Seven Must-Read Books About Education: 2015 List

Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly  — Francis Bacon

Book selloutTwo thousand and fourteen was a great year for books. I read all the books on last year’s list, “Seven Must-read books about education for 2014” and wrote reviews for each. The books were thought-provoking, refreshing, well worth the investment of my reading time. I’ve complied a selection of titles for 2015 and share the top seven related to education. Collectively the books provide unique and broad perspectives on education. Three titles fall outside the education discipline though each provides insight worth exploring. The list is based upon reviews of several published lists featuring best books overall and best-selling education books of 2014 by The New York Times, NPR, The Chronicle of Higher Education etc. as well as readers comments on GoodReads and Amazon. Like last year, I’m aiming for thought-provoking reads, and quality over quantity.

1. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, (2014). Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A McDaniel

“Make it Stick” made The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Top 10 Books on Teaching. Though two of the three authors are college professors, the book emphasizes the practical application of learning techniques rather than teaching strategies. Authors present recent research on memory, cognitive functioning, how the brain encodes, consolidates information, etc. The subject might suggest a dry read—but reviewers claim it’s engaging, even lively. The book delivers practical advice on effective learning techniques that trump traditional methods of cramming, rote memorization, etc.

“From the perspective of a professor with a good 20 years of experience, this book is a gem. The authors use research to demonstrate how students learn best and how teachers can structure courses to facilitate student learning. While I’ve read many books on teaching, few are as helpful as this one”  Elizabeth Theiss (Goodreads)

2. Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, (2014). Nir Eyal (author),  Ryan Hoover (editor)

“Hooked” is not about education, but product design. The design concept is typically not considered among educators let alone applied when creating learning environments, yet it’s a critical component in developing learning for online spaces. Up until now online learning has focused on delivery of content, level of engagement of learners, completion rates, etc.  There’s been little consideration of usability of learning platforms, of creating and structuring content, or guidance for students that provide intuitive pathways for learning. Design principles—principles that guide product design to create user-friendly, intuitive products can and should be applied to online learning. There’s science behind the book too, it incorporates behavioural theory and research.

3. Mastery, (2013). Neil Greene

I chose to include this book for a few reasons, first—the publisher is Penguin Books, my favorite book publisher. I’ve yet to read a Penguin book I didn’t like. Second the format of the book is intriguing as the author Robert Greene examines the lives of several masters—Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Leonard da Vinci, and contemporary experts such as tech guru Paul Graham. The book is also the sequel to New York times bestselling book “48 Laws of Power”. As the title implies, “Mastery” is about mastering a subject through a three-phase learning technique that includes, 1) apprenticeship, marked by intense learning, 2) the active level, set apart by practice and final phase is mastery.  This book sounds review-worthy.

jpeg

Social Network Theory and Educational Change, Alan J. Daly, Harvard Education Press (December 16, 2010)

4. Social network Theory and Educational Change, (2010). Alan J. Daly

This book intrigues me. After reading the description it appears to be about implementing change in education settings by using the theory of social network analysis as a framework. Worth considering since the focus is on examining the relationships between teachers, leaders, and students, considered ‘nodes’ in the network, and the patterns of communication and information flow between them. The author, a professor of education, uses a case study approach to illustrate application of the network analysis model. 

 5. Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), (2014). Christian Rudder

Not just a book about big data and what it tells us, “Dataclysm” explores the idea of the vision itself.  Highly acclaimed, it made NPR list of Best books of 2014 under the ‘eye-opening reads’ category, The Globe and Mail’s Best Book for 2014, Amazon’s top book of 2014, and was a New York Times Bestseller. As education moves online and institutions and companies gather millions of data patterns of students, Big Data is a BIG topic that both students and institutions need to examine closely for different reasons. “Dataclysm” made my list this year so I can learn more about data that’s collected and the implications for design and development of online education and its students.

