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Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Summer Reading List on Teaching

I believe I have two things in common with most of the law prof readers of PrawfsBlawg.


First, whenever I want to learn to do something new or better, I read a book on the subject, whether the subject be racquetball or travelling in Greece or cooking Italian food. Second, I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching with the goal of  becoming more effective in the classroom. 


I would urge you to read about teaching as a way to become a better teacher. I also would urge you to expand your reading about teaching beyond legal education.


After the break, I recommend a book on college teaching and provide a reading list to get you started.



Ok.  If you read one book on teaching this Summer, read Ken Bain’s book “What the Best College Teachers Do”.


Ken Bain is to teaching what Mario Batali is to Italian cooking — he’s the Iron Chef of professoring.  He has been the founding director of four major teaching and learning centers at NYU, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, and Montclair.  His book contains recipes for becoming a better teacher — the kind of great teacher you remember having — the kind of great teacher you want to be to your students.


Most books on teaching follow a familiar paradigm[sic] to tell some anecdotes and to provide some tips and to offer some advice.  This book does more.  It canvasses the published scholarship on teaching and learning.  But the most original feature of this book is how it relates the latest research to the best practices of the best teachers.


To conduct his study, Bain identified over sixty teachers at two dozen institutions in a variety of academic fields (including a couple of law professors).  Bain defined excellent teachers as teachers who achieve extraordinary success in helping their students to learn and retain knowledge, teachers who impact their students’ lives.  Bain explains that “the best college and university teachers create what we might call a natural critical learning environment in which they embed the skills and information they teach in assignments — authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenging students to rethink their assumptions and examine their mental modes of reality.”


The book is organized around six basic questions.  The questions describe common principles demonstrated in the practices of the best teachers in the study. The answers to these questions are general, commonsensical, somewhat obvious, but nonetheless fundamental to effective teaching: (1) what do the best teachers know and understand?; (2) how do they prepare to teach?; (3) what do they expect of their students?; (4) what do they do when they teach?; (5) how do they treat students?; (6) how do they evaluate their students?


My abbreviated take away from the book — provided merely to whet your appetite — is that the best college teachers center their courses -- from course design to student evaluation -- on the student and dedicate themselves to facilitating the student’s learning. The best teachers are not born great teachers. They do not simply walk into class and perform effortlessly. They work hard at their teaching. The best teachers make themselves the best teachers by knowing their disciplines well, understanding human learning, treating teaching as an intellectual endeavor, expecting more out of their students, creating a natural critical learning environment, reflecting trust and openness, constantly evaluating themselves, reflecting on their teaching, and being open to change.


If you read this book this Summer, you will be a better teacher this Fall.


* * * *


With the assistance of my research assistant (Mary Oszewska) I prepared a bibliography handout on law teaching for a SEALS panel on teaching last Summer.  Here is a downloadable PDF of the bibliography: Download 2009-fall-8.


(Here is an on line link to 18 Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research and Writing No. 1 (Fall 2009) where it was published and here the SSRN link, as well.)


Posted by Thomas Baker on June 17, 2010 at 07:30 AM | Permalink


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Good for you "aspiringlawprof"

Bain's book is excellent. And while you are at it, check out the bibliography.

You also might want to pay attention to an ongoing project that has the ambition to do for law teachers what Ken Bain's book does for college teachers. Michael Schwartz (Washburn), Sophie Sparrow (Franklin Pierce), and Gerry Hess (Gonzaga) are taking the lead. Here is a link:


Posted by: Thomas E. Baker | Jun 17, 2010 2:51:04 PM

I'm excited to order and read this book, and I think you for the suggestion. I don't have any teaching experience yet, and I've often wondered whether I'd "turn out to have talent" in teaching, as though it's something I'd either have been born with or not. It sounds as though this book will put the lie to that construct.

Posted by: aspiringlawprof | Jun 17, 2010 2:41:18 PM

A necessary correction of a typo supra in my post in my Research Assistant's name: Mary Olszewska was a May 2009 graduate of Florida International University College of Law . . . and she would have caught my mistake!

Tom Baker

Posted by: Thomas E. Baker | Jun 17, 2010 10:06:01 AM

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