What the Best Teachers Know and Understand, Matters

The best teachers possess an expansive (and expanding) knowledge of their subject. They keep up with theoretical and practical developments in their field; they study what others in the field are doing and thinking. “In short, they can do intellectually, physically, or emotionally what they expect from their students” (Bain 2004, pg. 16).

But a great scholar does not necessarily make a great teacher. Bain and his colleagues discovered that the best teachers have an intuitive understanding of how their students learn and are able to communicate their rich disciplinary knowledge in ways that students can understand. By simplifying and clarifying concepts, and drawing close relationships between those concepts and how they are applied, these instructors help students build a firm foundation of knowledge and skills.

The best teachers not only understand how to present disciplinary concepts in ways that support learning, they also know that people are curious by nature, and they use that basic observation of human nature to help students ask important questions about their discipline. These wonderful teachers understand that we learn by problem-solving, so they design instructional events that require students to grapple with problems, and they create classroom environments where the struggle to solve problems is valued.

“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 wish to teach in assignments (questions and tasks) students will find fascinating – authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenge students to rethink their assumptions and examine their mental models of reality” (Bain, 2004, p. 47).

Great! So how can you create a learning environment that students will find fascinating? Give your students a real-world problem to wrestle with, something that has several good solutions and fewer best solutions.  First, consider the kinds of real-world problems content experts like yourself face; be sure to also consider the knowledge and skills they bring to those problems. Next reflect back on the content you’ve already presented in class: have you clearly and succinctly presented the concepts students need to understand the fundamentals of that real-world problem? Write the problem down, simplifying if necessary, in the form of a case study or word problem. Be sure to also write two or three of your own solutions. Finally, give students an opportunity to grapple with the problem and propose solutions. They can do this individually, but the learning may be richer if they work in small groups.


We’re taking a writing break in December, but will return in the new year with thoughts on how the best teachers approach lectures, discussions, and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual work.


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. (1st ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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