“Most data-hyping books are vapor and slogans. This one has the real stuff: actual data and actual analysis taking place on the page. That’s something to be praised, loudly and at length. Praiseworthy, too, is Rudder’s writing, which is consistently zingy and mercifully free of Silicon Valley business gabble.”  Jordan Ellenberg, Washington Post

6. Peeragogy Handbook version 3, (2015). Howard Rheingold et al.

I was introduced to this book last year by a reader, and placed it on my must-read list for 2015. The book’s premise is technologically enhanced peer learning, and is a guide to help peers around the globe attain their educational goals and improve their projects. In keeping with the thesis is its authorship; it’s collective, anyone can contribute. From the Peeragogy Handbook website:

“The “Peeragogy Handbook” isn’t a normal book. It is an evolving guide, and it tells a collaboratively written story that you can help write. Using this book, you will develop new norms for the groups you work with — whether online, offline, or both.

Version 3 of the handbook is launching January 1, 2015 and will be available as a free PDF download on peeragogy.org. Version 2 is available up until January 1. The softcover format is available on Amzaon.com for $20 .

7. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, (1964). Marshall McLuhan

I’m a big fan of Marshall McLuhan’s work; the man was a genius. McLuhan was a philosopher, author and professor of communication studies. Reading his works and listening to recordings of his talks, one hears him speak of the effects of the internet long before we had the internet. I’m eager to read this book where he argues a society is affected and shaped by the medium, its characteristics rather than the content that’s delivered over it. How intriguing!

Closing
I look forward to another year of good company with some great books.  I track my book list and reviews on the Goodreads platform, which you can find here.  If interested in viewing the previous books I’ve read on education along with their reviews click here for my education virtual bookshelf on Goodreads.

“I am Malala”: A Review of the Book and Its Implications for Education

Image

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Little, Brown and Company, 2013

“I am Malala” is the true story of a fourteen-year old girl’s campaign for women’s right to education. In 2011 Malala was shot  by the Taliban in a bus on her way home from school. Two men boarded the school bus—“Who is Malala” they asked and fired gun shots; two lodged in Malala’s head. The series of events that followed, described in Malala’s voice, are remarkable—the politics, the media frenzy and her recovery. The shooting triggered a complex series of negotiations involving prominent political figures from Pakistan and England. It’s a powerful book. Malala’s story is remarkable in light of women’s role in her culture and the groups fighting to oppress women—in this case the Taliban. It was the Taliban that claimed responsibility for shooting Malala calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.” (Walsh, 2012).

Overview
The first half of the book Malala describes Pakistan’s history including the history of her ancestors and the northern region of Pakistan, Swat where she lives. Malala also shares stories of her family, giving the reader a glimpse into the culture of Pakistan from a young woman’s perspective. Many of the stories involve Malala’s father Ziauddin Yousafzai. She describes his involvement in local politics, in the community and his vocal support of education for boys and girls. There’s no doubt Malala’s passion and courage to stand-up for women’s rights stems from her father’s actions and character. Ziauddin Yousafzai defied Taliban orders by running a private school that encouraged girls to attend. Malala describes the challenges and frustrations her father faced when starting the school. The motto over the school’s door read “We are committed to build for your the call of the new era”. Her father believed the school’s students could fight the enemy with pens, not swords.

Some reviewers claimed the book was poorly written, disjointed. It’s a valid point. The first half of the book does jump around, sometimes repeating facts. But I see this as a sign of authenticity; it’s written in a 14-year old’s voice, from her perspective. The first half of the book provides context for the second half. I could appreciate more about what happened to Malala after her shooting because of the background she included.

Education’s Value
In Western culture it’s unthinkable that women be excluded from education. Malala and her story are symbolic of education freedom and the book delivers a message to the world. Education, considered a right for many is used as a mechanism for oppression in some countries.

Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow.” Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human. —  Malala Yousafzai

Malala’s story emphasizes education’s value. Looking deeper it challenges readers to examine the role of education, its purpose and function within a society. Withholding education from certain groups within a society hinders progress, threatens peace and perpetuates poverty. These principles also apply to Western cultures where education is the starting point for eliminating poverty, reducing crime and violence in impoverished neighborhoods. There are parallels; it’s thought-provoking.

MOOCs and Education for Women Without Access
Daphne Koller founder of Coursera when launching the MOOC platform often spoke about MOOCs as a vehicle to bring education to those without access and MOOCs “democratizing education”. Though the chances that MOOCs will bring education to women In countries like Pakistan and empower them is questionable. How can MOOCs democratize education if a country’s government is unstable, when there is oppression of women and other groups? Or where there is no internet or access to computers or mobile devices? What about language barriers? MOOCs do have potential to deliver education to those without access, yet there are significant barriers to overcome.

