Ten books every teacher should read
Tom Bennett offers some ideas what to do with your gift tokens
Recently I was asked to nominate a book or piece of writing that I thought represented the best educational writing of recent years. I took liberties with the brief and chose ‘The Science of Learning’, by the US organisation Deans for Impact. I chose it because it’s a brilliant little summary of what cognitive psychology can tell classroom practitioners about learning, memory and focus, that neither patronises nor flatters the reader. As all good digests do, it’s a collection of memorable headline points, which is essential for time-pressed educators. Best of all it’s free to download here:
So: useful, wise and free; it’s a present you can keep unwrapping all year long.
That got me to thinking: what other writing would I recommend? There are so many books out there. Some are great. Some of them appear to have been written in crayon, others with quills. There’s often a disconnect between the books that teachers need and the books that are written for them. Some are fascinating, abstract fantasies painted as documentary, but written by people who have never been inside a classroom; some are written as pure advocacy by people who wish children were different than they are. Some of them are just impractical. There’s a whole industry of advice for practioners that isn’t very practical at all.
So, if you’re sitting there looking for something on which to blow your Christmas book tokens (do book tokens still exist? I tried to buy a CD for someone the other day and was practically directed to a car boot sale along with the eight-tracks), here’s my suggested list of a decent stack of books that could make a difference to the way you teach, or understand teaching.
Classroom Behaviour by Bill Rogers. The Mandarin of Misbehaviour. Practical advice about why children misbehave, and how to handle it when they do. Reading Rogers when I was struggling was one of the reasons I survived as a teacher, and he provides as much brain food as he does top tips in everything he writes.
Urban Myths about Learning and Education by Pedro de Bruyckere, Paul A Kirschner and Casper D Hulshof. An accessible, literate exploration/ explosion of neuromyths and bad science, and one of two books in my list that contain the word ‘myth’ in he title, which I think goes some way to indicate how much education has been inhabited by false gods and junk reasoning.
The Cage Busting Teacher by Frederick Hess. This book suggests something revolutionary: that teachers might be the best instigators of their own re-invention rather than waiting for Superman to fix it all. The ‘cage’ Hess describes is ‘the routines, rules, and habits that exhaust teachers’ time, passion and energy…the cage is why…educators keep their heads down.’ Savage in places, it shish kebabs sacred cows in every chapter. My favourite is the assault on the idea of the teacher as civic society’s sweethearts, half saint, half Sisyphus. It might be a way we prefer to paint ourselves, but according to Hess, it’s just another way to keep us docile and helpless.
Education is Upside Down by Eric Kalenze. The nicest man in education tackles its greatest absurdity; often we’re trained to expect ideal scenarios when reality is anything but. He rails politely but precisely against a system that often sets out to achieve exactly the opposite aim it claims to have.
The Seven Myths of Education. Daisy Christodoulou. This book should be in every new teacher’s satchel. She carefully and clearly unpicks the major misconceptions about the knowledge based curriculum. It takes no prisoners, and attracted much criticism, almost all of it in direct proportion to how little its opponents had read any of it.
Why don’t students like school? Professor Daniel T Willingham. This wise summary of the latest and best cognitive psychology has to offer us is one of the best introductions to the topic any teacher could wish for. Willingham has the rare gift of chunking down complex ideas without patronising the reader. This book should be compulsory reading for everyone entering the profession.
The next two kind of have to be read together, really quickly. It’ll give you an educational nose bleed.
The first one is Progressively Worse; the burden of bad ideas in British Schools. Robert Peal. This book offers a fascinating narrative of the tango between progressive and traditional teaching and philosophy. Brutal, blunt and unashamedly polemic, it reads like a secret history. A cold bucket of water to the complacent understanding that things are the way they are because they always have been that way. Political, polemic and powerful.
Summerhill, a radical approach to education. A.S. Neill. Consistently one of the most popular books rated by teachers, this book is best read now as the gin to Peal’s (above) tonic. A history and justification of one of the UK’s most famous progressive experiments in education. Revered by many who subscribe to its child-centred, egalitarian ethos, this fee-paying independent school still occupies a special place in the sacred heart of education’s conceptual palace.
The Knowledge Deficit, E.D Hirsch. Hirsch, patron saint of core knowledge, sets out his content manifesto lucidly. Criticised by many for what they perceive as perpetuating elitism, Hirsch responds by making the argument that children can’t effectively engage as citizens without the cultural capital necessary to unlock systematic barriers to progress. Whatever your views on this, understanding Hirsch’s proposition is a key hurdle for any teacher to cross.
Teach Like a Champion 2.0. Doug Lemov. Lemov approached good teaching like David Carradine in Kung-Fu; he set out to observe what great teachers did, and see if there was anything coherent that could be discerned from them. Happily for us, there was, and the answers to classroom management were not some mystical Jedi mind trick, but a serious of micro-gestures and behaviours that were intelligible and - most importantly- able to be learned, and taught. Lemov’s techniques inspires awe and ire from different demographics of the edusphere. Personally I think his work is incredibly important, and most importantly practical. He’s another of the most misunderstood writers in education. Schools that use his techniques swear by them, and people that haven’t read his books grumble a bit about fascism. I suggest you read him and see what you think.
And that's the first ten.