Great Teaching and Great Questions

In a 2009 article published in Peer Review, Ken Bain and James Zimmerman explored how great instructors inspired a deep approach to learning. In comparison to surface learners, deep learners are said to take a superior approach to learning by relying less on memorization, and more on questioning premises, challenging assumptions and considering the implications and applications of the course subject matter (Marton and Saljo, 1976). It is within this learning realm that students more thoughtfully construct an understanding of course material, and perhaps most importantly, where they are more likely to carry their learning experiences forward.

Bain and Zimmerman summarize that, “Human beings are most likely to learn deeply when they are trying to solve problems or answer great questions that they have come to regard as important, intriguing and beautiful.” Students thrive in learning environments which provide them with an opportunity to explore and reflect upon how the course material has both personal and “real-world” relevance, and fundamentally challenges how they see the world around them. It is under these learning conditions that we, as instructors and fellow learners become wonderfully consumed by an inspired sense of curiosity and inquiry that is driven almost solely by the students.

The authors continue by stating, “…the best teachers–and this may be their most profound ability–find ways to link their own disciplinary concerns and interests with those of the students. [They have] the ability to frame questions in ways that would both capture the students’ imagination and challenge some of their most cherished paradigms.” Great instructors engage in a poetic dance between student and instructor, between comfort and challenge, and between the known and unknown – it is a complex dance that may take years to perfect. Yet, the reward is an educational system based on the very premise of providing students with the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to approach the world’s most complex challenges. If I could change one thing in higher education it would be to change our solution-driven quest for learning, to one that encourages instructors to ask and seek great questions that challenge the very basis on which both the instructors’ and learners’ understanding depends. Ask great questions and inspire a whole new generation of great problem-solvers.

Bain, K. and Zimmerman, J. 2009. Understanding Great Teaching. Peer Review 11(2):9-12.

Marton, F. and Saljo, R. 1976. Approaches to Learning. In Marton et al. (eds) The Experience of Learning (pg. 36-55).

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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