As we welcome fall, we leave behind a summer that’s been the season of Bain. From the ongoing consideration of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, to the big-screen-dominance of The Dark Knight Rises and its homophonic and horrifying Bane, there’s been just no hiding.
But while Bain Capital lingers, and Bane the villain mostly gives way, we enter the moment of a Bain far closer to our hearts. That’s Ken Bain, of course, whose 2004 book What the Best College Teachers Do continues to help countless educators prepare themselves each fall. Whether they’re tried and tenured or still all splashy behind the ears, Bain’s book has served as a peerless guide for college teachers who’re dedicated to helping their students get the most of their time together.
And now Bain’s turned his attention to the other side of that classroom relationship. His broadly-conceived (even if narrowly-titled) new book, What the Best College Students Do, is at base a book about creative people and how they became that way:
These creative people went to college and emerged from that experience as dynamic and innovative men and women who changed the world in which they lived. How did their college experiences, particularly their interactions with professors, change their patterns of thinking?
Among the most critical traits found in those whom Bain terms “deep learners” is a willingness to confront failure. An approach to as-yet unmastered material or skills that deems them out of reach leaves people with little room to grow. Deep learners, by contrast, are far more likely to take on topics or tools that they don’t yet grasp than to write them off as things they can’t achieve. This distinction, Bain writes, is one of the most telltale differences between highly successful students and mediocre ones:
(A)verage students think they can tell right away if they are going to be good at something. If they don’t get it immediately, they throw up their hands and say, “I can’t do it.” Their more accomplished classmates have a completely different attitude—and it is largely a matter of attitude rather than ability. They stick with assignments much longer and are reluctant to give it up. “I haven’t learned it yet,” they might say, while others would cry, “I’m not good at” history, music, math, writing, or whatever. Traditional schooling rewards quick answers—the person with the hand up first. But an innovative work of the mind, something that lasts and changes the world, demands slow and steady progress. It requires time and devotion. You can’t tell what you can do until you struggle with something over and over.
Though Bain’s book will help students get As if that’s their goal, he argues strongly that it shouldn’t be. He shows that long-term success and contentment with one’s career depend far more on developing the ability to really learn, which is a skill quite distinct from the ability to ace tests. Becoming a Bain-style deep learner has a far broader applicability to one’s life than learning to make Dean’s list, and, as such, this book and its lessons actually have much to offer even to those well beyond their college years. Yes, you can learn new tricks. And the best trick on offer is learning itself.