These are just a few of the books that have had a big influence on my thinking in education or have influenced the practices at School 21. The teachers at School 21 enjoy wrestling with ideas, thinking hard about not just what they are teaching and how they teach it but why they are doing it. This makes for an incredibly stimulating environment in which to work.
The Education of the Average Child
A W Rowe
When you think you are doing something new or innovative, it is always a great reminder to look back and see what has been tried in the past. This is a truly visionary book from a headteacher trying to make secondary moderns work in 1959. The book describes the curriculum, culture and teaching methods of one school that tried to provide an education that could develop rounded human beings, connected to the real world and secure in the basics. Some of the language used is either shocking or amusing depending on taste. He describes with compassion: "dull and backward' children, and "retarded' children who need special help. There is deep thinking and experience here about what a truly enriching education might look like and how to boost the confidence of those too often written off.
This book is a classic; changing how people thought about school. A three year study of 12 secondary schools, it showed pretty conclusively that schools can make a difference. Why did this matter? Because at the time of publication, 1982, there were many who said that schools had too difficult a job countering social disadvantage and student success was beyond their control. By comparing schools with differing policies, practices and approaches, Rutter and his team found, what we now, in the main, take for granted, namely that what we do in schools can make a profound difference. If children are in school for 15,000 hours what we do with that time matters. Each of these hours is precious. Later studies have shown strikingly that there is often more variation within schools than between schools. In other words your teacher determines whether, for example, you make 2 years or 2 months progress in a given year.
Fifteen Thousand Hours
Michael Rutter et al
A book that got me thinking differently. Ron Berger has changed the way many people think about education and conduct themselves as teachers. His great service to education is to change the currency. The test of a teacher, pupil, or school is less the exam grade and more the quality of work they are producing. He is highly persuasive that any child of any age can do meaningful work that has a value beyond the classroom. That work for a real or "authentic" audience is highly motivating. That 'beautiful work' is created by multiple drafts. Many will also know 'Austin's butterfly' as an example of how a child can improve his/her work beyond recognition through craft and critique. His work has had a big influence on many schools including School 21. Our students have created many products that are stunning and have left people incredulous that "someone of that age" could have created it.
An Ethic of Excellence
What makes Alex's book so stimulating is that he has travelled the world looking at learning and not just schooling which has given him a wider canvas and the chance to meet a varied cast of educators and innovators. He is also refreshingly undogmatic about what he is looking for. He is neither trapped by the often bullying tone of the "knowledge" zealots nor is he rosy-eyed about the potential of technology to enhance learning. Instead he gets the reader to think about what makes for good learning with all its expansive possibilities: learning the basics, learning to think, learning to become a rounded human being. Alex ends up in a place not far from Guy Claxton which is to make the case for education to prioritise the creation of powerful learners.
Natural Born Learners
This book makes the case compellingly for a more rounded education: one in which the Trivium, as the Greeks called it, of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric are in balance. From some of his other interventions on social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that Martin was an arch traditionalist, but this book is far from that. He argues that it is not enough to merely impart knowledge or fill up the student. That knowledge is understood and acted upon through dialectic and rhetoric - debate and communication. The other striking thing about the Greeks is how knowledge was combined and transferred and that the fetish some have today for single siloed subject disciplines is at odds with how they saw the world as holistic and integrated.
Robin Alexander and Neil Mercer are the two academics who have done most to put oracy on the map and give it an academic evidence base and intellectual underpinning. This is an excellent short essay outlining how to set up dialogic teaching with some key principles and arguments. Alexander argues for a more varied and intentional repertoire including:
1. Transactional talk
2. Expository talk
3. Interrogatory talk
4. Exploratory talk
5. Expressive talk
6. Evaluative talk
Towards Dialogic Teaching
Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Talk
Amy Gaunt and Alice Stott
Hot off the press, Amy and Alice have written the first book to come out of Voice 21, the charity we set up in 2015, to transform the way spoken language is taught in schools. Under Beccy Earnshaw's skilled leadership the organisation has gone from nothing to a network of 400 schools and thousands of teachers in 18 months -with a real buzz around a community of practitioners intent on elevating oracy to the same status as reading and writing. This is the book that best sums up what it is all about: Why oracy matters, how best to learn through talk as well as learn to talk. It gives a series of coherent strategies, ideas, toolkits to enable any teacher in any subject at any age to begin to be 'intentional' about oracy and to create a 'dialogic classroom'. For us oracy, transcends regular teaching and learning strategies. It is about students finding their voice and using their voice. It is a key driver of social mobility, mental well-being and academic progress.
