My top 10 education books of 2018

Posted on 15-12-2018

In no particular order…

Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley, Terrence Sejnowski and Alistair McConville
This book is a fun, witty and very, very practical summary of how we learn, and how we can learn better. Oakley and Sejnewoski are the creators of the world’s most successful online learning course, and in the book you can see why – it is always engaging and interesting. This book is designed for children and teenagers, but there’s a grown-up version from a couple of years ago too. I reviewed the former in more detail for the TES earlier this year. If you know students who are worried about their summer exams, buy them a copy!

How I Wish I’d Taught Maths by Craig Barton
I’m a former English teacher, so you might not think I’d get much out of this – but actually it’s an amazing guide to how to teach anything. There’s a lot of detail here, but it’s always engaging and useful. My favourite chapter was chapter 6 on making the most of worked examples. We hear a lot about worked examples, but they are not always easy to use in practice, and this chapter really gets to the heart of what makes them work.

The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller
Not a book about education per se – but the issue of how metrics corrupt performance is so vital to education that Ofsted’s Chief Inspector name checked the book in a speech, and the TES reviewed it too. I didn’t agree with everything the book said, and it could have benefitted from more acknowledgement of the very real flaws of human judgement – but nevertheless this book is essential reading for anyone involved in dealing with white-collar accountability systems. One of its final conclusions is a useful lesson for life too: ‘recognising the limits of the possible is the beginning of wisdom’.

The Big Ideas in Physics and How to Teach Them by Ben Rogers
As with Craig’s book, this is not the most obvious choice for a former English teacher, but it’s also a great exemplar of how to teach complex material. The stories about scientific discoveries are fascinating, and the explanation of the different meanings words like ‘charge’ have in science and in everyday life illustrate the difficulty of using words to provide precision and the dangers of relying on definitions to provide a shared meaning.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff 
The central thesis of this book is incredibly thought-provoking and stimulating: that the rise in mental health problems amongst young people in the US and UK has its roots in distorted emotional reasoning that is encouraged by modern politics. I disagreed profoundly with the 10% of the book which dealt with school education, but thought the other 90% was excellent. The line that’s stayed with me: “[having your most cherished beliefs challenged] is not harassment or a personal attack; it is part of the process by which people do each other the favour of counteracting each other’s confirmation bias.”

The Truth about Teaching by Greg Ashman
Greg’s blog has long been a prolific resource for anyone wondering about the research basis of a particular educational strategies. This book gives a concise summary of what we do and don’t know about teaching, with the focus on how this can practically help in the classroom.

Responsive Teaching by Harry Fletcher-Wood
I love the title of this book, which is a reminder that a vital part of formative assessment is about responding in real-time in the lesson – not waiting to trawl through written work days later. The chapter I enjoyed most was the one on ‘How can I tell what students learned?’ It has an extended discussion of the difference between performance and learning, and a reminder to ‘check what students know at the end of a lesson to identify problems rapidly, not because they will remember the lesson’s content forever’.

Creating the Schools our Children Need by Dylan Wiliam
Dylan Wiliam’s work on formative assessment has been an enormous influence on me, and probably just about every teacher in the UK. This book is about improving the US school system, but its broader themes are relevant to any country. It’s incredibly well-written and pithy, and covers an enormous amount of ground. There are some of the classic Wiliam hit tunes on classroom assessment and teacher improvement (‘love the one you’re with’!), but also some new and thought-provoking takes on memory and knowledge-based curriculums.

Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide by Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki 
A Visual Guide to learning, for visual learners…only kidding! Learning styles are just one of the fads that’s debunked in this very readable guide to the research teachers need to know about. Featuring great illustrations by Oliver Caviglioli.

Thinking Reading: What every secondary teacher needs to know about reading by Dianne and James Murphy 
Teaching pupils to read is perhaps the most important part of any school system. And yet in many countries, including the UK, a significant minority of pupils leave school functionally illiterate. And in England at least, many secondary English teachers will tell you they do not feel prepared at all to teach children how to read, as the system assumes that every pupil will have learnt to read by age 11. This book plugs an important gap.

Finally – here’s two other books I enjoyed which feature small contributions from me.

Wholesome Leadership by Tom Rees 
This book looks at the challenges of being a head, and of using research, policy and moral purpose to inform your leadership. I particularly liked Tom’s honesty about his own Ofsted inspections, the comparisons between education and architecture and medicine, and the analogy with Test match cricket: “School improvement, like test match cricket, can be a game of attrition”! Each chapter features interviews with various education people – one with me.

Natural-Born Learners by Alex Beard
This book is an entertaining tour of global education – from the ubiquitous Finland and Korea, to the trendy US west-coast, via an interview with me in an office in London!