Ah, but the summer isn’t over, you say. This was originally called “lockdown reads” but I can’t anymore. “New normal”, “blended learning”, “social distancing”… it’s all enough to make you want to escape to eighteenth-century Bath or early-nineteenth century Moscow. Even the persecutions of early Christians and the enforcement methods of Eastern European criminal gangs become distraction from the great uncertainty and the frazzling idiosyncrasies of the online learning platform. The merits and demerits of New York charter schools and the empirical evidence base of recent pedagogical trends serve now for entertainment more than CPD and it seems, for the moment at least, that the scores are in on “teachers vs tech”.
Here are eleven books I have enjoyed so far this year.
“Persuasion” Jane Austen
I had never read this novel before now. It’s a joy of perceptive characterisation and exquisite social satire. It is amazing how Austen builds such a strong narrative on a plot that is so spare and light, infusing events that are objectively inconsequential with drama and passion.
“The Mirror and the Light” Hilary Mantel
I haven’t baked banana bread, nurtured a sourdough starter or participated in either Zoom quizzes or online yoga. But I did join in on this lockdown staple, the final instalment in Mantel’s trilogy based on her imagining of the life of Thomas Cromwell. This felt a bit stretched in places with far too many flashbacks to Cromwell’s tough upbringing yet is still very cleverly accomplished. Cromwell isn’t as sympathetic as he is in the earlier volumes but just as the reader begins to slip from his side, Mantel unleashes the horror of his final days and we are back again almost inside his head as we were throughout much of “Wolf Hall”. I found myself hoping for a different ending, a sure sign of Mantel’s skill as a novelist.
“War and Peace” Leo Tolstoy
I can’t say I would have stuck with this one had the alternative not been ending my breaks early and returning to the next round of incoming work and queries on the [shudder] online learning platform. The greatest hurdle was familiarising myself with the Russian names and the web of familial ties connecting Countess Thiskosvosky and Prince Thatvalenko. I would also recommend reading some details of Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia so as to not rely on the book for information. I found myself confused at times as to who had won the various battles, but then was relieved to discover that so were the armies that fought them.
“Girl, Woman, Other” Bernadine Evaristo
The multiple-perspective novel is having a moment and this is as fine an example as you will find. The stories of the twelve characters bounce and deflect off each other as the girls and women (and one other) find their way in a society where racism and attitudes to gender and class often conspire against them. Evaristo manages to treat all her characters with equal compassion and empathy, especially when the characters don’t show this to each other. “Girl, Woman, Other” shows us the error of judging the judgemental, while being itself full of sharp observations and insights.
“Teachers vs Tech: The case for an ed-tech revolution” Daisy Christodoulou
This is just excellent. Whether you’re an edtech enthusiast or a sceptic like myself, your mind will be changed by reading “Teachers vs Tech”. Christodoulou takes a clear-eyed look at the use of technology for learning inside and outside the classroom. She debunks many of the inflated claims that edtech facilitates new ways of learning, explaining that learning still happens the way it always has and reminding us that education is just another market for the companies that seek to sell us their wares. Microsoft, Apple and Google are not humanitarian organisations. The book supports a general ban on mobile phones in school, citing a 2015 study showing that schools in England which had implemented such bans achieved higher exam results than comparable schools that allowed mobile phones. Christodoulou is no Luddite however, and pays equal attention to the ways edtech can be useful, from flashcard apps that enable personalised revision schedules, to assessment that counteracts teachers’ blind spots and to the effective production and sharing of digital resources. This last one will no doubt will be even more important in the coming school year. School closures have been a watershed moment and edtech is here to stay: this is a good place to start for teachers and school leaders seeking to maximise its benefits.
“How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice” Paul A. Kirschner & Carl Hendrick, illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli
This is a reference book rather than one to sit down and read in consecutive sessions. Kirschner and Hendrick cleverly bridge the gap that exists between the many interesting books on teaching that offer insight but skim over the nitty-gritty research on which their advice is based, and on the other side the kind of academic books and journal articles that teachers suspect is out there but don’t have the time or expertise to find and digest for themselves independently. The book takes twenty-eight seminal research studies and for each one reproduces the abstract, gives a summary of the main points, suggests implications for classroom practice and offers some further reading in the area. Clear, practical and informative, this is a useful resource for teachers at any stage in their career.
“Curriculum: Athena vs the Machine” Martin Robinson
However much people love to complain about the Irish examination system – the Leaving Cert and the now defunct Junior Cert that has been replaced with the abysmal Junior Cycle – they may be unaware how lucky and increasingly exceptional Ireland has been in escaping the Machine that grips many education systems, most notably that of our nearest neighbour. Imagine a world where results from class tests are not just entered in your own records, they are elevated to the status of data and thus entered on spreadsheets and subjected to analysis in order to track pupil progress and monitor teacher performance. That’s one aspect of the Machine we’ve – so far – evaded, but another aspect is gaining ever more ground. That is the turning away from education for knowledge and wisdom towards education as training in generic and soulless “skills”. To give one example, the word “literature” appears eighteen times in the NCCA background paper that formed the brief for Junior Cycle English Specification. “Digital [literacy]” appears sixty-six times in the same paper. This is a powerful read in which Robinson warns us to beware of the Machine and instead design a curriculum of which Athena, goddess of philosophy, wisdom and courage, might approve.
“How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice” Robert Pondiscio
Of all the books on this list, this was the one I most enjoyed the most (followed closely by “Girl, Woman, Other”) and it is the book I am recommending that everyone with even the slightest interest in education should read. It’s a fly-on-the-wall account of an academic year that Pondiscio spent observing inside the Bronx1 branch of the controversial US charter chain Success Academy. While admiring of much that he sees, Pondiscio is often critical and this is no puff-piece. Throughout the book he offers powerful observations and arguments about educational disadvantage and social justice, all the while acknowledging and teasing out thorny issues and ethical dilemmas.
“McMafia” Misha Glenny
“McMafia”‘s title refers to the macdonaldisation of organised crime and tracks its subject across continents showing how what was once isolated enterpreneurship is now a global network borrowing much of its organisation structures from standard business practice and facilitated by financial deregulation. Paradoxically, the more crime emulates legitimate business the more suffering its increased efficiency is capable of inflicting on those who source the product, consume the product and in some cases even are the product. The book’s impressive span – from Bulgaria to China via Israel, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Canada and Colombia (to name but a few) – never overwhelms the cohesive narrative and the Glenny understands the need for characters to make such a story work. Published in 2008, the book is quite old now (the only older ones on this list are “Perusasion” and “War and Peace”) but the edition I have has an afterword from 2017.
“Dominion” Tom Holland
Firstly, thank you to Daisy Christdoulou for the recommendation. This is a great summer read…rich enough that I could feel my brain having to work a bit but still a break from academic reading. It’s a history of Christianity and its influence, with the subtitle “The making of the Western mind”. Holland argues that the West is so much a continuation of Christianity that we are blind to the Christian nature of beliefs and values we take to be secular : from monogamy to the unacceptability of slavery. There’s a strong narrative drive throughout the book and I cannot praise the writing style enough; it’s fresh and always entertaining however dark the subject matter becomes at times.
“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” Shoshana Zuboff
Even more of an essential read now that more and more of our lives have shifted inexorably online. Surveillance capitalism refers to what Zoboff calls “the Big Other”, the interconnected tech companies whose hip, public face with the primary colours and the progressive font belies a ruthless exploitation of the clues our online behaviour gives to our inner lives and probable future behaviour. Forget the cliché that if it’s free, you are the product. In a chilling analogy Zuboff argues that it is your data surplus that’s the product, much as an elephant’s tusks are its only lucrative feature, and your actual life – the essence of who you are – is only the carcass left behind to rot under the sun.
Reading continues, and like a lot of the small things, I have never appreciated it more. I hope you are all well and safe and if you have any book recommendations, please let me know.