Best year and a half ever of ed writing? Hess, Willingham pile on.

Not to turn this into ‘A Total Ed Book Case’ or anything, but I quickly have to recommend a couple more titles before I get back to the types of ed things I’m usually (if infrequently) ranting about. There’s just so much important stuff out at the moment that I can’t really help myself.

I’d go on at length about more of these releases, even, but getting around to posting is a little hard right now: The next researchED is ramping up, work — at Search Institute around student motivation and some independent PD/consulting/writing — has been hectic, my next book is in early stagesI have a kid graduating from high school, etc., etc.

That said, see these reviews I wish I’d have written (Bob Pondiscio on Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight and Checker Finn on  E.D. Hirsch’s Why Knowledge Matters), then go read the Seidenberg and the Hirsch.

And then, as long as you’re on a roll (and hey, we’re in education — you’ve got some reading to catch up on in the next few months, right?), here are a few more for your to-read list:

NOTE: If you’re seeking a prose version of this —    — because you need a shot of  teacher-voice-elevating, it’s for the kids!-type inspiration, I’ll say straight away that the titles above may not be for you. Look here instead, or for one of the many like teacher memoirs…and, of course, hang in there. Comfort food is most certainly in order from time to time.

If, however, you’re looking for something more nutrient-rich to strengthen your practice and understanding, not just your soul — substantive works about how people learn and/or about how ed systems and operations can be improved to aid such learning, that is — the above list should keep you going for a while. Each title is based on loads of evidence, goes hard against many deeply grooved (and progress-hindering) enterprise grains, and holds nothing back about what education immediately has to start doing better.

And it’s not exclusively theory, analysis, or accounts of lab-based studies, as you might be thinking. On the contrary, you’ll find a lot in that list from education’s front lines (see especially the Chenoweth, the Michaela, and the Crehan), just no views cast through the overly idealistic or sentimental lenses so typically used in ‘from the ground’ ed accounts. These are books about sound actions teachers can deploy and why they should (with support, loads of studied support!), and I couldn’t be happier.

In light of this windfall, in fact, I had to ask a school staff I recently presented to if they thought, like I’m beginning to, that something seems to be happening here. I’ve been studying education fairly heavily for around fifteen years, after all, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen another year-and-a-half span so glutted with ed titles this valuable. For total ed cases like me, a wave like this from the publishing world is all rather exciting.

Now on to a few words about the books I started this post by saying I wanted to tell you about. For within the exciting list above, I’d rank these two — Rick Hess’s Letters to a Young Education Reformer and Dan Willingham’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads — as way up near the top.

Hess’s excellent and highly readable Letters is the most structural-reform-focused of all the titles gushed over in this post. And while structural-reform concerns usually aren’t really my thing, I’ve waited at least a decade for someone with Hess’s reform-cachet to point out ways reformers’ myopia and mis-steps are interfering with the ed enterprise’s positive progress.

Several of the takes in Letters weren’t real surprising, as I’ve long followed and appreciated Hess’s stances on ed reform (most especially his perfect distinction between big ‘R’ and little ‘r’ reform). In Letters, though, Hess brings many such insights into one clean package, both (1) accurately describing the mindsets, values, and actions of the last decade’s reformers and self-styled ‘education activists’ and (2) wisely urging heavy doses of reason to go with all their unquestionable amounts of passion and potential. He picks apart reformers’ tendencies to over-correct (!) on things like data interpretation/reaction, getting improvements ‘to scale’, kowtows to funders, etc., etc., giving me great comfort that my experience with these same reform types has not all been a complete misread. (And he does all this in a remarkably civil, fair, and humorous style — important, I’d say, in the current ‘with us or against us’ atmosphere, and worth emulating.)

Comforting and insightful as I found it all, however, I have some doubts (much like Gary Rubenstein brought up here) that Letters will do much to puncture the reformers’ considerable hubris. For simply, I just haven’t ever known the hardcore reformers and/or reform-wired leaders I’ve worked around to have very pronounced (or any?) capacities for self-reflection, deeper study, or doubt. In lieu of conversions, then, my personal Big Hope is that enough of us little-‘r’ reform types will read Hess and gather from it the strength and evidence necessary to mount more effective challenges and pushbacks. (Still, I fully intend to mail a few copies of this book out to some of the more craw-jamming reform types I’ve worked with. I figure it’s worth a shot, anyway.)

Switching gears to The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads by Daniel Willingham: it is, pretty well par for Dr. Dan’s course, essential. Here’s the review I left on Amazon after reading it:

Of all the thinkers out there working to improve how education gets done, none is more important than Dan Willingham.

There are all kinds of these thinkers/writers, of course, covering all kinds of publishing territory: ed-reform experts frothing over things like accountability systems and school choice, ‘teacher voices elevating’ from classrooms to say…erm…not all that much (beyond, of course, that teaching is hard), reporters–often without experience in ed (just sayin’)–jumping up to point out this year’s Thing That Will Change Everything, and the like. Through all these characters and the various axes they’re grinding, Willingham remains trained on the single matter all in education should be most concerned about: how people learn–and REALLY how people learn, not what some 19th-century philosopher theorized about how people learn or what some tech provider would love for u$ to believe about how learning i$ evolving or whatever.

And as how people really learn will always be at the center of the educational pursuit (would you take your car to a mechanic, for instance, who wasn’t real clear about how cars work?), I’m always thankful when Willingham throws another book into the world. ‘The Reading Mind’ is yet another Willingham triumph. (Alongside Mark Seidenberg’s ‘Language at the Speed of Sight’ and Doug Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’ of the past year or so, in fact, 2016-17 may have produced a perfect evidence-supported resource set for your school team’s re-education around reading.)

Though Willingham kicks off the book by saying its foremost purpose is not to be about how people learn to read (but, rather, to describe the processes behind how experienced readers read), there’s more important content here for teachers than can be found in most teacher-training programs, NCTE publications, or district-level professional departments put together. Having read Willingham’s books and other writings for close to 10 years now, I was familiar with several principles and references shared in ‘The Reading Mind’ already but still found many useful and applicable pieces. I appreciated especially the details about vocabulary learning (‘Words, Words, Words’, ch 4), the ideas about reading and one’s self-concept (‘Becoming a Reader’, ch 6), and all the measured (and myth-shattering) responses to the ed-technophiles (‘Reading After the Digital Revolution’, ch 7). Though far from a how-to manual for classrooms, the types of insights Willingham packages here would be a useful filter through which to send teachers’ current practices/assignments/expectations/messages to check for evidence-alignment. I can only imagine that such professional learning would have profound impacts on kids’ outcomes and teachers’ satisfaction.

Oh, and bonus? It’s funny. Try it, I know you’ll agree.

In short: if you’ve been looking to learn more about evidence-supported ed practices but weren’t sure where to jump in, this year’s provided at least two graduate courses’ worth of reading. Happy learning!


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