Curriculum for “I am Malala”
George Washington University and the Global Women’s Institute developed a university-level curriculum based upon “I am Malala” to work across various academic disciplines. The tools focus on themes such as how education empowers women, global feminism, political extremism and youth advocacy. One of the goals of the program is to encourage college students and eventually high school students to get involved, to facilitate dialogue among various groups, and to influence public opinion about access to education and women’s rights.

Closing
“I am Malala” is a compelling read. Malala as an individual is a remarkable women who is a hero for women’s right to a quality education. With her father, Malala created the Malala Fund that supports education for women including the Global Partnership for Education. The book is a good starting point for learning about the complexities of women’s rights in some countries and education access. “I am Malala” delivers a message to each reader about the value of education. Education empowers.

The Wisdom of Jerome Bruner in “The Culture of Education”: Book Review

Education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture  —Jerome Bruner

imgres

THE CULTURE OF EDUCATION, Jerome Bruner, Harvard Univ. Press, 1996

The Culture of Education presents nine thought-provoking essays on the subject of cultural psychology and its implications for education. The essays embody Bruner’s experience, knowledge and wisdom of the science of learning, and culture’s influence on teaching and learning.  A scholar of psychology, Bruner defines cultural psychology as a system that describes how humans make sense of their world. A cultural approach to education describes how the mind works—the science of learning with culture. In Bruner’s words the theory of education lies at the intersection “between the nature of mind and the nature of culture”.

The essays are still relevant in today’s context with the abundance of educational technology. Bruner provides a unique construct for thinking about technology. He describes how humans make sense of the world—where learning and thinking are dependent upon cultural settings and the use of cultural artifacts. Thinking of educational technology as artifacts of culture, and learning as dependent on culture—puts technology in a different perspective. Technology as part of culture suggests education needs to embrace technology, as according to Bruner learning is always dependent upon the cultural setting and its resources. Technology in education settings, as many have already argued, needs to be closely linked with pedagogy (Anderson & Dron, 2011Okajie et al., 2014).

In the first essay, Culture, Mind, and Education, Bruner devotes significant discussion upfront to contrasting theories that describe learning. Bruner is critical of the information processing theory or what he calls ‘computationalism’—comparing the mind to a computational device. Bruner proceeds to methodically outline how the psycho-cultural approach addresses learning via ten tenets that each include, to varying degrees culture’s influence and theory of the mind—cognitivism.  Bruner argues each tenet elegantly; none better than number seven—the institutional tenet.  The institution refers to all types of institution, each embodying a distinct culture reflected in symbols, stories and power figures. Complex structures within institutions Bruner argues, leads to coercion, power struggles which are especially detrimental for entities responsible for education. Bruner concludes that any efforts towards improvement (reform) by education institutions must involve teachers; teachers are critical and central to reform efforts.

Several of the essays quite practical in nature, focus on how to teach effectively. The second essay Folk Pedagogy brings in to the open the idea that teachers do not always approach teaching and learning effectively. Teachers (and students) bring with them to the classroom pre-conceived ideas of how learning happens, explained in part by ingrained cultural beliefs about how the mind works.  Bruner outlines in his methodical manner four models of the mind based on pre-conceived ideas, and the related education goals of each. Bruner suggests that by examining and evaluating each carefully, we are then able to rethink our approach to education. Pedagogy is not innocent Bruner states—it’s a medium that carries its own message (page 63).  The latter statement is an example of how powerful and deep Bruner’s ideas are.  The remaining essays are just as stimulating as the first two. Each presents a dimension of education worth examining. Each challenges the reader to think about teaching and education from a different viewpoint, sometimes several.

Closing Thoughts
The Culture of Education deserves a place on every educator’s bookshelf. Bruner is a remarkable scholar, author and man. At ninety-nine years of age his contributions to the study and advancement of education are numerous. As recently as 2011 Bruner participated in Arizona State University’s Inside the Academy program via an interview. The Culture of Education is just one of Bruner’s many works well worth studying; it’s an indispensable guide to finding answers to today’s toughest questions about education.

