Reads of 2017

A9D15415-7162-422B-B513-312FBED08976These are some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading this year. A bit short on fiction and non-fiction, but it has been a bumper year for books on education: a happy co-incidence with my school’s wise decision to invest in a staffroom CPD library.

“The Silk Roads: An New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan.

Published in 2015, this was my summer read and non-fiction/non-education book of the year. Every year I make the pilgrimage to the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas where Frankopan’s  engaging talk based on this book was one of the highlights this year. As well-written as it is scholarly, this book covers more than two-thousand years of the region around “the silk road” and its relationship with the rest of the world, but never loses its narrative drive or pace.

“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney

No claims to originality in my fiction book of the year; Sally Rooney’s debut deserves all the acclaim it earned throughout 2017. Witty and touching, it deals with the common experience of a student from the country staying in Dublin for the summer, adding in adultery and rich friends with houses in France, all dealt with in an uncommon ear for the human conversations of the title.

“What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?” by Carl Hendrick and Robin McPherson

My education book of the year. Featuring headline acts like Dylan Wiliam and Paul Kirschner, the book is immensely practical with every page answering the question with “well, it looks something like this specific thing….”. As the subheading says, this book is about bridging the gap. The gap referred to is between research and practice, but could equally refer to the gap between those of us happy to spend our free time reading books and blogs about education and following the edutwitterati, and teachers who don’t have the time or inclination but are nonetheless interested.  Oliver Caviglioni’s excellent graphics and the easy-to-dip-into interview format also contribute to what makes an excellent first purchase for a staffroom  book-shelf.

“Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning” by Daisy Christodoulou

The book that finally made sense of the befuddling Assessment module I had to take during the HDip.  Even while sitting the exam, I was unclear about what “formative assessment” was supposed to actually be, and I doubt I was alone in my confusion.  Later CPD on “AfL” was no help at all. Here, Christodoulou lays out simply and clearly the features and functions of summative and formative assessment. She then goes further and offers advice on AFL in particular, drawing extensively from Ericsson’s book below. I’m not sure how familiar Christodoulou is with reforms that are happening in Ireland. Parts of this book seem to address our current follies directly, but this could be because so many of them are imported from progressive systems elsewhere.

“Peak” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

“The hallmark of purposeful or deliberative practice is that you try to do something you cannot do – that takes you out of your comfort zone – and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better” (“Peak”, p 157).  In “Making Good Progress”, and in this talk which I was lucky enough to attend, Daisy Christodolou links the concepts of AFL with the “deliberative practice” of this book: how rather than always writing essays or long exam-style questions, we are often better off focusing on small elements and practising these over and over. “Peak” also has lots to say about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and how we might encourage more students to engage in the kind of extended, voluntary practice that we know pays off in the long-term.

“Dumbing Down our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add” by Charles J. Sykes

This was one of @oldandrew ‘s Twitter recommendations.  This serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when an education system takes its role as psychotherapeutic coach and bolsterer of self-esteem more seriously than the task of  handing on knowledge to the next generation. Of particular interest is the section on Outcomes-based Education (sound familiar?) and the dangers of over-using action verbs to the detriment of “know”. Sykes warns of “lip-synching”:  “By emphasising “demonstrations” and “behaviors”, educationists insist that it is enough for students to do what scientists, historians and other scholars do without actually having to ahve all of their knowledge, discipline or skills” (DDOK, p 235)

“Why Knowledge Matters” by E.D. Hirsch

I finally got around to reading this. It is a sad state of affairs when anyone has to write a book saying why knowledge-aquisition needs to be a central and fundamental goal of all educations systems, but this is where we are at. The chapter I found most interesting was Hirsch’s take on “the educational fall of France”.  French educational reforms instigated in 1989 have much in common with later, Irish ones (in terms of seeing a standardised curriculum and rigorous assessment as inimical to social equality) and I suspect Ruairí Quinn was more than a little influenced by figures like Pierre Bourdieu.

“Urban Myths about Education” by Pedro de Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirshner and Casper D. Hulshof

This handy reference book systematically tackles some of the most prevalent myths in education from the relatively trivial – “Babies become cleverer if they listen to classical music” –  to the endemic –  “People have Different Styles of Learning” –  to big questions affecting national educational policies – “Class Size Doesn’t Matter”.

“The Writing Revolution” by Judith C. Hochmann and Natalie Wexler

I can’t find this! It must be in school where it is getting lots of use as one of the more valuable additions to the CPD library. The “revolution” of the title is moving away from essay length, or even paragraph length, answers and back to seeing sentences as a unit of writing and sentence-structure as a focus of teaching. Especially useful with junior and learning-support classes.

“Making Every English Lesson Count” by Andy Tharby

A companion to one of last year’s ROTY “Making Every Lesson Count”, the subject specifity of this book means it surpasses its parent when it comes to utility. It is incredibly useful and packed with good advice on choosing class texts ( sufficient “lexical challenge” is the first criterion) to practising writing (where the class simultaneously works in “silent flow”). One useful resource is the list of question templates. I’m adapting this for each of the main texts I teach (this year it’s “Of Mice and Men”, “Jane Eyre”, “Animal Farm”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth” and “Wuthering Heights”) and the initial investment of time is paying dividends in terms of never having to think up a question on the spot. It also saves time and confusion as the kids have the list themselves.

“Memorable Teaching” by Peps McCrea

Another book for teachers who say they don’t have time to read books about teaching. This one could be read and digested in forty minutes (although it does benefit from revisiting). A lot in this book makes sense when you think about it: classroom displays usually do more harm than good, why we shouldn’t have clocks in classrooms. One small change I’ve made since reading this book is being much stricter about interruptions to classes, often saying “sorry, not right now” . A bigger change is starting every lesson with review: for example this year while studying war poetry and Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation”, third years started each class with a five-minute “do-now” based on “Much Ado About Nothing”, the play they studied last year.

“Black-Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed

A recent read, this is a thought-provoking (if at times glib) book about how openness to admitting error can lead to more robust organisations. We now live in a world where watchyourbackism is a professional necessity; this book might help to counter the worst effects of that reality.

“The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

Haidt’s  “The Happiness Hypothesis”, one of last year’s Reads of the Year, was based on a central metaphor (the elephant and the rider) and likewise The Righteous Mind deploys an analogy between our morality and our sense of taste. Haidt puts forward that just as our tongue has buds for five discernable flavours, so does our moral reasoning. Concentrating too much on one flavour can distort reality and lead to unintended consequences. I think we can see this in education where “care” has risen to a place of pre-eminence among values.

Even more interesting is Haidt’s conception of humans as 90% chimp and 10% bee.  Joe Kirby has written here of the possible applications of this to schooling. I think we saw in Irish society for a long time an extreme version of this thinking – where the health of institutions and of official Ireland itself were what mattered most. Its proponents might not have used the word “hive” but there was an acceptance of the suffering of individuals so that “the common good” could be protected. We are now supremely individualistic and our education system seeks to be ever more personalised, with Minister Richard Bruton even referring to it as “the education service.”. The pendulum has swung, but there is hope I think that it could land eventually in a happier place where we aim to  enable children to act as a collective, harmonious group (“you can’t help the bees by harming the hive”) while valuing them as individuals.

That’s it. Happy New Year and all the best for 2018 🙂

 

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