James Lang: How Teachers Could Make An Important Change to their Approach to Teaching

cover of the book Small Teaching
Reading Time: 2 minutes

James Lang (author of the book “Small Teaching”) visited our Cengage offices in 2017 to talk about an approach to teaching that one of his colleagues (Ken Bain, author of “What the best college teachers do”) found was used by, well, the best college teachers.

You’ll see these ideas reflected all around our community – great questions.


If we build something around a problem or a question, instead of building it around providing content, what does that structure look like?.

Ken [Bain] gives us a kind of nice structure. When he looked at highly effective teachers, what was the structure they gave to those courses?

I’m gonna show you five parts of you with this [approach]:

1) The first thing they did was they articulated a problem or a question, and this could have been a big deep philosophical question that the course was going to answer, it could have been a problem that people have been wrestling with either for a long time, or that’s arisen recently in society, so they began with something really interesting that they thought that they could use to help interest students.

2) The second thing they did then was trying to show to students why that is a problem or question relevant or interesting?

  • Why should I as a student care about that problem?
  • Why does it matter to our society today?

3) The third thing they did was actually a really important one. Give the students the opportunity to answer that question. If you were to try to struggle with this question right now,

  • what would you do?
  • how would you try to start answering that question?
  • how would you try to start solving that problem?

Maybe students can’t do that individually, but maybe they would be able to work in groups a little, for example, or maybe they get to go home and think about it, or maybe like in a digital environment they get a chance to consider some possible answers.

4) Now the fourth thing that happens is the thing that we normally think about is what we’re doing in class or in a course, which is “I’m giving the answer”, right? Ken suggests that in some ways this is the least important thing? What we really need for motivation is to get them interested, get them intrigued, get them trying to do things on their own. Only once we’ve done all that, are they going to be interested when we provide that answer.

5) The last step [is to] finish with a new question, something that’s going to send them off curious again.

So if you look at this five part learning structure, we can think about it as being a way to try to get students curious and interested in a class in like a video lecture or sort of a text component or an individual learning session which could be face to face or done digitally as well.


The idea really here is that if we can just sort of twist the structure here a little bit from what a course normally looks like.


Instead of say, beginning with, “Here’s the outline, here’s the things I want to say to you…” actually what I want to begin with here is a really interesting problem. Let’s talk about this problem a little bit. How would you solve it? Then we say, okay, now I’m going to tell you a little bit about here’s the tool, here’s the ideas that are going to help you try to solve and address this problem.