Definition of Exceptional Learning, Ken Bain

Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers DoIn What the Best College Teachers Do, a widely regard text and one of our More Core Readings, Ken Bain defines the best teachers simply as “those people who have remarkable success in helping their students achieve exceptional learning results” (p. 3). But he explains that the “thorniest methodological question” of the study was defining “exceptional learning” (p. 189). Of particular difficulty was coming up with a definition that would work for the many different disciplines, contexts, teachers, and students considered in the study. Eventually, he and his co-investigators settled on the following definition:

The closest we came [to a definition of “exceptional learning”] was in terms of intellectual and personal development. In general, we thought of intellectual development as understanding a sizable body of material, learning how to learn (to expand understanding), to reason from evidence, to employ various abstract concepts, to engage in conversations about that thinking (including the capacity to write about it), to ask sophisticated questions, and the habits of mind to employ all those abilities. Personal development meant understanding one’s self (one’s history, emotions, dispositions, abilities, insights, limitations, prejudices, assumptions, and even senses) and what it means to be human; the development of a sense of responsibility to one’s self and others (including moral development); the capacity to exercise compassion; and the ability to understand and use one’s emotions. It also meant the emergence of the habits of heart to maintain and employ these developments. (pp. 189-190)

There are several things that I like about this definition.

First, I deeply appreciate how it revolves around both the “mind” and the “heart” and, in doing so, includes aspects of learning that may not be easily or entirely measurable.

I also enjoy how this definition combines the visionary with the practical, waxing (almost) poetic about what exceptional learning means while also listing specific skills that it entails.

I find this definition inspiring just to read.

How do you define learning for your teaching? What do you want your students to be able to do after they complete your courses and programs? What knowledge, what skills, what habits of mind and heart do you want them to develop? How do you want them to be changed? In general and specifically?


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