Educational encounters, to begin with, should result in understanding, not mere performance. pg. xi

“Spreadable Media” — How its Relevant to Education

The media industries understand that culture is becoming more participatory, that the rules are being rewritten and relationships between producers and audiences are in flux.” (page 35)

jpeg

spreadablemedia.org

I recently read “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture”.  Its focus (not surprisingly) is social media; how people consume and engage with content via various channels of social media and its effects on business, entertainment and other sectors. It addresses how meaning and value are created from content that is spread; ‘spread’ meaning sharing of content not just between people, but within communities. Content, the authors suggest, is shaped even manipulated throughout the spreading process.

It’s a dense read. The lead author Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at USC, wrote the book with two digital strategists, Ford and Green. The book aims to “build understanding and conversation among three groups of readers: media scholars, communication professionals, and citizens who actively produce and share media content”. I’d say that there is quite a bit to discuss and not just for those involved in media studies. It’s applicable to education, more so given that social media platforms are used with greater frequency by students and instructors to connect with, consume and create education content.

Several of the book’s sub themes address topics educators and institutions are wrestling with, particularly those offering any form of online education. For instance engagement topic of chapter three—The Value of Media Engagement explores engagement from the perspective of market value, recently a topic of discussion among MOOC providers (Dodd, 2014). Building on the engagement theme, chapter four What Constitutes Meaningful Participation explores the changing relationship between producers and consumers, another parallel to education, as more students seek to be actively involved in a course’s content development—to co-create with instructors and other students. Both chapters offer insight into the issues in context of education, even though authors draw upon examples primarily from the business and entertainment sectors—the applicability is hard to miss.

Lurking
One discussion in chapter three addresses the behavior known as ‘lurking’, a topic of concern when it comes to MOOCs and online courses. Lurkers are students that typically don’t participate or contribute to asynchronous discussion forums, or engage in a real-time video conferencing sessions or other chat venues, yet are reading and/or watching—they are consuming content. Lurking is viewed negatively, or at least as a challenging behaviour by course instructors. More so in courses that require students to participate for course credit. Lurking in connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) also doesn’t go over well, particularly with other MOOC students (Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2013). Jenkins, Ford & Green attempt to reframe lurking behaviour. They discuss barriers to online participation and suggest there might be opportunity to scaffold learning, or at scale least levels of participation (p. 158).

The authors portray “lurkers” (the bane of online communities where the vast majority of members who only consume others’ information without contributing any of their own) as only learning and biding their time until they too understand the rules and start to participate. In Chapter 5 they even describe what makes materials sharable. This will help me to completely rethink the development of content rather than just to focus on why community members are either engaged or not.”  T. Sales, Amazon Reviewer of “Spreadable Media”

Startling Parallel: Audience Fragmentation
Authors discuss engagement specific to television audiences, yet the similarity between television consumers and participants in education (particularly those engaging in open learning) is strong.  Beginning on page 116 the authors address the challenges the media industry is facing due to audiences consuming content across multiple channels e.g television, mobile devices, or DVRs. This behaviour, according to the authors, fragments the audience, an audience that traditionally consumed content via one channel—television. The audience has since splintered in response, and the result?— people consuming the same content on a variety channels creating smaller audiences. This fragmentation makes it difficult for providers to gauge the value of the different audience groups—to establish an appropriate pricing model.

Note the similarities to the education sector. Education, at one time used two distribution channels for content, 1) the instructor in a physical location delivering content to student, and 2) the textbook. It’s no longer the case. Today education content has numerous distribution channels, for example open education resources (OER) via the web, MOOC providers, textbook companies, closed, fee-based education platforms, Khan Academy and the likes. These channels suggest a fragmentation of the education sector—similar to what’s happening the media industry. It’s not surprising that MOOC providers are finding it a challenge to settle on a viable business model.

Even among those who understand that developing business models around such engagement is key, there has been little consensus on how, or even which, measures of engagement are valuable or how to agree on a model… (p. 116).

Closing Thoughts 
“Spreadable Media” puts forth several relevant and thought-provoking concepts specific to our digital culture. The book on the surface seems more applicable to business decision makers, marketers and media scholars given the numerous references to marketing and entertainment examples, however, the parallels to education though subtle are striking making it a worthwhile and interesting read.

