An schooling book that transformed me: favourite reads revealed

Recommended by Professor Tim Brighouse Written by a former table tennis world champion, this book makes you think: “If I can find out what a kid is really enthusiastic about, and put in the right support, they can become really, really good.” And I think once people become good at something it’s brilliant for their confidence and they become good at other things. I was talking to 35 headteachers in Gloucestershire this morning and five had read it and all could relate to what the book is saying. It’s definitely having an influence; since Bounce was published (in 2011), schools really are now, from year 7, looking out for what kids are good at and then helping them improve.

Recommended by Doug Lemov, author and managing director of Uncommon Schools in New York, New Jersey and Boston, US Ripley goes worm’s eye and bird’s eye, comparing schools in the US to those in South Korea, Poland and Finland, using both broad research and by following around American students studying in each country. Her insights are brilliant, balanced and agendaless. She’s not trying to use one system to prove some point. She just looks and describes and reflects on the intersection of schools and culture for better and for worse. Useful to parents and teachers everywhere.

Recommended by Chris Sylge, former headteacher who resigned to return to the classroom. Now teaches French at an 11-18 academy in West Yorkshire. This book spoke directly to my belief that the whole way education is structured is completely unsuitable to what adolescents need. We often talk about adolescence as a problem, something to be endured, rather than understanding that for society to thrive, the next generation has to kick against their parents and authority in order to think and act differently from them – and better. This book is a plea for a different way of schooling. It’s also a tirade against relentless measurement: we now tend to value only the things we can measure, such as exam results and “levels of progress” and these aren’t necessarily the things that are important in education, such as developing compassion, open-mindedness, inquisitiveness and emotional resilience.

A book I hate is In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. So much stuff that’s written about leadership and management is a codification of the bleeding obvious and this very famous book is a perfect example.

Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, by Rafe Esquith

Recommended by Viv Grant, ex-headteacher and now headteacher-coach, London This amazing book was introduced to me by a former teacher a couple of years ago. It is the book that I wish had been around when I first started my career over 25 years ago, in the inner city schools of Brixton, south London.

Rafe Esquith is an American teacher. His school, Hobart Elementary, serves some of the most deprived communities in Los Angeles. Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire documents his approach to “turning kids on to the wonder of learning and the power of imagination”.

His book is a reminder that deprivation can never be an excuse for failure. However, unlike much modern day rhetoric on school improvement, his voice counters the argument for a prevalence of tests and assessments. Instead, he puts forward with much humour and candour the case for a values-centred approach to learning, that is both about teaching children to read and write and about helping them to “become better human beings”.

Shooting History, by Jon Snow

Recommended by James Johnson, history teacher, Deer Park school, Cirencester, Gloucestershire This isn’t a history book in the conventional sense. It’s memoir of Jon Snow’s time as a journalist all over the world – covering the Iranian revolution, interviewing Idi Amin in the 70s, reporting on the first Afghan war, then being in Iraq – and it made me think: “This is what history teaching should be like.”

His reportage of on-the-ground events as they’re happening is really exciting but, crucially, the book is also full of analysis about what the impact of those events has been. History is about investigation, about getting out there and seeing for yourself, then reflecting on the wider strands running through historical events and connecting them, and then looking at how all that is relevant to today.

The book’s focus on that style of history has definitely influenced how I write a scheme of work. It’s less about me as a source of information, and more about getting the kids to find an experience that they connect with, and then analysing it. I want them to question and search around for more information and start to form their own understanding of, for instance, why we’ve been at war in Afghanistan and why British forces are active in so many parts of the world – and then interrogate the morality of those events, in the context of what has led up to them.

Recommended by Debra Kidd, author and former teacher, Glossop, Derbyshire.

This is the third in a trilogy of books in which Biesta outlines his theory for education and I found it beautifully hopeful. Biesta challenges current thinking on education – on our quest for certainty and conformity which is driving the profession towards a belief that it is possible to be in complete control of outcomes for children – and instead asks us to consider the beauty of the uncertain and the unknown. It offers a really timely riposte to the views of the right that what is needed is a return to tradition and asks big questions about the purpose of education.

It was published this year and so it’s too early to say how it has changed my practice, but it made me sigh with relief that I was not alone and that there were other voices thinking along similar lines.

A book I don’t like is Progressively Worse by Robert Peal. I deplore the language and attitude towards teachers, the suggestion that they’ve been neglectful, and the assumption that private education is better than state.

Recommended by Michael Rosen, author and former children’s laureate

This is ideal for teachers to use as a way of talking with parents about reading for pleasure. It’s a book that lives in that space between education in school and education at home. A thousand times better than those books of worksheets telling you “How to pass Sats” that sit on spinners in newsagents.

Beyond the Hole in the Wall, by Sugata Mitra

Recommended by Thrisha Haldar, home-schooler, Stroud, Gloucestershire.

