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Book Reviews Times Two

Today, we’ll be reviewing two books I’ve read recently, both on the topic of how children learn and perform well at school as well as in life. I’ve mentioned before how it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind in PD when you don’t have a contract, so I go out of my way to buy and read all sorts of materials that might increase my value to future employers and demonstrate that I’m always looking to get better at my career.

Enough blabber – engage!

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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Paul Tough, Mariner Books 2013)

This book focuses on a range of case studies taken from a variety of US schools that have attempted to address the current challenges of completion rates and student behaviour that are seen in that country’s system. Covering such section headings as How To Fail (And How Not To), and How To Think, this book leads you on a journey through some truly fascinating programs that I would love to see in action.

In particular, a high point of the book for me was an in-depth discussion about defining a concept called ‘grit’, which the author and the subjects of his interviews eventually decide works out to something like “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” (74) This concept was found to be extremely predictive of student success when educators designed a questionnaire to give a general idea of how much students identify with that quality.

Overall, I found much of the information fascinating, but the book both benefited and suffered from its author’s career as a journalist and magazine writer. He writes very well (in fact, he’s covered education for years), but I really would have liked more information on implementation of these concepts. It’s all very well to hear about the success and a thumbnail sketch of what the scenario looks like, but as a teacher reading this, what I really want is a more in-depth look at the logistics and details of how to do these things correctly.

But in spite of what the book left me wanting, it contains a wealth of valuable information that can certainly inform areas of your own practice. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the non-tests, non-content side of education.

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This is good – another!

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The One World School House: Education Reimagined (Salman Khan, Twelve 2012)

This book deals with the process and thoughts behind Salman Khan’s development of the Khan Academy, an online hub for creating video lessons and self-directed learning programs. This volume caught my eye because the website has been making some headlines in recent years, and it somewhat lines up with my own thoughts and research on technology integration in the classroom.

The thing begins with an expository chapter on Khan’s process to becoming a math tutor for his niece, and his realizations about how learning actually works. This transpositions into a discussion of how the modern public education system tends to let a lot of these principles fall by the wayside. Finally, he examines how he went about setting up the academy and developing the curriculum.

For anyone who wants to examine where some of the downfalls of our current system are, this is a great start. In addition to that, it covers some excellent pointers on the integration of technology and how to develop a classroom that is more self-directed than most of the current day.

A couple of things detracted. For one, Khan occasionally waxes a little too idealistic and superior for my tastes. On a couple of instances, discussions make reference to how learning ‘really works’, and how easy it is for kids to succeed when they are able to choose their own path. While there is a grain of truth in there, Khan’s experiences with children in tutoring dedicated students, working with summer math camps, and a narrow range of classrooms that have access to full computer setups leaves me to treat the various claims with a degree of skepticism, in particular when dealing with students who come from troubled backgrounds and/or near the poverty line.

Secondly, the focus on math above all else, as well as the US math curriculum specifically left me feeling like there was more potential there. Math is undoubtedly important, but the relative paucity of areas of the curriculum besides math as well as focusing on the core standards as decided by the US seems a little shortsighted for a program that is trying to bill itself as a ‘world-class education for everyone’.

That all being said, the book makes a wide range of excellent points about shortcomings of the current system as well as how traditional models of education (dating from the Industrial Revolution) are hopelessly outdated when confronting some of the issues around student achievement and adequate preparation for a 21st-century world.

This book comes with a high recommendation as a thought-provoking read that, if nothing else, will have you thinking about the way we deliver education. Don’t expect this book to give you a point-by-point blueprint for how to completely revolutionize your classroom, but do take a long look at some of the little things that you can do in a small classroom.

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A last note, partially inspired by these two volumes: I’m considering creating a few videos to help with teaching music theory to beginners and/or students who need remedial help. Expect to see some test versions on this blog in the future. I would appreciate anyone’s interest and/or feedback on how to best go about this as well as what kinds of things the larger public thinks might be valuable there.

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3 Comments

  1. T. D. Davis says:

    The Khan book is great. He was the guest author on one of the shows I produce, “After Words.” I can post a link to the show we did on the book, if you like.

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