Resources

An Essential Read for Online Education Decision Makers: “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education”

9781579227968_cf200

By Gary Miller, Meg Benke , Bruce Chaloux, Lawrence C. Ragan, Raymond Schroeder, Wayne Smutz & Karen Swan

“Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education” published in 2014 by Stylus Publishing in association with The Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan Consortium) is the first book in a planned series about distance education.

Overview The book is current and relevant; “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education” is an invaluable if not essential resource for leaders and decision makers in online education, though anyone involved with the development or implementation of an online learning strategy for a higher education or K-12 institution will find it an excellent resource. The themes are familiar—e-learning effectiveness and quality, support for faculty success, student success and retention, and the impact of online learning programs has on an institution’s traditional programs. What sets this book apart and makes it exceptionally valuable is the diversity of perspectives from the authors—seven leaders in distance education representing five higher education institutions and the Online Learning Consortium.

The book aims to guide and support leaders as they make decisions about online learning including how to overcome barriers and implement change. The purpose of the text is to provide readers with new perspectives on online program implementation and skill development for approaching education transformation proactively. 

Each author brings experience and a perspective to the topic of online learning that gives readers insight into a variety of models and organizational structures for setting up their own online education programs. Organizational structure and culture, influence on traditional institutions are discussed at length, as are standards of quality for online education including the framework for the Five Pillars of quality online education.

Highlights The book is divided into sections categorized by three principal themes: Part One: “Leading Change: Making the Match Between Leadership and Institutional Culture”, Part Two: “Ensuring Operational Excellence” and Part Three: “Sustaining Innovation”. Each features three or four chapters dedicated to a topic that addresses current and real challenges institutions face as they seek to adapt and transform within the constraints of institutional culture, policies and administrative issues. Each offers instructive insights and practical alternatives for consideration. Below I’ve included highlights of one chapter from each section.

In Part One, Chapter Two:The Impact of Organizational Contextoutlines in detail five very different programs of online education in higher education institutions. The five examined: 1) The Pennsylvania University World Campus, 2) University of Illinois at Springfield, 3) Empire State College, 4) Rio Salado College and 5) the American Public University System.  The leaders’ views are examined within each of the programs’ institutions on the leadership challenges, culture shifts, attitudes of faculty and impact of business models. The leaders’ responses in comparison with each other is instructive and enlightening.

In Part Two, Chapter Six: “Supporting Faculty Success” suggests that the skills and competencies required by faculty are contextualized to the culture, practices and administrative structure of the online initiative of the institution. I agree with the authors— culture and administrative structure pose a significant barrier in many instances. There is gap between what is needed and what most institution  provide in the way of support and skill development for faculty and instructors teaching online. This issue, the chapter emphasizes, is central to effective online education delivered by an institution.

The challenge for the institutions is to understand and address the needs of the online instructor and create appropriate programs and support services and policies that help develop the competencies necessary for online teaching success (p. 109)

In Part Three, Chapter Ten: “Policy Leadership in e-learning” discusses the multiple challenges e-learning growth has had on policy at the federal, state and institutional level. Policy remains a barrier and threat to the growth and success of e-learning the authors’ state, and they outline five policy issues that pose real barriers to online education now, that have emerged within the past ten years. The five identified and discussed are: 1) tuition, 2) transfer credit, 3) state and campus budgeting and allocation, 4) federal and state financial aid, and 5) student support services.

Closing No doubt, one can see the value this book holds for leaders of e-learning education.  What’s also helpful to the reader is the organization of the book, which makes it  unnecessary to read it from beginning to end; readers can choose to read chapters of interest and relevance. Though I suggest that all chapters are relevant to anyone involved in online education programming.

Resources:

What Educators and Policy Makers can Learn from “The Big Fat Surprise”

New-Nina-Book-Cover-e1399064213295What can educators learn from a book on nutrition science “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” (2014), a book that methodically debunks advice North Americans have been following for years, which is to eat a low-fat and high carbohydrate diet for optimal health? A great deal it turns out. I don’t typically feature books in this blog that stray too far from the topic of education, but “The Big Fat Surprise” is a worthy of exception. It’s a meticulously researched book that highlights how poorly designed research studies, bias, influential leaders, and the public’s unfamiliarity with the difference between causation and correlation can impact policy to the detriment of the public good.