A few years ago, Sugata Mitra was a computer programmer in Delhi, when, by some accident, he managed to leave a working PC with mouse attached out on the street by his office. Some kids came to play around on it, and he quickly realised that, entirely off their own bat, they were getting good at using it. He had the idea of taking PCs to a few remote villages to see if the children there would do the same. And they did – kids of all ages were helping each other to access the internet to teach themselves English. Then he introduced a supportive adult – not a teacher – who the children could go to for encouragement or to ask a question, and their achievements became even more astonishing. Mitra calls this “self organised learning”, and he explains why he believes it’s more powerful by far than structured school learning. He acknowledges that it’s very hard for an adult to be hands-off. I read this book just as my daughter turned six, and it gave me much more confidence in our decision to home-school her, especially in the odd moments when I have a little wobble.

Recommended by Robert Peal, teacher at West London Free School

Benson was a writer and critic, who taught English and classics at Eton. I came across this book during my first year of teaching, and it was a reminder that, in an age of gimmicks and fads, there is much that is timeless about good teaching. You might think that a book by a public school beak written over 100 years ago would offer little guidance to a teacher today, but you’d be wrong. From the need for classroom discipline to the dubious nature of training teachers, which he compares to training people in the art of good conversation, so much of what Benson writes rings true today. He describes the ideal lesson as involving blackboard, rapid questioning, some simple jesting, anecdote, disquisitions and allusion if possible to current events.

A book I don’t like: The Perfect (Ofsted) Lesson by Jackie Beere. A cynical, stupid, and deeply misguided bag of tips that is destined to make you a worse teacher.

Recommended by Professor ED Hirsch Jnr, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, US

The best book about education I’ve recently read is short and pungent, and British. Daisy Christodoulou is an experienced classroom teacher who has herself been subjected to the Seven Myths About Education, which she deconstructs in this clear, well written exposition. Some of her deconstructions are addressed to insiders. Normally intelligent citizens outside the education world would not have entertained them – except for this one: “We should teach transferable skills.” That’s a widespread myth inside and outside the education world. Thanks to this book everybody should come to know that general, transferable skills don’t exist. The experts in the field use the term “expertise”, which makes clear that so-called skills are always tied to deep subject-matter knowledge and practice. The skills delusion is the myth of myths inside and outside the education world.

Recommended by Tom Bennett, blogger, teacher in Dagenham, Essex, and director of ResearchED conferences

My background is philosophy, and in this book Hume tries to analyse how the human mind works and how we learn anything – and he’s doing it in 1748, centuries before anyone else. He sets out what today we’d call the theory of empiricism – the idea that we gain knowledge of the world through our senses. Then he lays out the foundations of what it means to know something. This influenced me massively. I often argue that in educational research the loudest voice wins; a lot of educational junk has found its way into the classroom just because it’s “noisier”. Hume cuts through all that, and says if you cannot prove that something works, then it’s just opinion. Hume demands evidence that something has worked, not just that you liked doing it or that the kids liked doing it.

A book I don’t like: Building Learning Power by Guy Claxton, because a lot of what he says is unsubstantiated, in my opinion.

Recommended by Vic Goddard, principal, Passmores academy, Harlow, Essex

I read this book as I started applying for headships and it made so much sense. Covey talks about the journey from dependence to independence to inter-dependence. I love its fundamental tenet: that as a society, when you co-operate, you achieve something you couldn’t have on your own. That mirrors the journey of a good school. When they come in, the year 7s need a lot of guidance. As they move up they become more independent, but bit by bit you’re encouraging them to be more co-operative, which is, of course, a highly communist thing to say! It’s about understanding that as part of an effective and interdependent organisation, you make a bigger difference. As a teacher and a head, that’s a journey I’ve been on too.

A book I can’t stand: Getting The Buggers To Behave by Sue Cowley. I detest any of these “this is the way to do it” books. They’re too prescriptive.

Collected Writings on Education and Drama, by Dorothy Heathcote

Recommended by Lyn Gaudreau, senior education adviser, Dorset county council In this book, Dorothy Heathcote expresses how we need to give the responsibility back to children. This collection of her essays isn’t just about drama, it’s about excellent teaching. Instead of saying “let’s do a play about a rainforest”, she encourages you to start with a really rich question, giving children autonomy in how they respond.

Recommended by Phil Beadle, teacher and author Coles is the most radically leftwing of the newer education writers, and Punk Learning contains everything I want in a book about teaching: it’s challenging, provocative and experimental. He takes lessons from punk luminaries and applies them to the art of teaching. He reconnects readers to the dwindling idea that teaching is a politically subversive act. The punk metaphor is tricky, and could be uncontrollable, but Coles is remarkably cohesive. It is, for me, the antidote to the priggishness that is currently the vogue in educational debate, and is the teaching equivalent of John Lydon’s (aka Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame) advice to the working class, “Get smart. Read as much as you can, and find out who’s using you!”

Tell us your favourite books on educationby adding your comments below the line.

You can order many of the books recommended by clicking on the title

Leave a Reply