Book Review: ‘Ouroboros’ by Greg Ashman

I first encountered the work of Australian education thinker/blogger Greg Ashman when he was writing under the pseudonym of Harry Webb at his Webs of Substance blog (closed in the spring of 2015 for reasons explained here). My book had been out just a few months, and I was wading (with no real plan, I should add) into Twitter, the educational blogospere, etc., hoping to find a few like educational minds to share it with.

And though I can’t remember the content of that first experience with Ashman’s ideas/writing, I know it hit me square on the chin. Reading him, I knew right away that Ashman presented a combination I hadn’t seen a lot of previously: he had actual recent experience as a classroom teacher, he had read and been inspired by many of the same writers/researchers I had in my own ed journey, and he took great pleasure in speaking evidence-based truth to the education establishment’s blindly accepted ideals and slogans. I was immediately hooked.

Over the intervening year-ish, then, the community of education thinkers Ashman helped me find, Ashman’s public acknowledgement of my own work, and Ashman’s continued writings have pretty well changed my life. In case it’s not enough that his ideas both push my thinking and assure me I’m not insane, he’s served as a gateway to even more great ideas and opportunities. I’m really glad he’s out there.

All that said, it’s likely not much of a surprise that I loved Ouroboros, the e-book Greg Ashman released late last month (follow this link for ordering instructions). It is, after all, a short (~100 pages)-book-length expansion of content and themes previously explored on Ashman’s Webs of Substance and Filling the Pail blogs. Even if you are like me and well-familiar (and largely in agreement) with the previous blog-borne work, Ouroboros is still worth a detailed look. Ashman’s use of the ouroboros (i.e., tail-eating snake, symbolizing some very education-relevant characteristics), for example, provides an effective metaphorical frame for his various theme points, and his illustrative anecdotes from both teacher and student perspectives bring his already readable prose to even higher levels.

Of all possible readers, though, I’d recommend Ouroboros most highly to readers just beginning their explorations of evidence-based educational practice and decision-making. Indeed: given the book’s brevity — and the depth and diversity of discussion it somehow achieves in so little space — it may provide the perfect ‘survey course’. It touches many must-know-but-ed-school-omitted items (e.g., Project Follow Through, Cognitive Load Theory, the necessity of strong phonics instruction, etc.) and skewers many sacred educational cows (e.g., differentiated instruction, the pursuit of ‘deep understanding’, top-down instructional design, etc.) in its 100 or so pages, but not to overwhelming depths. Rather, each is shown with regard to the unifying ouroboros metaphor, leaving readers to choose on their own whether or not they’ll dive into accompanying citations.

And in an age when so much information is available for consumption, and so many views are competing to be prioritized before others, I enthusiastically welcome how Ashman provides such a clear starting line. Hell, if I were designing the perfect training for teachers in evidence-guided instructional practice and decision-making, I might well make Ouroboros and Deans For Impact’s Science of Learning my two core texts and build thus outward.

With Ouroboros, in other words, there Greg Ashman goes again: figuring out and providing accessible, effective gateways to understanding the educational enterprise and the ways in which we within it continue impeding our own progress as practitioners. If you are a fan of his blogs and articles, Ouroboros is a must for your collection. (I mean, to me it was like a band I’d loved seeing live for years finally put out a record. I had to have it.) On that same hand, however: if you are a fan of Ashman’s blogs and articles, Ouroboros may be an even bigger must for your as-yet-unfamiliar colleagues and friends. Be sure to put down an extra few bucks to bring them aboard, as a more readable and more comprehensive introduction to all you already know may not exist anywhere.

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