The book is a ten-year project by author Nina Teicholz. Through analysis and extensive review of countless nutrition, medical and health studies, interviews with top nutrition scientists, and heads of government agencies responsible for nutrition and health guidelines, Teicholz uncovers the lack of credible scientific evidence that supports the link between high cholesterol associated with diet, and heart disease (p. 172 – 173)

The study that started the low-fat diet movement (accomplished by eliminating meat, butter, eggs, cheese, dairy, etc) to curb cholesterol levels, was The Seven Countries Study (1963) by Ancel Keyes. This now famous study, sought to establish a relationship between diet and coronary heart disease and stroke. However Teicholz describes in detail the deep-rooted problems and flaws of the study. Even though Keyes was careful to state in published papers, “casual relationships are not claimed” (p. 73) he was a champion for the low-fat diet throughout his career, and extremely influential with politicians and decision makers.

Long story short, populations that include children, of numerous countries have been following low-fat diets for years yet with no scientific support that suggests low-fat diets are beneficial.  Food manufacturers are heavily invested in the low-fat movement, up to one-third of product offerings feature low-fat versions. Yet heart disease rates have not declined, and worse obesity rates have risen. Which, not coincidently began to rise (1980) at the same time the United States Department of Agriculture began publishing guidelines for low-fat diets (p. 328).

How it Relates to Education
The book illustrates how flawed research, bias and misunderstanding of results led to misguided dietary recommendations by government agencies and creation of policies that were, and still are detrimental to large groups within our population. The lessons within “The Big Fat Surprise” for decision makers and influencers within any public sector, education being at the top of the list, are instructive, even enlightening. The Wall Street Journal’s review of The Big Fat Surprise written by Trevor Butterworth from George Mason University’s site stats.org puts it this way:

“… Ms. Teicholz’s book is a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health for repeatedly putting action and policy ahead of good evidence“.

Book Highlights 

  •  Misunderstandings are exacerbated when the public, the press, and even decision makers are unfamiliar with scientific studies, specifically the difference between causation and correlation.
  • Dissenters within a scientific community can be silenced, if not shunned when bringing forth contradictory evidence of the popular hypothesis. The book describes in detail the intricacy of relationships between key decision makers, members of the scientific community, funders of the studies (in this case food companies), and how individuals can manipulate outcomes of studies to serve their own agendas.
  • There is little doubt that readers, upon finishing the book will look at claims about proven programs and even raw data with a far more discerning eye.

Further Reading and Resources:

 

Three Bold and Fresh Ideas for Education in ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’

“The function of the What’s-Worth-Knowing Questions Curriculum is to put two ideas into clear focus. The first is that the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge…The second idea is that question asking…has to deal with problems that are perceived as useful and realistic to the learner.” Teaching As a Subversive Activity (p 81)

51gmf-kQbtL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, first published in 1969

“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” puts forth ideas about education that are radical, controversial, bold and fresh. It suggests eliminating syllabi, formal curriculum and textbooks from education settings. It introduces ideas of student-centered learning over teacher-centered teaching, and leading students to learn by asking questions, not by teachers giving lectures. The book was first published in 1969—considered radical among educators then, and today.

Hands down it’s on of the most challenging, thoughtful, practical books I’ve read about transforming education. I read it on the heels of “A New Culture of Learning” the book by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas published in 2009 (my review here). The books complement each other well; Brown and Thomas write about learning in a digital age though don’t provide specific strategies. Postman and Weingartner do. The principles in “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” are applicable and relevant today just as they were forty-five years ago—how to change education where students learn how to think, to detect ‘crap’, and to learn how-to-learn that continues beyond high school and higher education.

In this post I highlight and share with readers three themes from the book, still relevant in today’s digital culture: 1) facilitating ‘crap detection’, 2) What’s-Worth-Knowing? and 3) bold proposals. There are more than these three within the book’s 218 pages, and I plan to address at least two in future posts. One readers may find interesting is the authors’ perspective on teacher education—the methods associated with teaching content. Postman and Weingartner suggest that content and method, are considered separate processes in teacher education programs, which is according to them, the wrong approach. This idea is compelling. Look for this post in the weeks to come.