This is a surprising book. It appears on the surface to be yet another management book for private sector executives. But in fact it is a profound book about the personal change an individual needs to make to do something great. And what is particularly surprising is that it has become one of the bibles of Youth at Risk an organisation dealing with some of the hardest to reach young people. Tracy Goss shows people how to move beyond "the winning strategy" that has been our route to success or survival but can now hold us back. And also the Universal Human Paradigm, a frustration with the world and how we think it should or should not be. In liberating us from these traps she goes on to explain how we can achieve more, take more risks and stake out new ground. A book that has had a profound effect on me and many adults and children at School 21.
The Last Word in Power
After years of recruiting for roles, you feel more confident to summarise what you are looking for, what that magic ingredient is. And for me it has become clearer and clearer. The people you want in your organisation and by your side are learners. People who want to get better, who are hungry to improve, who treat setbacks as learning opportunities, who do not get stuck in a rut, or rest on their laurels, or tell the same anecdote again and again. People with humility. The kind of person who is always wrestling with thorny issues, looking for new avenues to explore, never willing to settle for second best. In short they have a 'growth mindset'. And Carol Dweck's service to educators, parents, all of us is to give us a language and framework for thinking about it and give us a way to help young people get better - prioritising effort over 'natural ability'.
If only we thought about Flow more when we look at how schools are run. How many teachers are genuinely in flow during the school day. How many students have opportunities to be in flow. This book looks at what it takes to be lost in something so fully and so meaningfully that we lose all sense of time. This book had a profound effect on my when I first read it. It surely gives one answer to what education is for. Surely we want every child leaving school knowing how and when they are in flow. What it is that they want to work at and improve. It also gives teachers something to aim for - those moments, possibly in every lesson, when the work stretches pupils jut the right amount so that they can rise to the challenge but also get totally absorbed in it.
Some books give you a schema that is easy to internalise and you find it becomes one of your go to tools when you want to problem solve. Daniel Pink has achieved this with his assertion that motivation comes from a combination of mastery, autonomy, and purpose. If you have an unhappy member of staff it is usually the case that one or more of these three elements is lacking. Either the person does not feel skilled to do the job, (mastery) or they are being micro-managed or dictated to (the case for many teachers in many schools) or the purpose of what they are doing - the why - is not at all clear - so they end up feeling their hard work is for no real purpose. To be a genuinely developmental organisation that cares about the growth of every member of staff, these elements need to be constantly thought about and checked up on.
Austerity Britain 1945-51
Some historians write in such an evocative way that the past becomes more painting than prose. Austerity Britain has a series of brilliant passages that have rhythm and bite.
"Britain in 1945. A land of orderly queues, hat-doffing men walking on the outside, seats given up to the elderly, no swearing in front of women and children, censored books, censored films, censored plays, infinite repression of desires. Divorce for most an unthinkable social disgrace, marriage too often a lifetime sentence. … Even the happier marriages seldom companionable, with husbands and wives living in separate, self-contained spheres, the husband often not telling the wife how much he had earned. And despite women working in wartime jobs, few quarrelling with the assumption that the two sexes were fundamentally different from each other. Children in the street ticked off by strangers, children in the street kept an eye on by strangers, children at home rarely consulted, children stopping being children when they left school at 14 and got a job. A land of hierarchical social assumptions, of accent and dress as giveaways to class, of Irish jokes and casually derogatory references to Jews and niggers. Expectations low and limited but anyone in or on the fringes of the middle class hoping for ‘a job for life’ and comforted by the myth that the working class kept their coal in the bath. A pride in Britain, which had stood alone, a pride even in ‘Made in Britain’. A deep satisfaction with our own idiosyncratic, non-metric units of distance, weight, temperature, money: the bob, the tanner, the threepenny Joey. A sense of history, however nugatory the knowledge of that history. A land in which authority was respected? Or rather, accepted? Yes, perhaps the latter, co-existing with the necessary safety valve of copious everyday grumbling. A land of domestic hobbies and domestic pets. The story of Churchill in the Blitz driving through a London slum on a Friday evening – seeing a long queue outside a shop – stopping the car – sending his detective to find out what this shortage was – the answer: birdseed. Turning the cuffs, elbow patches on jackets, sheets sides to middle. A deeply conservative land."
R J Palacio
This book has a special place in the history of School 21. It was the first book we used as part of our well-being curriculum, believing that through literature and engaging with characters at one remove from students' daily lives, they can gain understanding of complex social issues. This book is the compelling story of a home-schooled boy with a genetic facial disfigurement who starts attending school. It is about friendship, bullying, values, kindness. There are many phrases and speeches from the great headteacher which became part of the language of our school - most notably: "choose kind" and "kinder than is necessary". One of the most memorable moments of our first year was a lesson where we had all year 7 students in our hall in the portacabins and every member of the secondary staff took part in a collective reading of the book. The pupils loved it and the book became part of their lives.
Why are we so wedded to short lessons? Why do we try and feed 1500 teenagers in 45 minutes? Why do we give so many short, pointless pieces of homework to children? Why do we stick to 6 week school summer holidays? Why do we have so many single sex schools? Why do primary schools finish at 11? Why do we have a school leaving age exam at 16 when you can't leave education at 16 any more? Why do Universities think £9000 is a good deal for courses with 6 hours contact time a week for fewer than 35 weeks in the year?
