At my school we are trying something new. A blog called Academic Chat where teachers are invited to post about one of four suggested topics. It is a new branch to various formats for ‘Academic Chat’ that has taken place in recent years. Since I am new to the school, and enjoy thinking about education in different ways, I’m joining in. The blog (WordPress, self-hosted, author account for each participant), should you be interested, is here. I recommend you have a read; my colleagues have written some excellent stuff. My chosen topic is about three books…
I’m not an avid reader. I find books a significant commitment, and they swirl around my head in ways I do not always find comfortable. So, this is by no means a selection of choice items from some infinite learned bookshelf, but three pieces of work I have found inspiring.
The book chronicles a series of play therapy sessions over a period of one year with an emotionally crippled boy (Dibs) who comes from a wealthy and highly educated family. Despite signs that he is gifted, his mother, father, and most of his teachers perceive him as having an emotional or cognitive disorder. Dibs presents abnormal social behaviour by continuously isolating himself, rarely speaking, and physically lashing out at those around him. When Axline first meets Dibs’s parents, they describe her as their son’s last hope. The book details the interactions between Dibs and Axline and utilises actual session transcripts for dialogue.
I read this as I became a parent, but also as I was working in an EBD school with a class of six 12 year olds with various character traits ranging from the most outspoken to the safety of silence. I was struck by the detail Axline noted about Dibs; the smallest of things smacking with significance. When I was eleven, I walked into the music block of Nunthorpe Comprehensive School, a new face in a new school in a new town. Too many people had to pass through the only doorway as lessons exchanged learners, and, from nowhere, a senior boy hit me hard on my nose. I had never met him before. It was odd; I was furious. Later that day, bound by my injustice, I recall telling myself that, when I was older, I would remember that what I was thinking right there and right then was real: important, consuming and worthwhile. Not that I was right, but that my thoughts mattered. As Dibs is discovered by Axline, as Axline discovers her self – as I read this book – it gave me words that resonated with my eleven-year-old self. It helped me become a better person: able to interact with others in ways I could now understand rather than guess at. It made me a better father, and a better teacher. It taught me to be gentle and thoughtful in my observations and judgements (not that I am always gentle).
My second choice is Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie, 2012. I first came across Hattie whilst studying for my MA, and have written about his work before, which provides an easy way in if you’re new to it.
Initially, I was very impressed with Hattie’s attempt to collate educational research and his prescription for how to decipher it into useful classroom/school strategies to improve teaching and learning. However, since then my views on this have changed; Hattie uses complicated algorithms to summarise research done by others over many years, and, in doing so, he has hung his hat on empirical evidence and analysis. This leaves his findings exposed to criticism, e.g. this post, ‘the educational world according to john‘. My reason for including it here is that any new teacher joining the profession should have an awareness of educational research, and Hattie’s book is an excellent lens for understanding the complexities of using research to improve teaching and learning. This book feels somewhat inaccessible at first, but do persevere. Hattie demonstrates how little impact class size and homework have on learning outcomes; do you agree?
Finally, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Cass Sunstein & Richard Thaler, 2012. This book was recommended to me by several educators I have had the pleasure to work with. I am cheating a bit here because I am still reading it, but it is great. So far, the authors are scrutinising how we think. Examining the difference between two main ways of thinking: the gut instinct ‘Automatic System’ and the more rational ‘Reflective System’. For example, if I ask you the answer to 2 + 2, you will automatically say 4, but, try these:
- A bat and ball cost £1.10 in total. The bat costs £1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?___ pence
- If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take100 machines to make 100 widgets? ___ minutes
- In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? ___ days
Answers are at the bottom of the post.
Another example of how easily our thinking can be influenced is given in this illustration. If you were choosing a coffee table to sit in front of your sofa, which would it be?
I picked the long, thin one on the left. I wasn’t wrong; they are the same table. Their analysis expands into the power of suggestion, from which the book draws it’s title, ‘nudge’. This is simply a way of influencing how people make choices by carefully planning how the question is set and the context in which it is delivered. For example, how much of this bag of crisps should I eat? Well the size of the bag plays a part in the answer, and, have you noticed the increase in the stocking of family-sized crisp packets? These principles have been used in marketing for years. The relevance of all this to teaching is: how to talk to a large group of people, how to present your material or encourage participation or cooperation, or, how to design your slides in a presentation. This has added benefits for me because I design websites for teachers and pupils and I need to encourage them to use the digital services the school provides. I am not interested in manipulating their responses, but I do want to be mindful of how I present these services to my community.
There are my three books. They are not seminal works, but, for me, a new teacher would be richer for reading any one of them. Whether it be the heart-warming granular detail of a troubled boy, the cold stats of educational research, or, choice architecture exposing how we think, the common thread is human behaviour. That is why I enjoy my job.
I would love to hear about any books you have enjoyed in the comments, or on twitter.
- 5 pence
- 5 minutes
- 47 days
All images are sourced from Amazon