I profiled in the new book explored constantly and saw connections between everything they encountered. They did more than just pursue some private taste. They became interested in everything. It’s like the profile of Sherri Kafka and what her father told her. The most productive people, the most satisfied people, are the best-integrated people who see connections between every subject.

I think libraries and librarians can help with that process. In the new book, Liz Lerman just loved to explore the open shelves of a library. Other people—Tom Springer and Dudley Herschbach, for example, benefitted from the suggestions that librarians made. None of these people could have grown without books and the other resources that libraries offer.

Libraries can also help raise questions. They can help learners see the connection between some problem and some new area of investigation. If we just understand the simple notion that people are most likely to take a deep approach when they are trying to answer questions or solve problems that they regard as important, intriguing, or beautiful, then we can imagine lots of ways in which libraries can play an essential role.

The people I profiled did have a deep curiosity, but they also had a purpose for their lives. Often that purpose involved serving other people or some larger cause. As I argue in the book, many of them had a strong sense of justice and sought to create a better world. They often wrestled with their own purpose in life, and the values that they held, but those struggles helped define who they were as individuals.

The problem that often arises is that we strip people of any sense of purpose. We give them assignments to do rather than stimulate their curiosity with fascinating questions that provoke and challenge. We hold them responsible to a rigid code of conduct rather than helping them to grow. We say to them, I’ve got a mold, and I’m going to fit you into that mold, and if you don’t fit, I’ll trim something off around the edges. We should be saying: what are your questions, what is your background, have you considered this possibility, have you explored this avenue?

In reality, libraries and librarians often do a better job of fostering deep approaches to learning than does the typical classroom. For many of my subjects, libraries became places where they could explore, get help when they needed it, and grow from the experience. Sometimes through a strange and unexpected process. In the book, Duncan Campbell looked for a thin book to complete a reading assignment and found the world of great literature through John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Ken lives in Washington, D.C. and South Orange, New Jersey. In addition to being the newly appointed Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia, he is Professor of History and Urban Education.

He is a highly acclaimed professor, speaker, writer, and learning coach. He has lectured at over 300 universities and founded and directed four major teaching and learning centers: the New York University Center for Teaching Excellence, the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, and the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair University.

Both of Ken’s award-winning books, What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) and What the Best College Students Do (2012) are published by Harvard University Press.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing and national research study, supported with contributing funds from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Institute of Museum and Libraries (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Smart Talk interviews are open source. No permission for use is required from PIL to share this interview, though we ask that this source be cited as Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 13, Ken Bain, Deep Learning: Pursuing Questions that Are Important, Intriguing, or Just Beautiful.

Alison Head, the Executive Director and Lead Researcher at Project Information Literacy conducted this Smart Talk interview with Ken Bain over email, between August 28 and October 8, 2012. (A special thank you to Elizabeth Knoll, Executive Editor-at-Large at Harvard University Press, for her help and support with this interview.)