We get on with the how and the what and too often fail to question the why. Education is littered with ways of doing things that may once have worked but have long ago lost their purpose. Simon Sinek shows us how starting with purpose and meaning is transformational,
Start with Why
This book has influenced thinking at School 21. Using case studies of private sector companies including high tech start ups, it looks at how the best organisations develop people in an intentional and sustained way. It talks about the cultures, practices and approaches that give employees regular feedback so they can grow. It opens up a good debate about whether people should be given feedback on their character as well as their craft. In schools we tend to focus far more on craft (how a teacher improves their questioning techniques, for example) rather than their character (how they get better at taking on board feedback). The case in this book is that character matters and people should be coached to improve their backhands (their weaknesses). There is something powerful about everyone in an oragnisation, starting with the Headteacher or CEO, being explicit about what they are working to improve and then being coached on it.
An Everyone Culture
Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey
Leonardo da Vinci
On the 500th anniversary of his death, Leonardo da Vinci is as relevant as ever, not least for those debating the purpose of education. .The Renaissance studios he was part of were a dynamic mix of art, architecture, maths, engineering, anatomy. As the book says: "With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius. His creativity, like that of other great innovators, came from having wide-ranging passions. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history’s most memorable smile. He explored the maths of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced illusions of changing perspectives in The Last Supper." This strikes me as a real education - deep knowledge, practical hands-on application, a collision and overlap of disciplines.
I was formed in politics where meetings had little structure and no protocols. I saw protocols as almost certainly the death of creativity. And then in the first year of School 21, with our founding teachers all sitting around a table thrashing out what we were going to do, we realised with painful clarity, that rambling and often unproductive meetings were not in themselves a sign of creativity. This book was a saviour. It suggests protocols which meant we could get through an immense amount of productive work in the space of 30 or 40 minutes rather than 3 hours. So, if you are sitting through interminable leadership team meetings or department meetings at your school - this is the book for you. It will save you time, energy and give you back your sanity.
The Power of Protocols
Joseph McDonald et al
This book is part philosophy, part photography toolkit, part a series of activities to stimulate creative thinking. It is one that you return to again and again for inspiration.
Written by two photographers who say they "didn't particularly like being in school", but have been inspired by great teachers. In our experience, they say, a great teacher "knows when to be an inspiration and when to be a vexation; when to be tough and when to be fun."
The book's many gems include: "There's a difference between atmosphere and space within a picture. Atmosphere is a kind of charged space. Can you photograph heat in a way that conveys hotness? can you photograph water and make the picture feel wet, rather than look like a picture of water?"
"Remember to ask yourself: what is your subject here? How can I emphasise it? How can I simplify it?"
"Give a present to yourself without spoiling the surprise."
"Establish the exact width of your personal space."
'Identity within a reasonable approximation, the instant when "much" becomes "too much".'
The Photographer's playbook Jason Fulford et al
This is the sequel to Sapiens and an attempt to predict the future. Yuval argues that the great problems of the last few centuries are largely over: famine, plague and war are now on the wane. Of course, he says, they exist in pockets, but they are not the dominant considerations of Mankind. Instead, he argues the three powerful drivers of the future will be humans' attempts to achieve immortality, happiness and God-like powers. This book, not only paints a potentially chilling vision of the future, but gets us thinking more deeply about our morality, what we value most and for educationalists it provokes profound questions about what we need to prepare young people for. If Sapiens helps us make sense of our past, then Homo Deus, asks us to apply that knowledge to the future. Young people are going to be the agents of change in this complex world and so they will need a collection of powerful tools - intellectual, social, moral, practical to navigate it.
Guy Claxton has influenced huge numbers of people in education and rightly so. He has been the most powerful advocate over the last 30 years for education being about creating powerful learners. At times wrongly pigeon-holed as advocating skills at the expense of knowledge his work transcends this stale debate by promoting the tools, strategies and approaches that allow young people to be powerful learners of both knowledge AND skills. And the skilful teachers who have embraced this approach know that it is possible to teach rich content, while also fostering those attributes that allow young people to become resourceful, tenacious, creative learners.
The Learning Power Approach
In the first year of our new sixth form we asked every student to read this book - to get a sweep of history, the interplay of science and history and to start to wrestle with some big ideas and concepts. Each tutor then devised a series of discussions to explore some of the key ideas of the book. This was a very good introduction for students to then explore their own areas of research interest for their Extended Project Qualification. With so much more content having been dumped into every GCSE and A level qualification in the name of "rigour', what is missing is the sense of how all that knowledge fits together and how human thinking has evolved. Harari is a brilliant writer who navigates these big concepts with great skill, able to make pointed judgements from detailed research.