Overview
To provide some context for the book, I found it helpful to dig more into the background of Neil Postman, one of the co-authors. He’s an American educator, author, critic of media and culture. Postman is known mostly because of his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985), a book about the corrosive effects of television on culture and politics. He’s written several books on education, technology and children’s development.

Postman’s style of writing is blunt. The subtitle of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, ‘A no-holds barred assault on outdated teaching methods—with dramatic and practical proposals on how education can be made relevant to today’s world‘ gives the reader a glimpse into not only the content, but the authors’ tone. I adapted to the writing style; I tried to view the remarks about education not as criticisms but as a perspective. Though some readers of the book have dismissed the ideas because of the harsh criticisms of education practices, sometimes teachers (one can read the book reviewers comments on Amazon to get an idea). Saturday Review Magazine captures the implications of the authors’ tone and the books content in its review of the book featured on the back cover:

 “It will take courage to read this book…but those who are asking honest questions—what’s wrong with the worlds in which we live, how do we build communication bridges across the Generation Gap, what do they want from us? These people will squirm in the discovery that the answers are really within themselves”

The Three Themes

1) Cultivate learners to be experts at “Crap Detecting”
Crap detecting may sound harsh. Though what the authors suggest is that “schools serve as the principal medium for developing in youth attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism“, where schools cultivate students that are discerning, can view problems from multiple perspectives, identify what’s valid and not, and most importantly why it is so.

Is this not an essential skill for all youth in a digital age, determining what information is ‘crap’—information that is not valid or worthy of examination, yet determine what is relevant, deserves consideration, sharing and building upon (remixing)? I’d say so. The authors use a quote from an interview with Ernest Hemingway to emphasize their point:

Isn’t there any one essential ingredient that you can identify [to be a great writer]?” Hemingway replied, “Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

It seems to us that in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the school’s in today’s world.  page 3

I can’t add much more to that—relevant in 1969, and in 2014.

2) The Inquiry Method — What’s Worth Knowing?
In “A New Culture of Learning”, the concept of inquiry based learning is the fulcrum of learning in the digital age. The premise is that only when students are interested in following a path of inquiry, based on something they are passionate about, will they be motivated to learn. It’s up to educators then to harness the passion and leverage the abundance of resources to guide their learning.

This idea of inquiry learning is not new. In fact Postman may have been one of the first educators to fully develop and implement the method in a public school setting. Postman started, along with another educator, a model school dedicated to the inquiry method. The program named the “Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study” was located within the New Rochelle High School in New York. The “open school” experiment survived for 15 years. 

Two chapters discuss the inquiry method and go in great detail; chapter three, and an extension the questioning technique in ‘Whats-Worth-Knowing?‘ described in chapter five. The latter chapter stimulates much thought. Authors challenge the reader to imagine a classroom without syllabi, textbooks, and curricula. Then suggests:

 “…suppose that you decide the entire curriculum consists of questions. There questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly , from the point of view of the students.”

The next challenge—on a blank page that exists within the book (it really does in the hard copy), authors instruct readers to take a pencil and list questions that might be starting questions to use with students. Though authors warn, these are starting questions given that:

“…the ecology of the inquiry environment requires that the students play a central, but not necessarily exclusive role in framing questions that they deem important”

It’s a provocative exercise. I came up with six questions, though after reading the rest of the chapter, I cut it down to four.

3) Bold Proposals
I won’t cover all of the strategies, proposals and ideas presented by the authors for education transformation, given the detail of each, and for the sake of your time. There are many.  But here is where the practicality comes in where “A New Culture of Learning” left off. As I said in my previous post, “A New Culture of Learning” didn’t provide practical solutions, or ideas for application for the new ways to learn. This book does. Some seem preposterous, some not. But perhaps it is time for preposterous ideas, though one’s perspective will determine just how preposterous the ideas are. In future posts I’ll discuss ideas put forth in the book for educating teachers and about pedagogy. In another I will share a summary of the authors’ ideas for inner city schools, classroom learning and teacher roles.

Conclusion
“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is on the top of my list of best books for educators. If read in conjunction with “A New Culture of Learning”, one can gain an in-depth view of what education transformation really is, or what it could be, and what’s needed—which is dialogue and action that is bold and fresh.

Further Reading: