Reads of 2016


“The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers” edited by Katharine Birbalsingh

The education book of the year. I plan, over the holidays, to write a post on this book so won’t say a lot here beyond that you should buy it. Every-one should buy it. I’m reading it for the second time, this time systematically cover-to-cover taking notes, while the first time I went straight for the well-known favorites/ enticing chapter titles. That’s why books win over chocolates, every time.

“What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology” by David Didau and Nick Rose.

I can remember only one thing from my psychology lectures on the HDip. This was that the lecturer used the OHP, but covered the bottom half with a modesty sheet, so that we couldn’t read ahead. There was a textbook (which I still have somewhere) and I learned off useful phrases like “scaffolding in the ZPD” with little understanding of how these could be practically applied. We could have done with Didau and Rose’s book comprehensive and user-friendly book that puts together al the important findings of cognitive, social behavioural psychology as they are relevant to the classroom. It is all aimed towards the daily reality of teaching real material to real children,  never descending into lists of “tips and tricks” and crucially, differentiates from what we “know” and what we “suspect is probably true”.

“The Language Teachers’ Toolkit” by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti

Absent from photo as has gone on its Chrismas holidays to my French department colleague’s house. The book is a very practical manual for all language teachers, including I would think, teachers of Irish. For a long time, while confident in the English classroom, I floundered as a French teacher, thinking I must be doing “the communicative method” all wrong, as they weren’t just picking it up, wrote in what I can only call “verb soup” and games n’ group work led to early success followed by subsequent incomprehension. Two things have changed this: one is coming across @BarryNSmith79 on Twitter and his personal, very kind and useful advice, the other was Gianfranco Conti’s blog which picks apart many of the misconceptions around language teaching and argues for more evidence-based approaches. Conti and Smith collaborate here on a treasure-trove of useful methods and the concepts behind them.  There really are, it turns out “plus d’une façon d’accommoder un lapin” .

“Reading Reconsidered” by Doug Lemov

A fabulous resource that’s not just for English teachers. Reading is something we secondary teachers take for granted far too much of the time. Not only that, we downgrade it so that reading from the textbook is the last thing you’d do if being inspected and reading the class text in English class is often seen as something to wade through before “the teaching bit”. Here Lemov successfully raises the status of reading to its proper primordial place. All pupils can gain if we prioritise it more; from the very weakest who still struggle to decode, to the pupil on the path to university who will there encounter “a challenging text – sometimes at the margins of his comfort level – that he must read and master, alone”.  Lemov believes, as I do, that if we want to improve reading we must  select books that challenge and stretch our pupils, and eschew those texts they might well read on their own.

“Deep Work” by Cal Newport

Not an education book, or aimed at teachers, nevertheless this gets one of my books of the year award. Newport is an IT professor at Georgetown University and author of books with such emetic titles as “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “How to Become a  Straight-A Student”. It’s breezily written and has lots of those anecdotes beloved of American self-help authors. Yet it’s also full of common sense and useful advice on how to get things done. Newport is a social media refusnik. He’s not even on Twitter. (This is where we diverge somewhat. Twitter is the best CPD out there for teachers). He recommends flipping the idea of scheduling “breaks from distraction” and instead taking “breaks from focus”, so that focus becomes the default. Another idea that he writes about in the book, which was new to me, is to differentiate between “lead measures” and “lag measures”.  This could be potentially interesting in these days of SSE. Exam results are a good example of lag measures; by the time we find out how a particular cohort has gotten on, our ability to affect that measure is over. That’s not to say that’s not our end goal, but we could also come up with “lead measures”: smaller, precise measurements taken along the way that inform us how to tweak our approach.

“Grit” by Angela Duckworth

Surprisingly, not really an education book at all. Teaching appears only as a subsection in the chapter on how to “parent for grit”. Nevertheless the educational world has leapt on Duckworth’s work and grit is the biggest thing since “growth mindset” (if possibly a little woollier, if grit can be woolly). This is, in essence, a really interesting and enjoyable read about the author’s research area, and how most of us could do with developing our strengths of resilience and perseverance. She offers sensibly tentative advice on how we might help the younger people in our lives develop these strengths, and elsewhere has laudably come out against putting character traits on the curriculum or using psychometric tests for assessment purposes in schools.

“Cleverlands” by Lucy Crehan

Also absent from photo as I bought the Kindle version. I’m half way through this and it is remarkable. Just the other day the Irish Times featured yet another article about how our curriculum (primary this time) is being remodelled along Finnish lines. We hear this all the time and any objections are met with “but Finland”. Crehan writes of her travels not only to  Finland but also Japan, Singapore and Canada and she looks at their education systems in spirit of genuine inquiry and curiosity. There is, unsurprisingly, lots to learn and not, equally unsurprisingly, any easily imported, universally effective educational panacea.


My 2016 resolution to read more classic fiction has provided hours of pleasure and enlightenment and is being carried over to 2017. I read “Bleak House”, reread “Dombey and Son” and “Frankenstein”, started and gave up “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and finally got around to Dostoyevsky. “Crime and Punishment” was a slow start as each character is known by several names, but once I got going it was a rattling read and the third year pupil I lent it to afterwards agrees. I can’t say the same of “The Brothers Karamazov” which was slow going for quite long stretches and I just about managed to finish in time for Christmas. Modern fiction that impressed me along the way included Patrick DeWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers”, Kate Tempest’s “The Bricks that Built the Houses” and the short story collection “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin.

Happy 2017 🙂


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